“When children draw on walls, reject daily baths, or leave the house wearing no pants and a tutu, caretakers may reasonably doubt their capacity for rational decision-making.”
“However, recent evidence suggests that even very young children possess sophisticated decision-making capabilities …”
The authors conducted an experiment: a marshmallow was set in front of a small child; the child was told that if they waited to eat it, they’d be given two marshmallows instead; the child was left alone in the room with the marshmallow for up to fifteen minutes.
This is a common experiment – variants have been conducted since the 1970s. In Kidd, Palmeri, & Aslin’s 2013 version, each child was first shown that the researcher offering marshmallows was either reliable or unreliable. At the beginning of each child’s encounter with the researcher, the researcher provided mediocre art supplies and promised that, if the child waited, the researcher would bring something better. Then the researcher either fulfilled that promise (bringing fresh markers or cool stickers!), or came back offering only apologies and saying that the child should just use the mediocre supplies that had been in the room all along. The wait had been for naught!
During the subsequent marshmallow test, children were asked to trust this same researcher to fulfill a promise, even after being shown that the researcher wasn’t reliable.
The children who’d been disappointed were less likely to wait.
Actually, it’s not just “knock knock” jokes – none of the jokes that children tell are funny.
And yet, parents feign excitement. We smile, maybe even laugh.
My kids are two years apart. When they were six and four, my younger child would often watch and listen and then tell the exact same joke to me.
I’d do my best to respond in the exact same way. As though surely I couldn’t know – no child wants for you to actually try to guess the answer when they tell a joke.
“I don’t know, where does a cow go for entertainment?”
Eventually a child will experience disillusionment from the world; it needn’t come from a caretaker.
At the end of Kidd, Palmeri, & Aslin’s marshmallow experiment,every child was given evidence that the researchers were unreliable. No matter if the child had waited to eat the marshmallow or had scarfed it right away, each child was given three additional marshmallows.
No child’s expectations were met. And the children who’d decided that waiting was pointless had their beliefs reinforced.
In the great scheme of things, giving children a few extra marshmallows doesn’t cause much harm. Although it’s curious that this group of researchers would intentionally undermine children’s trust in scientists.
At the local high school, the boys’ bathroom adjacent to the cafeteria doesn’t have soap. Empty plastic shells are affixed to the wall where soap dispensers used to be.
There’s a soap dispenser in the hallway outside the bathroom. If someone wanted to wash their hands properly, they’d have to turn on a sink, get their hands wet, walk outside, use the dispenser, then walk back into the bathroom to rinse the soap off. Few students do.
The administration removed the dispensers because some students were stealing them, and, at least once, somebody urinated into the soap pouch – these students needed devious licks to boast about on social. Similar incidents happened all around the country.
The problem, several high school seniors insisted to me, is that schools were closed for a while during the pandemic, which meant that current sophomores and juniors didn’t get bullied enough during middle school.
Obviously, their theory is ridiculous – “more bullying” is never a good solution to the world’s problems. But I find it fascinating that this would be the students’ first hypothesis. That the underlying problem isn’t that children were forcibly isolated during a crucial phase of their development, nor that we’ve inundated children’s lives with addictive, psychologically manipulative smartphone apps. No, the real problem is that these young people weren’t bullied enough!
By middle school, nearly all students will have experienced the disillusionment of having a knock knock joke batted away without a “Who’s there?” in response – I believe most middle school humor still revolves around sex, sarcasm, and dead baby jokes.
But I find it difficult to believe that young people – whose lives transitioned from in-person interactions with people their own age to transpiring almost entirely on the internet – would’ve experienced significantly less bullying during the pandemic. The internet is a nightmare!
The best audience for a child’s knock knock joke is another child – maybe, just maybe, a child might think it’s funny to hear the turnabout from “Boo who?” to “Oh, what’s wrong, are you hurt?”
The interaction is personal, localized, and impermanent.
And when the disillusionment comes – a friend not saying “Who’s there?” – the moment is brief and private.
How much worse might it feel to have your moments of embarrassment linger in full view?
Personally, I’m embarrassed about the world we’re building for young people.
I think of my body as a single entity; I think of my family as a team.
Here I am, with my hands hovering over a keyboard. My fingers press keys corresponding to the words I want. I think; I am; this I is in control.
Which is very unlike the behaviors of my family. When I use my own hands to put a plate into the dishwasher, I’ll rinse the plate then slot it neatly into the next available position; when I say to my children, “please put your plates into the dishwasher,” things often end up at odd angles. I might rearrange everything before I run the machine.
My children’s behavior is partly under my control – I can ask them to help, and they know that I’ll be less likely to play board games with them later if they don’t – but my children are also quite clearly independent entities. They have their own goals, their own personalities.
And I know that they’re separate from me. I know that my children aren’t mine to command.
If I were to forget, then I’d perceive the world more like a human baby. Or an adult octopus.
In Marigold and Rose, Louise Glück describes the relationship of two infants, one of whom is designated a writer, in ways vaguely reminiscent of the early chapters of Steven Millhauser’s Edwin Mulhouse.
At times, Glück employs the innocent voices of her protagonists to offer blunt social commentary, such as a critique of our capitalist reflex to undervalue caretaking:
It was also around this time that Mother began to talk about going back to work. She told Father that she wanted to contribute to the household.
If you asked the twins (no one did) they would say that Mother contributed by being Mother. Father explained that to Mother this was different because mothers didn’t get paid and apparently people who got paid contributed and people who didn’t get paid were no help at all.
The twins saw right through this.
As I was reading Marigold and Rose, however, I found myself wishing that Glück engaged with the fundamental (and fascinating!) differences between adult and infant consciousness.
Admittedly, it’s hard to understand the inner experiences of creatures who can’t speak to us, as Thomas Nagel ponders in the essay “What Is It like to Be a Bat?” But, honestly, we can’t fully understand the inner experiences of anyone, no matter how many words they use to convey their feelings. In “The Bear’s Kiss,” Leslie Jamison writes that:
When we love animals, we love creatures whose conception of love we’ll never fully understand. We love creatures whose love for us will always be different from our love for them.
But isn’t this, you might wonder, the state of loving other people as well? Aren’t we always flinging our desire at the opacity of another person, and receiving care we cannot fully comprehend?
So we try our best. With our romantic partners, our friends, our children, we can ask questions and listen. Each question is a science experiment. Our inquiring words perturb the system; we carefully observe what happens next. What facial expressions flit across our interlocutor’s face? If they answer, what do they say?
Similarly, we’ve used experiments to delve into the inner lives of bats. We observe them carefully, trying our best to comprehend. We’ve learned that their brains are quite large relative to their tiny bodies. Some are intensely social: they huddle near & share food with their friends. The males of several species have very large genitalia (again, relative to their tiny bodies) and delight their partners with oral stimulation. They use echolocation to navigate through unfamiliar or crowded areas, but will flit unthinkingly through their usual haunts – much like the way we shuffle mindlessly toward the kitchen every morning – and crash into unexpected spelunkers. They are very different from us, and not.
Over time, it’s unclear whether we might better understand what it would feel like to be a bat, or what it would feel like to be Thomas Nagel.
Or a human baby.
Or an octopus.
As best we can tell, very young babies perceive their bodies as extending through space. My first child, seeing me across the room, would have perceived her legs as being across the room. Those were the legs that moved her from place to place.
At the time, she was still developing control over her body. Her face would sometimes make expressions like smiles, sometimes like horrible grimaces, cycling through countenances like a 1990s screensaver. And it took a long while before she understood exactly how to move her arm toward something instead of flailing wildly until she happened to hit it.
Later, she spent several days with her hand in front of her face, gazing in awe as the fingers clenched and then extended. Our brains devote so many neurons to the manipulation of our hands! She was figuring them out.
And, at that time, she could control “her” legs – my legs, across the room – almost as well as she could control any other muscle. She activated her legs with a yell, she directed them by bobbling her head in one direction or another. Sometimes her legs did what she wanted, sometimes they didn’t, but that was true of every muscle in her body.
Which an adult octopus would understand. Each tentacle has a mind of its own, a brain with its own distinct personality. The octopus’s central nervous system sometimes commands coordinated action from every tentacle – the way my children’s bodies and mine all scamper toward the door when I suddenly exclaim “We have to get in the car right now or we’re going to be late for school!” – but at other times, each tentacle acts independently.
Human babies and adult octopuses both behave as though their consciousness is decentralized.
In Marigold and Rose, however, the infants think and behave like miniature adults, much like the babies painted by medieval artists. When Marigold watches her mother, she knows that she’s observing an entity separate from herself:
Mother did not spend a lot of time on the blanket; she was energetic and purposeful. This must be why she had twins, Marigold thought, instead of a regular baby. It was known Father had wanted a goldfish. The twins watched from the blanket. It was still safe there; they couldn’t as yet crawl.
In all fairness, I’m not sure how well adult readers would understand the inner monologue of an infant depicted accurately: perhaps the first sentence of this scene would sound something like, my legs were restless & left the blanket; my milk was far away.
But we’d soon reach thoughts that would be difficult to translate into adult understanding. My favorite passages from Jazmina Barrera’s Linea Nigra toy with this incomprehension (as translated by Christina MacSweeney):
For no particular reason, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand and translate into Spanish a couple of sentences by Megan O’Rourke: “A mother is beyond any notion of a beginning. That’s what makes her a mother: you cannot start the story.”
I’m getting those lines mixed up with a poem by Katie Schmid called “The Boatman”:
— In the afterlife the first face I see is my mother’s. —
— Every mother is the boatman, having once been the boat. —
I keep trying but the Spanish words won’t say what I mean.
There’s a deep strangeness at the beginning of each of our lives. We were much like cephalopods, once; by the time we reach adulthood (or even childhood!), we have forgotten.
We sailed a parent’s body, a living boat. Later, blinking in the light of the world, our bodies spread throughout the room.
As best we know, every particle in our universe follows the exact same physical laws.
These laws are not “deterministic.” We wouldn’t know what would happen next even if we could somehow measure everything about the state of our universe right now. But the unpredictable parts of each particle’s motion – due to each particle possessing a probabilistic mix of perhaps contradictory properties, which sounds strange in metaphorical languages (like English, Spanish, Mandarin, etc.) but not when expressed in mathematics – are totally outside of our control.
As best we know, humans shouldn’t have free will. Our future behaviors will unfold from the present positions and momenta of all the particles in our brains and bodies and the environments around us. Our thoughts will result from cascades of salt atoms crossing neuronal membranes. These salt atoms – like all other particles – are simply following physical laws that are, ahem, totally outside our control.
As best we know, we can make no choices.
As best we know, it’s still totally reasonable for the collections of particles inside our brains and bodies to experience an emergent phenomenon like consciousness. The particles inside of us collaboratively form neurons which collaboratively form minds. These minds can feel. But these minds still follow physical laws.
We can experience choices, not make them.
As best we know, we should experience our lives only passively, as though watching extremely immersive television shows. At times our minds would feel as though they had made choices, but that would just be a plot device. Cinematographic trickery! The choices are actually made by the positions and momentums of particles inside of us, which always result from their positions and momentums a moment before, and so on.
The math all works out.
So, for people who understand the math and the underlying physics, there’s a choice to be made (or perhaps I should say, “the person will passively feel as though they have made a choice”): should they believe in the laws of physics, or should they believe in free will?
Free will certainly feels real. But the sun also feels like it revolves around our planet. Our feelings have been wrong before.
InExistential Physics, Sabine Hossenfelder professes not to believe in free will. But Hossenfelder’s disbelief feels unconvincing. For instance, in describing how we can react to immoral behavior without referencing free will, Hossenfelder writes that:
“We evaluate which actions are most likely to improve our lives in the future.”
This is nonsense, of course. Without free will, there is nothing to evaluate– “evaluate” is an active verb that implies choice. Without free will, we would have no way to“improve our lives,” because this phrasing also implies action and choice. If the entire course of the future depends solely on the current positions and momenta of particles, then our lives will simply happen. The future isn’t predetermined – the mathematics of quantum mechanics injects randomness into the future – but we have no way to influence it. The future course of our lives is not up to us.
The particles will act as they must. Our minds will only watch.
As best we know, the laws of physics tell us that each and every moment in which we feel like an active participant in our lives is simply an illusion.
Personally, I believe the laws of physics are wrong. So does Hossenfelder, most of the time. In her day to day life, she contemplates cognitive biases – for example, the “sunk cost fallacy,” that makes it easy for people to continue making a bad choice so that they don’t feel bad about the bad choices they’ve already made, like when Hossenfelder further delays enrolling in a frequent flier program because she has already missed out on some benefits – and in her better moments, Hossenfelder chooses to overcome them. Hossenfelder also believes that she chose to study physics (and she believes that more people would make a similar choice if introductory physics were taught with a different mathematically formulation).
Hossenfelder discusses the ways that poverty and childhood trauma caninfluence the choices that we make as adults – some decisions feel easier than others because we are always sailing through a headwind of our past experiences – but in every passage of the book, Hossenfelder conveys her belief in free will.
And for good reason! We do have free will. Everyone agrees – even people who, for professional reasons, claim that free will can’t exist.
Honestly, there’d be no other way to live. Human brains couldn’t fathom existence without choice.
So, where does that leave us?
Either our belief in free will is wrong, or our current understanding of physics is wrong. As Hossenfelder meticulously explains, the two belief systems are incompatible.
Personally, I think our current understanding of physics is wrong. And I felt surprised that Hossenfelder never even mentions a major assumption that underlies her work. Occasionally, her chapters will include descriptions of theories that she doesn’t favor (usually followed by a curt dismissal), but the entire text of Existential Physics ignores the most glaring flaw in Hossenfelder’s arguments.
For instance, Hossenfelder writes that “We are all ultimately made of particles, and these particles follow computable equations.” And maybe this is true! But we have no evidence to suggest that it is.
All computation is digital. We can perform digital calculations at various levels of precision – for instance, if we’re trying to predict the behavior of a marble inside a pinball machine, we might measure the marble’s position down to the nearest inch, or tenth of an inch, or hundredth of an inch – but computation can never handle infinite precision. You can’t write the exact square root of two in decimal notation. You can’t write down the exact solution for the behavior of particles in any system with three or more – we can perform excellent calculations for the electronic structure of a hydrogen atom floating in an otherwise empty universe, but for atoms like helium, or for anything more complicated, we couldn’t come up with exact solutions even if we found empty universes for them to exist inside.
Possibly, our universe is digital, too. The mathematics of contemporary physics works best if we believe that our universe exists on a lattice of positions spaced approximately a Planck length apart: this would be a bit like a digital picture, where you can zoom in so far that eventually you’ll see that a red pixel can be either here or there but not anywhere in between.
Many of Hossenfelder’s claims presuppose that our universe is digital. In a digital universe, the amount of information in any particular volume of space would be finite. Decimal mathematics could correctly express everything. We could solve three-body problems, and the chaotic glitches** caused by rounding errors in our computations would be mirrored by chaotic glitches caused by rounding errors in the universe itself!
Wouldn’t that be grand!
But the only “evidence” we have so far that our universe might be digitized – pixelated, voxelated – is that it makes computation easier. That’s not compelling evidence.
It is testable. Consider a hydrogen atom held at a specific location with its electron in an excited orbital. When its electron collapses back to the ground state, the atom emits a photon that zooms off in a random direction. We might then kick the hydrogen’s electron back into an excited state, let it relax to the ground state again, and send another photon zooming off in another random direction. Again and again, photons zoom away!
If physical space were continuous, then the photons produced by this experiment could hit every possible location on detectors placed at any distance away – the probability distribution for photon collisions would be smooth over a sphere. But if physical space were digital, then photons could fly off in straight paths starting only at lattice points adjacent to the hydrogen atom (after accounting for the superposition of possible hydrogen positions). A graph of the probability distribution of photon strikes over a large sphere would show dark regions where photons couldn’t reach – locations where a photon’s path would’ve needed to pass between two lattice points to get there.
As best we know, the spacing between lattice points – if our universe were digital – would be ten to the minus thirty-fifth meters, which is like taking a yardstick and slicing it into a billion pieces, then slicing that piece into a billion pieces, and slicing that into a billion pieces, and slicing that into a billion, until you’ve taken just one billionth part four times over. This is very tiny! Which means that we wouldn’t notice a dark region unless our detector was very far away, and we would have to repeat this experiment with many photons to reveal it.
But – unlike several theories in contemporary physics – this is testable. It’s just an excruciating engineering problem.
Until we test this, though, Hossenfelder’s ardent claims – such as her claim that we can’t have free will – are a matter of belief. Although Hossenfelder doesn’t address this in her text, her worldview presupposes a digitized universe. There simply isn’t any evidence for this.
Until then, I’m perfectly content believing in free will. Even if my belief presupposes that our universe is continuous and is therefore not computable. I mean, computers are fun and all. But the way they work might not mirror our world. Even if that would make the math look prettier.
** Note: often, numerical approximations of a solution will approach the real answer. If we were working on a problem that involved the number pi, we might treat pi as being equal to 3.14 and we’d get an answer, and then we could go through the math again while setting pi equal to 3.14159, and we’d often get an answer that was very similar and slightly more accurate. But certain systems exist at the cusp of very different behaviors – for example, if we were studying a neuron that was close to the threshold of either firing or not, small changes in our understanding of the present would lead to large changes in our predictions for the future. Sometimes rounding errors don’t matter much; sometimes they do.
Most Americans believe themselves to be middle class – about 70% of the population. And most people – again, about 70% – believe that they have above-average intelligence. They’re right, of course: most people probably define “average intelligence” as “slightly less intelligent than me,” instead of as a statistical concept.
We are the norms against which we measure the world. To me, my body is normal; my brain is normal; my beliefs are normal. As are yours, to you!
In sexual parlance, kinks are behaviors outside the norm, but what we do is normalized to ourselves. Kink is a horizon, ever receding as we approach.
Some types of touch or activities might never feel enticing to you, just as some don’t feel particularly enticing to me, but as we live and grow, we encompass more within the boundaries of our norms. Until very recently in this country, all homosexuality was considered kinky, and only through numerous acts of bravery – people making their identities known despite living in a culture bent on rejecting them – did the general populace realize that these desires are widespread and normal.
Which is not to say that your increased awareness of the desires held by others, and your ability to recognize shared humanity with the people who hold them, will make the same desires whelm inside ofyou. I don’t have to want to wield a whip to recognize the sexual ecstasy gleaming from Bartolomeo Manfredi’s painting Cupid Chastised.
Good sex is sex that is good, as in ethically or morally commendable, and good, as in pleasurable.
As to the ethical: good sex is consensual, does no harm, and impacts people’s lives in positive ways.
As to the pleasurable: good sex is hot! Erotic, sexy, stimulating, sensual. It satisfies desire and leads to physical and emotional enjoyment for all partners involved, orgasms all around.
In both senses, sex should do good and feel good. In both senses, sex is good.
This intertwining of the ethical and the pleasurable reflects an ancient and enduring belief that the good life, the life worth living, is a moral one that brings satisfaction to the person living that life. To do good feels good.
Consensual, happy, body-positive, desire-affirming sexuality is a force for moral good. Pleasurable in and of itself, good sex also shields us from advertising, which is designed to sway us toward behaviors that, in aggregate, could cause the collapse of civilization as we know it.
Commercial advertising often subverts a pent-up desire for sexual novelty. The thrill of new acquisitions can replicate or replace the psychological thrill of discovering shared pleasure with someone new.
Many – not all, but many – humans feel lifelong desire for new romantic, erotic, or sexual experiences, but traditional American culture does not celebrate ethical polyamory – open commitment to lifelong adventurousness, perhaps in conjunction with nested stability to raise a family – and polyamory is scary, both for the adventurer and especially for the partner(s) who fear being left behind.
And so, instead of having sex, we’re encouraged to fulfill our need for adventure by buying things.
In advertising, everything is the way you wish it was. I don’t care that it won’t be like that when I actually get the product being advertised – because in between seeing the commercial and owning the thing, I’m happy, and that’s all I want.
We know the product is going to stink. We know that.
But we are happy in that moment between the commercial and the purchase, and I think spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-won earnings to buy useless, low quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy.
Considering this speech, Puschak writes that:
Seinfeld strikes at the essence of advertising, which may be a creative and clever craft, but is exploitative at heart. … They manipulate us in gross ways to generate desire, to make us feel need where it doesn’t exist.
By design, advertising aims to make you feel worse. But it also offers an escape: successful advertising lays the kindling for joy, if you are willing to spend money. And so, Puschak writes:
Seinfeldsuggests that there’s something to cherish in the perverted relationship we have with advertising: the small period of joy between the purchase and getting the crappy product.
“A brief moment of happiness is pretty good,” Seinfeld says. “I also think that just focusing on making money and buying stupid things is a good way of life. I believe materialism gets a bad rap … If your things don’t make you happy, you’re not getting the right things.”
Advertising (and by extension, capitalism) only offers us a superficial happiness, and maybe that’s not the most we could hope for, but it’s not bad, either. Superficial joys are still joys, after all. They’re “pretty good” and pretty good is good enough.
Buying new things will not bring you lasting pleasure. Presumably, most people know this. And advertising is not designed to convince you otherwise. Instead, successful advertising aims to accentuate the interstitial joy: that brief nigh-erotic thrill of acquiring something new.
Indeed, even within the realm of sexuality, the physical sensations we receive from new bodies pressed against our own will resemble physical sensations that we’ve already known. Our minds reside within relatively uncomplicated meat-machines; the physical sensations from most sexual encounters won’t be better than what you could accomplish on your own, masturbating. The greatest difference is in the moments of anticipation and expectation – the mental thrills we share.
Indeed, in Bad Sex, Nona Willis Aronowitz portrays the dull absence of thrill that we reap when we objectify other people (a habit so pervasive in our patriarchal, misogynistic culture that even Aronowitz herself slips into it, like when she describes her partner’s “whirlwind hookup with a young blond French girl”).
Aronowitz hires a sex worker to give her an erotic massage:
Considering the circumstances, I was relaxed and turned on. He took his time “massaging” me, which really meant stroking my butt and breasts and, eventually, between my legs. His pussy-rubbing skills were legitimately advanced, and it was clear he was paying close attention, responding to every little moan I made and every time I pressed into his hand a bit more.
And yet I didn’t come. I knew from the beginning I maybe wouldn’t. My clitoris refused to cooperate, even when he understood (bless his heart) that his bare hand wasn’t working and he employed a few vibrators – including the all-powerful Hitachi Magic Wand.
His methods were all fine and arousal inducing, but it felt empty, mechanical. The only time my brain fizzed with true excitement was when my arm grazed his hard-on.
Without the emotional thrill of connection – an exquisite moment of anticipation like Seinfeld’s brief happiness “in between seeing the commercial and owning the thing” – Aronowitz couldn’t enjoy herself. Even though the physical sensations were impeccable. In “I’ll Read What She’s Reading,” Toni Bentley’s essay about participating in Clayton Cubitt’s “Hysterical Literature” video project (in which women have orgasms while reading aloud on camera), Bentley writes that:
I told Katie [who would be ensconced beneath a desk and controlling the vibrator for Bentley] that I was a Hitachi virgin—I never really understood the point of vibrators, particularly if there was an able-bodied man around—so she offered to touch the side of my knee with the wand for a moment before filming as a preview.
Good thing she did that. Jesus. I mean Holy Mary Mother of God. Thus I was relieved in five seconds of my concern about not being able to climax, and I quickly had the opposite problem: How would I last long enough to do justice to [a passage from Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady]?
Bentley’s situation was erotic: a sultry mélange of exhibitionism, literature, self-control, submission, and physical sensation. Whereas Aronowitz had only the physical sensation, and it wasn’t enough. She’d purchased a service; she wanted a person. (“Most of the time,” she writes, “a hot one-night stand simply requires being a decent human being.”)
During her erotic massage, Aronowitz didn’t get to linger in “that moment in between the commercial and the purchase” – she understood the pre-arranged boundaries of their encounter, which would not include shared pleasure or mutually-recognized humanity. There was nothing to anticipate. Expecting physical pleasure could have brought her ecstasy; having physical pleasure didn’t.
Puschak writes that perhaps the momentary thrill of consumerism is enough. Even if capitalism, in repurposing our desires for sexual discovery, “only offers a superficial happiness,” maybe that’s fine. “Superficial joys are still joys, after all.”
And these joys are sometimes more accessible. You can do capitalism all on your own. Earn some money and feel the thrill of buying things. You don’t get to form human connections, but you also don’t have to form human connections with anybody.
In a world of isolated individuals, I might agree. But we are not alone: there are eight billion of us sharing this planet together. We are inherently connected; the choices we make as individuals affect each other.
Let’s say you wanted to grab a snack right now. Ten thousand years ago, you might’ve walked a few feet into the forest, stuck your hand into a log, and yanked out a handful of tasty termites. Boom. Problem solved. Snack acquired.
These days, you might walk a few feet into the kitchen and grab a banana. Same problem (hunger), same solution (food).
The difference between the two is that the availability of the banana today is shaped entirely by human-made, technological processes that have added unimaginable complexity to the simple act of grabbing a snack. And these processes generate long-term consequences we hadn’t considered.
Our hankering for a snack in the twenty-first century is identical to what it was ten thousand years ago, but our complex cognition allows us to engage in activities (e.g., oil and gas extraction, mechanized farming, soil depletion) on a massive scale, which is transforming this planet into an uninhabitable shithole. Our kitchens are full of foods that come from a global agricultural-industrial complex that is fundamentally problematic to the survival of the human species.
When we seek to sate an instinctual desire for sexual novelty by constantly acquiring new things – robot vacuums and snazzy telephones and single-season clothes – we are making our whole planet less livable.
For human civilization to survive, we’ll have to dampen our lust for consumerism. But we’ll still feel full of all this desire, all this need for novelty. Which is why many people continue to seek out new pornography over the course of their lives, instead of discovering the one ideal fantasy, memory, photography, film or story that excites them perfectly and then having it accompany them ever after in their moments of solitary sexuality. We shouldn’t let Disney movies deceive us into seeking a single destination, a fade-out moment of “happily ever after” – our happiness often depends on continued adventure. As we live, we continue journeying.
To many of the humans who lived before us, a banana would have seemed so weird! It doesn’t look or taste like anything that grew in Africa, Europe, or Asia.
To us, a banana is a normal snack.
If you and your partner(s) grant yourselves permission to (cautiously, safely, consensually!) adventure, then more of the world is normalized. Toys, lighting, & music; outfits, role-play, & scenes; groups, activities, & settings: the horizon of kink will keep receding.
And in the process, we might quiet the urges that compel us to wreck our planet. As we journey – reclaiming our desires from advertising – with luck, we’ll feel less need for commercial stuff. We’ll be able to, like Seinfeld, “know the product is going to stink” … but, even better, maybe we won’t even buy it!
When we open our lives to other joys, we can more easily resist capitalist compulsions and perhaps, perhaps, do the right thing regarding climate change. We need to buy fewer things. We also need to still be happy.
In the New York Times Magazine article “The Battle Over Gender Therapy,” journalist Emily Bazelon describes the conflicting views of several medical doctors and psychologists. They disagree over timing and access: who should decide whether a young person receives gender-affirming medical care, and how long should this decision-making process take?
In general, waiting before finalizing a decision is best. This is true whether they are big decisions – like getting married or buying a house – or relatively small decisions – like buying a new couch, posting an irate Twitter message, or drinking another beer. If you can give yourself time to mull it over, you’ll probably be happier with your resulting decision, even if you end up doing the same thing.
In the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, a chess instructor attempts to teach this patience to his student:
“So what’s your best move?”
“Rook to d.”
“What about taking on e?”
“What about it?”
“You didn’t consider it. You’re still not considering it.”
“I’m right. Rook to d is the best move.”
“You didn’t study the board!”
Even when the answer seems clear, it’s still often better to take time to think. To plan, to weigh options.
But we don’t always have this luxury. Sometimes, when considering whether to buy a house, people feel forced to make a decision immediately – otherwise, someone else might buy it! These snap decisions, like the home purchases that many people made during the pandemic, are more likely to lead to regret.
For a person seeking gender-affirming medical care, deciding to begin hormone therapy might be an even bigger decision than getting married or buying a house. Hormone therapy can cause irreversible physical changes. For a person who was assigned female at birth, taking testosterone often results in a permanently deeper voice; reshaping of the face to appear more angular; changes in the shape and size of genitals.
Similarly, when a person who was assigned male at birth uses hormone therapy to help their appearance and physiology better match the gender of their brain, an analogous set of changes may linger even if this person decides to stop taking the medications.
And, yes, some people will decide to stop taking the medications. As with any medical treatment, hormone therapy has both benefits and side-effects, and it’s hard to know how these will balance out for a particular individual’s brain & body before they try.
So, it’s a big decision. There are irreversible changes. Obviously, taking a lot of time to wait and evaluate would be best, right?
But sometimes, competing urgency makes waiting impractical. As an example, consider surgical removal of an organ. This is a drastic measure: you’d like to wait and mull things over. Unfortunately, time pressure from the septic shock of an advanced bacterial infection might force a quick decision. My friend was barely conscious during this decision-making process after collapsing in the lobby of our local hospital.
When deciding whether or not to initiate gender-affirming hormone therapy, there’s a bit more wiggle room. But for a young person who’s mustered up enough self-knowledge and courage to talk to their parents or healthcare provider about wanting medication, there is still looming time pressure.
During puberty, bodies can change very drastically within a matter of months. Many of these changes are lifelong and irreversible. Waiting to evaluate isn’t just a default, low-impact choice. Hormone therapy is a big deal, but waiting will also bring dramatic, permanent physiological changes. Not to mention continued psychological turmoil, which might be compounded by the knowledge that, for all of your bravery in speaking up, you’re still not getting the help you need.
My main qualm with Bazelon’s article? For all the nuance devoted to the medical doctors’ and psychologists’ opinions, we hear very little from young people. Bazelon interviewed over 60 clinicians, researchers, activists, and historians, but only half that many of the young people whose brains, bodies, & lives are at stake. As a parent, I’m aware that children can do or say a lot of irksome, irrational things; as someone who works with elementary and high-school students, I also know that we have to recognize young people as valid knowers and thinkers.
I want to hear about the sense of urgency from young people themselves. Instead, this central issue was only passingly mentioned in a single sentence, a quote from child psychologist Laura Edwards-Leeper about the process of evaluating young people for gender-affirming treatment: “If a child was on the cusp of puberty, and anxious about how their body was about to change, we tried to squeeze them in faster, which I still think is really important.”
Young people have a stake in our world. And yet – with our inaction on climate change; our mass production & sale of military-grade weaponry to anybody who wants it; our treating schools as a lower priority than bars or restaurants during the pandemic, and then keeping schools closed or disrupted even after we had data showing that these disruptions were causing children even greater harm than Covid-19 infection; our age- and wealth-based prejudices that give retirees a far greater say in the future of our country & planet than the young people who will inherit the mess – we are not only disenfranchising young people, but abjectly failing them.
Young people have not been silent. We ought to listen.
Many more people in the United States now identify as transgender and/or non-binary than in the recent past. This increase is most dramatic among younger generations.
There are two major causes of this change, and for political reasons it’s essential that we acknowledge both.
My spouse was recently speaking to a colleague and (cheerfully) described the increase as being due to our nation’s changing culture. In my opinion, we still have a long way to go, but many people are much more accepting than in the recent past. As the perceived risk decreases, people will be more likely to reveal their true identities.
But that isn’t the whole story.
The chemical make-up of our world is radically different than in the recent past. As a (lapsed) organic chemist, I’m quite proud of human ingenuity and our ability to synthesize so many wondrous medicines, small molecules, and industrial materials. The technologies we have access to are amazing! We can live so much longer, and our quality of life during that time is pretty awesome.
We’ve dramatically altered the environment, though. Industrial run-off and medicinal metabolites are present at high concentrations in our water supply, including lots of “endocrine disrupting chemicals.”
Endocrine disrupting chemicals often resemble naturally-occurring hormones and signaling molecules. Many of these chemicals are known to induce non-binary sexual development among other animals – in recent years, there’s been a dramatic increase in the proportion of wild animals born with intersex characteristics.
We humans are also susceptible to this altered chemical milieu. The environment in which human brains and bodies develop during gestation is chemically different now from in our recent past.
Intersex is different from transgender or nonbinary. “Intersex” describes physical morphology and can be assessed for non-human animals; “transgender” and “nonbinary” describe what’s going on inside a person’s brain. But brains are a product of biological development. It’s reasonable to assume – although it would obviously be unethical to test or prove – that endocrine disrupting chemicals capable of changing external sexual morphology also impact developing brains.
Children are more likely to self-identify as transgender or non-binary now than in the recent past, partly because they are growing up in a different culture, partly because their brains and bodies developed in a different chemical environment.
We don’t yet know how much of the shift has been caused by which factor: maybe the explanation is 10% cultural, 90% biological; maybe both contribute equally; maybe the shift is more due to culture than biology.
But it’s essential for us to acknowledge both contributions – especially because a large portion of our nation’s population espouses conservative or traditional values that decry the cultural change.
Yes, the Democratic party’s policies celebrating diversity have shifted the culture; the Republican party’s policies promoting business and minimizing environmental regulation have shifted the chemical environment.
Whether or not we are happy that gender fluidity is on the rise, it’s important to note that both major political parties in this country have contributed.
I’m no biological determinist – from my perspective as a masculine autistic person who’s chosen to focus on caretaking, I like to imagine that I’m transcending my biological inclinations – but those of us who celebrate liberal values and diversity do ourselves a political disservice if we fail to acknowledge the impact of our shifting environment on gender.
Children will be safer when we make clear that these aspects of their identities aren’t a choice. This is who they are. Personally, I think that’s great. But some people don’t. And so we need to convey that political policies that those people supported helped make children’s lives today different from the way the world used to be.
The way we speak about these issues matters. If we want to include as many people as possible in these conversations – which we must, if we’re going to move forward as a nation – we have to include the whole complex breadth of the world.
Even when it feels uncomfortable.
. . . .
Header image by Ted Eytan.
Frog image by John P Clare — although I should acknowledge that not only is this frog living in Ireland, not the U.S., but I’m also not a herpetologist and can’t tell you this frog’s biological sex. But it’s a good looking frog!
My spouse, two children, & I recently visited an amusement park called “Holiday World.” We stood in line to ride the Halloween area’s “Scarecrow Scrambler,” which was, aside from a small painted scarecrow, apparently identical to amusement park Scramblers around the world.
A “Scrambler” is a giant metal hinged contraptions that send passengers hurtling toward each other, and toward the concrete outer walls, at alarmingly high speeds. Again and again, the Scrambler evokes an illusion of narrowly avoided collision. Certain death.
Phew, that was a close one!
My spouse and our five-year-old rode in a car together. My spouse had loved this ride when she was growing up in Albany – and, since her family was often broke, she typically could only ride it after winning tickets from the local library’s summer reading program. Her glee was intense. Her laughter and loud “Wheeeeee!”s filled the air, a nice contrast to the wooshing wind that rushed past my ears each time my car accelerated toward another wall.
At the end of the day, our five-year-old unhesitatingly announced that the Scrambler had been her favorite ride. Happiness is infectious. It helps to have an unremittingly joyful tour guide.
On the Scrambler, I’d sat in a car with our seven-year-old. She too was laughing and giggling – but also, midway through the ride, she turned to me and said, “You’re not enjoying this much, are you?”
Amusement park rides are interesting. The counter-intuitive physics of each contraption, the illusions they create, the sensations evoked inside the human passengers’ bodies – all of that is interesting.
And I’d even argue that the rides are psychologically helpful for most people. In contemporary society, we suffer from an unfamiliarity with death. A reckoning with our own mortality can help us re-calibrate our priorities – what matters to us enough that we should spend our time on it, given that our time is fleeting?
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, the Christ-like character Myshkin speaks repeatedly about how it might feel to be pardoned from imminent execution. (An experience that Dostoevsky himself went through. He was sentenced to death for revolutionary activity, stood with his co-conspirators before a mock firing squad, then learned with mere moments to spare that the Tsar had pardoned them all. At least one person suffered an irreparable mental breakdown. Dostoevsky became a reactionary conservative.)
To feel certain, at one moment, that your life is ending. And then to find yourself reprieved, given time to make amends, to live and laugh and love some more. The world might seem so bountiful! There’d be no reason to squander time. No reason to waste hours worrying – each mere moment might be seen, again, as the precious gift it is.
During graduate school, I earned extra money as a study subject for Stanford’s psychology department. A team of researchers wanted to show that thoughts of impending death make people more likely to want to spend time with family members and close friends. So they had me listen, daily, to a twenty minute meditation on my own mortality.
“We do not know what will happen next, but one thing is certain: this life is drawing to a close. You will die. We all will die.” And on it went, in a nice calm voice, for twenty minutes.
My brain tends toward depression. Even without the guided meditation, I think about death fairly often. Daily? Yes, probably. During bleak times, perhaps hourly. My first love in philosophy was Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. His reasoning seemed sensible to me. Before determining how we should live, first ponder: should we?
Still, the meditation was nice. Helpful, even. In ways that, for my brain, the Scrambler was not.
In July of 2020, I attended a funeral for a twenty-nine year old friend. He’d died of a heroin overdose. His death was almost certainly intentional.
My friend had also overdosed the week before. That time, somebody had Narcan’ed him back. Often, people return to life swearing and angry. Narcan blocks opiod receptors, so a person sharply transitions from extreme placidity into a world of hurt. With Narcan, suddenly the whole body aches.
But my friend had resumed breathing, blinking and beatific. A smile bloomed across his face. “That was so easy,” he said.
A week later, he was gone.
The word ‘easy’ hurts. Lots of people experience a moment, here and there, when it seems as though it would be better to be dead. But the act of transition would be hard – it is difficult to kill oneself. And that difficulty can save us. That difficulty gives us time to reflect, to consider all the other people whom our absence would hurt, all the future happiness that a present act might steal away.
Our nation suffers from an epidemic of gun violence. These deaths are ill-tracked – the NRA aggressively opposed all efforts to collect data on gun deaths, and the CDC didn’t begin studying the problem until 2019.
But it appears that around 60% of all gun deaths are suicides. And it appears that around 50% of all suicides are gun deaths.
Humans are a rather dangerous species. Especially among young men, it’s common for arguments to flare into bursts of physical violence. People can kill each other even with sticks and stones. With swords, with knives, with slingshots.
But guns make death come easier. There’s less time for friends or bystanders to break up a fight – within seconds, the fight is over. Somebody might be dead.
Similarly, people attempt to end their own lives in myriad ways. With ropes, with knives, with pills. Or by making increasingly risky decisions. But guns make death come easier. Less time passes between making a (bad) decision and a person’s life ending. No nearby friend can Narcan you back from a bullet.
For some people, it’s helpful to make the approach of death seem easier. Recently, researchers have tried using psychedelic medication as a part of hospice care. Someone who is near the end of their life is given a vision of the infinite. Often, these patients report that their fear of death has waned. They are better able to enjoy the limited time they have remaining.
But for a young, healthy person with depression, we wouldn’t want the sensation of hurtling toward death to feel easy or familiar. That might reduce the likelihood that bad decisions would be second-guessed. That dangers would be avoided. Subsequent suicidal ideation might have a concrete vision to latch onto – this is what the car crash would feel like in the moments before impact.
In Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, Lauren Hough writes:
The fundamental misunderstanding of depression is the idea that the suicidal want to die. I didn’t want to die. But some misfire in my brain treats existential pain like a dog reacts to vomiting: Fuck it. I’m gonna dig a hole to die in.
Even on a good day, my brain will point out a few easy ways out: Take a hard left in front of that truck. It’ll be over before you feel it. But when it’s dark, when I’m hopeless, I’m just white-knuckling my way through the nights for no reason but instinct.
Rides like the Scrambler ought to exist! For a lot of people, they probably have great benefit! The sensations are scary, but also safe, and that makes them fun!
Yes, fun! Big surprise twist here, which surely you’d never guess from the long line of people waiting their turns to get on: amusement park rides are fun!
And also: folks with minds like mine probably shouldn’t be on the ride.
This is part of a series of essays prepared to discuss in jail.
Our bodies are chaos engines.
In our nearby environment, we produce order. We form new memories. We build things. We might have sex and create new life. From chaos, structure.
As we create local order, though, we radiate disorder into the universe.
The laws of physics work equally well whether time is moving forward or backward. The only reason we experience time as flowing forward is that the universe is progressing from order into chaos.
In the beginning, everything was homogeneous. The same stuff was present everywhere. Now, some regions of the universe are different from others. One location contains our star; another location, our planet. Each of our bodies is very different from the space around us.
This current arrangement is more disorderly than the early universe, but less so than what our universe will one day become. Life is only possible during this intermediate time, when we are able to eat structure and excrete chaos.
Sunlight shines on our planet – a steady stream of high-energy photons all pointed in the same direction. Sunshine is orderly. But then plants eat sunshine and carbon dioxide to grow. Animals eat the plants. As we live, we radiate heat – low-energy photons that spill from our bodies in all directions.
The planet Earth, with all its life, acts like one big chaos engine. We absorb photons from the sun, lower their energy, increase their number, and scatter them.
We’ll continue until we can’t.
Our universe is mostly filled with empty space.
But empty space does not stay empty. Einstein’s famous equation, E equals M C squared, describes the chance that stuff will suddenly pop into existence. This happens whenever a region of space gathers too much energy.
Empty space typically has a “vacuum energy” of one billionth of a joule per cubic meter. An empty void the size of our planet would have about as much energy as a teaspoon of sugar. Which doesn’t seem like much. But even a billionth of a joule is thousands of times higher than the energy needed to summon electrons into being.
And there are times when a particular patch of vacuum has even more energy than that.
According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, time and energy can’t be defined simultaneously. Precision in time causes energy to spread – the energy becomes both lower and higher than you expected.
In practice, the vacuum energy of a particular region of space will seem to waver. Energy is blurry, shimmering over time.
There are moments when even the smallest spaces have more than enough energy to create new particles.
Objects usually appear in pairs: a particle and its anti-particle. Anti-matter is exactly like regular matter except that each particle has an opposite charge. In our world, protons are positive and electrons are negative, but an anti-proton is negative and an anti-electron is positive.
If a particle and its anti-particle find each other, they explode.
When pairs of particles appear, they suck up energy. Vacuum energy is stored inside them. Then the particles waffle through space until they find and destroy each other. Energy is returned to the void.
This constant exchange is like the universe breathing. Inhale: the universe dims, a particle and anti-particle appear. Exhale: they explode.
Our universe is expanding. Not only are stars and galaxies flying away from each other in space, but also empty space itself is growing. The larger a patch of nothingness, the faster it will grow. In a stroke of blandness, astronomers named the force powering this growth “dark energy.”
Long ago, our universe grew even faster than it does today. Within each small fraction of a second, our universe doubled in size. Tiny regions of space careened apart billions of times faster than the speed of light.
This sudden growth was extremely improbable. For this process to begin, the energy of a small space had to be very, very large. But the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle claims that – if we wait long enough – energy can take on any possible value. Before the big bang, our universe had a nearly infinite time to wait.
After that blip, our universe expanded so quickly because the vacuum of space was perched temporarily in a high-energy “metastable” state. Technically balanced, but warily. Like a pencil standing on its tip. Left alone, it might stay there forever, but the smallest breath of air would cause this pencil to teeter and fall.
Similarly, a tiny nudge caused our universe to tumble back to its expected energy. A truly stable vacuum. The world we know today was born – still growing, but slowly.
During the time of rapid expansion, empty vacuum had so much energy that particles stampeded into existence. The world churned with particles, all so hot that they zipped through space at nearly the speed of light.
For some inexplicable reason, for every billion pairs of matter and anti-matter, one extra particle of matter appeared. When matter and anti-matter began to find each other and explode, this billionth extra bit remained.
This small surplus formed all of stars in the sky. The planets. Ourselves.
Meditation is like blinking. You close your eyes, time passes, then you open your eyes again. Meditation is like a blink where more time passes.
But more is different.
Our early universe was filled with the smallest possible particles. Quarks, electrons, and photons. Because their energy was so high, they moved too fast to join together. Their brilliant glow filled the sky, obscuring our view of anything that had happened before.
As our universe expanded, it cooled. Particles slowed down. Three quarks and an electron can join to form an atom of hydrogen. Two hydrogen atoms can join to form hydrogen gas. And as you combine more and more particles together, your creations can be very different from a hot glowing gas. You can form molecules, cells, animals, societies.
When a cloud of gas is big enough, its own gravity can pull everything inward. The cloud becomes more and more dense until nuclear fusion begins, releasing energy just like a nuclear bomb. These explosions keep the cloud from shrinking further.
The cloud has become a star.
Nuclear fusion occurs because atoms in the center of the cloud are squooshed too close together. They merge: a few small atoms become one big atom. If you compared their weights – four hydrogens at the start, one helium at the finish – you’d find that a tiny speck of matter had disappeared. And so, according to E equals M C squared, it released a blinding burst of energy.
The largest hydrogen bomb detonated on Earth was 50 megatons – the Kuz’kina Mat tested in Russia in October, 1961. It produced a mushroom cloud ten times the height of Mount Everest. This test explosion destroyed houses hundreds of miles away.
Every second, our sun produces twenty billion times more energy than this largest Earth-side blast.
Eventually, our sun will run out of fuel. Our sun shines because it turns hydrogen into helium, but it is too light to compress helium into any heavier atoms. Our sun has burned for about four billion years, and it will probably survive for another five billion more. Then the steady inferno of nuclear explosions will end.
When a star exhausts its fuel, gravity finally overcomes the resistance of the internal explosions. The star shrinks. It might crumple into nothingness, becoming a black hole. Or it might go supernova – recoiling like a compressed spring that slips from your hand – and scatter its heavy atoms across the universe.
Planets are formed from the stray viscera of early stars.
Our universe began with only hydrogen gas. Every type of heavier atom – carbon, oxygen, iron, plutonium – was made by nuclear explosions inside the early stars.
When a condensing cloud contains both hydrogen gas and particulates of heavy atoms, the heavy atoms create clumps that sweep through the cloud far from its center. Satellites, orbiting the star. Planets.
Nothing more complicated than atoms can form inside stars. It’s too hot – the belly of our sun is over twenty million degrees. Molecules would be instantly torn apart. But planets – even broiling, meteor-bombarded planets – are peaceful places compared to stars.
Molecules are long chains of atoms. Like atoms, molecules are made from combinations of quarks and electrons. The material is the same – but there’s more of it.
More is different.
Some atoms have an effect on our bodies. If you inhale high concentrations of oxygen – an atom with eight protons – you’ll feel euphoric and dizzy. If you drink water laced with lithium – an atom with three protons – your brain might become more stable.
But the physiological effects of atoms are crude compared to molecules. String fifty-three atoms together in just the right shape – a combination of two oxygens, twenty-one carbons, and thirty hydrogens – and you’ll have tetrahydrocannibol. String forty-nine atoms together in just the right shape – one oxygen, three nitrogens, twenty carbons, and twenty-five hydrogens – and you’ll have lysergic acid diethylamide.
The effects of these molecules are very different from the effects of their constituent parts. You’d never predict what THC feels like after inhaling a mix of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen gas.
An amino acid is comparable in scale to THC or LSD, but our bodies aren’t really made of amino acids. We’re built from proteins – anywhere from a few dozen to tens of thousands of amino acids linked together. Proteins are so large that they fold into complex three-dimensional shapes. THC has its effect because some proteins in your brain are shaped like catcher’s mitts, and the cannibinoid nestles snuggly in the pocket of the glove.
Molecules the size of proteins can make copies of themselves. The first life-like molecules on Earth were long strands of ribonucleic acid – RNA. A strand of RNA can replicate as it floats through water. RNA acts as a catalyst – it speeds up the reactions that form other molecules, including more RNA.
Eventually, some strands of RNA isolated themselves inside bubbles of soap. Then the RNA could horde – when a particular sequence of RNA catalyzed reactions, no other RNA would benefit from the molecules it made. The earliest cells were bubbles that could make more bubbles.
Cells can swim. They eat. They live and die. Even single-celled bacteria have sex: they glom together, build small channels linking their insides to each other, and swap DNA.
But with more cells, you can make creatures like us.
Consciousness is an emergent property. With a sufficient number of neuron cells connected to each other, a brain is able to think and plan and feel. In humans, 90 billion neuron cells direct the movements of a 30-trillion-cell meat machine.
Humans are such dexterous clever creatures that we were able to discover the origin of our universe. We’ve dissected ourselves so thoroughly that we’ve seen the workings of cells, molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles.
But a single human animal, in isolation, never could have learned that much.
Individual humans are clever, but to form a culture complex enough to study particle physics, you need more humans. Grouped together, we are qualitatively different. The wooden technologies of Robinson Crusoe, trapped on a desert island, bear little resemblance to the vaulted core of a particle accelerator.
English writing uses just 26 letters, but these can be combined to form several hundred thousand different words, and these can be combined to form an infinite number of different ideas.
More is different. The alphabet alone couldn’t give anyone insight into the story of your life.
Meditation is like a blink where more time passes, but the effect is very different.
Many religions praise the value of meditation, especially in their origin stories. Before Jesus began his ministry, he meditated for 40 days in the Judaean Desert – his mind’s eye saw all the world’s kingdoms prostrate before him, but he rejected that power in order to spread a philosophy of love and charity.
Before Buddha began his ministry, he meditated for 49 days beneath the Bodhi tree – he saw a path unfurl, a journey that would let travelers escape our world’s cycle of suffering.
Before Odin began his ministry, he meditated for 9 days while hanging from a branch of Yggdrasil, the world tree – Odin felt that he died, was reborn, and could see the secret language of the universe shimmering beneath him.
The god Shiva meditated in graveyards, smearing himself with crematory ash.
At its extreme, meditation is purportedly psychedelic. Meditation can induce brain states that are indistinguishable from LSD trips when visualized by MRI. Meditation isolates the brain from its surroundings, and isolation can trigger hallucination.
Researchers have found that meditation can boost our moods, attentiveness, cognitive flexibility, and creativity. Our brains are plastic – changeable. We can alter the way we experience the world. Many of our thoughts are the result of habit. Meditation helps us change those habits. Any condition that is rooted in our brain – like depression, insomnia, chronic pain, or addiction – can be helped with meditation.
To meditate, we have to sit, close our eyes, and attempt not to think. This is strikingly difficult. Our brains want to be engaged. After a few minutes, most people experience a nagging sense that we’re wasting time.
But meditation gives our minds a chance to re-organize. To structure ourselves. And structure is the property that allows more of something to become different. Squirrels don’t form complex societies – a population of a hundred squirrels will behave similarly to a population of a million or a billion. Humans form complex webs of social interactions – as our numbers grew through history, societies changed in dramatic ways.
Before there was structure, our entire universe was a hot soup of quarks and electrons, screaming through the sky. Here on Earth, these same particles can be organized into rocks, or chemicals, or squirrels, or us. How we compose ourselves is everything.
The easiest form of meditation uses mantras – this is sometimes called “transcendental meditation” by self-appointed gurus who charge people thousands of dollars to participate in retreats. Each attendee is given a “personalized” mantra, a short word or phrase to intone silently with every breath. The instructors dole mantras based on a chart, and each is Sanskrit. They’re meaningless syllables to anyone who doesn’t speak the language.
Any two-syllable word or phrase should work equally well, but you’re best off carving something uplifting into your brain. “Make peace” or “all one” sound trite but are probably more beneficial than “more hate.” The Sanskrit phrase “sat nam” is a popular choice, which translates as “truth name” or more colloquially as “to know the true nature of things.”
The particular mantra you choose matters less than the habit – whichever phrase you choose, you should use it for every practice. Because meditation involves sitting motionless for longer than we’re typically accustomed, most people begin by briefly stretching. Then sit comfortably. Close your eyes. As you breathe in, silently think the first syllable of your chosen phrase. As you breathe out, think the second.
Repeating a mantra helps to crowd out other thoughts, as well as distractions from your environment. Your mind might wander – if you catch yourself, just try to get back to repeating your chosen phrase. No one does it perfectly, but practice makes better. When a meditation instructor’s students worried that their practice wasn’t good enough, he told them that “even on a shallow dive, you still get wet.”
In a quiet space, you might take a breath every three to six seconds. In a noisy room, you might need to breathe every second, thinking the mantra faster to block out external sound. The phrase is a tool to temporarily isolate your mind from the world.
Most scientific studies recommend you meditate for twenty minutes at a time, once or twice a day, each and every day. It’s not easy to carve out this much time from our daily routines. Still, some is better than nothing. Glance at a clock before you close your eyes, and again after you open them. Eventually, your mind will begin to recognize the passage of time. After a few weeks of practice, your body might adopt the approximate rhythm of twenty minutes.
Although meditation often feels pointless during the first week of practice, there’s a difference between dabbling and a habit. Routine meditation leads to benefits that a single experience won’t.
The poem opens with advice – we should keep in mind pleasures that we were privileged to experience.
remember not only how much you were loved,
the beds on which you lay,
A narrative of past joy can cast a rosy glow onto the present. Our gratitude should encompass more, though. We should instruct our body to remember not only the actualized embraces,
those desires for you
glowed plainly in the eyes,
trembled in the voice – and some
obstacle made futile.
In addition to our triumphs, we have almost triumphs. These could be many things. On some evenings, perhaps our body entwines with another’s; other nights, a wistful parting smile might suggest how close we came to sharing that dance. In another lifetime. Another world, perhaps.
But we have the potential for so many glories. In basketball, a last shot might come so close to winning the game. If you’re struggling with addiction, there could’ve been a day when you very nearly turned down that shot.
Maybe you’ll succeed, maybe you won’t. In the present, we try our best. But our present slides inexorably into the past. And then, although we can’t change what happened, the mutability of memory allows us to change how we feel.
all of them belong to the past,
almost seems as if you had yielded
desires – how they glowed,
in the eyes gazing at you;
trembled in the voice, for you, remember, body.
Consciousness is such a strange contraption. Our perception of the world exists only moment by moment. The universe constantly sheds order, evolving into states that are ever more probable than the past, which causes time to seem to flow in only one direction.
A sense of vertigo washes over me whenever I consider the “Boltzmann brain” hypothesis. This is the speculation that a cloud of dust in outer space, if the molecules were arranged just right, could perceive itself as being identical to your present mind. The dust cloud could imagine itself to be seeing the same sights as you see now, smelling the same smells, feeling the same textures of the world. It could perceive itself to possess the same narrative history, a delusion of childhood in the past and goals for its future.
then, with a wisp of solar wind, the molecules might be rearranged. The Boltzmann brain would vanish. The self-perceiving entity would end.
Within our minds, every moment’s now glides seamlessly into the now of the next moment, but it needn’t. A self-perceiving entity could exist within a single instant. And even for us humans – whose hippocampal projections allow us to re-experience the past or imagine the future – we would occasionally benefit by introducing intentional discontinuities to our recollection of the world.
Past success makes future success come easier. If you remember that people have desired you before – even if this memory is mistaken – you’ll carry yourself in a way that makes you seem more desirable in the future. If an addict remembers saying “no” to a shot – even if this memory is mistaken – it’ll be easier to say “no” next time.
triumphs belong to the same past as our regrets, and we may choose what to
remember. If our life will be improved
by the mistake, why not allow our minds the fantasy? “It almost seems as if you had yielded to
those desires.” The glow, the gaze:
In the short story “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling,” Ted Chiang contrasts situations in which the mutability of memory improves the world with situations in which this mutability makes the world worse. Memories that reinforce our empathy are the most important to preserve.
We all need to know that we are fallible. Our brains are made of squishy goo. The stuff isn’t special – if it spills from our skulls, it’ll stink of rancid fat. Only the patterns are important. Those patterns are made from the flow of salts and the gossamer tendrils of synapses; they’re not going to be perfect.
As long as we know that we’re fallible, though, it doesn’t help much to dwell on the details of each failure. We need to retain enough to learn from our mistakes, but not so much that we can’t slough off shame and regret once these emotions have served their purpose. As we live, we grow. A perfect remembrance of the past would constrict the person we’re meant to be.
imagine that Brett Kavanaugh ardently believes that he is not, and has never
been, the sort of person who would assault a woman. He surely believes that he would never thrust
his bare penis into an unconsenting woman’s hand. And I imagine that Brett Kavanaguh’s current
behavior is improved by this belief. In
his personal life, this is the memory of himself that he should preserve,
rather than the narrative that would probably be given by an immutable record
of consensus reality.
problem, in Kavanagh’s case, is his elevation to a position of power. In his personal life, he should preserve the
mutable memories that help him to be good.
No matter how inaccurate they might be.
The Supreme Court, in its current incarnation, is our nation’s final arbiter on many issues related to women’s rights. Kavanaugh’s narrative introduces a cloud of suspicion over any ruling he makes on these issues – especially since he has faced no public reckoning for his past actions.
someone with Kavanaugh’s history of substance abuse, it could be worthwhile to
preserve a lingering memory of past sins.
I still think that the specific details – pinning a struggling woman to
the bed, covering her mouth with his hand – would not be beneficial for him to
preserve. But I would hope that he
remembers enough to be cognizant of his own potential to hurt people while
memories of the specific times when he assaulted people at high school and
college parties probably aren’t necessary for him to be good, but he would
benefit from general knowledge about his behavior after consuming alcohol. When I discuss drug use with people in jail,
I always let them know that I am in favor of legalization. I think that people should be allowed to
manipulate their own minds.
certain people should not take certain drugs.
Like most people in this country, I’ve occasionally been prescribed Vicodin. And I was handed more at college parties. But I never enjoyed the sensation of taking painkillers.
people really like opiates, though.
Sadly, those are the people who shouldn’t take them.
though, his life would not be that much worse without it. Beer changes how your brain works in the now. For an hour or two, your perception of the
world is different. Then that sensation,
like any other, slides into the past.
whether you drink or don’t, you can still bask later in the rosy glow of
neurobiologists are hardly the first biologists to ascribe consciousness,
feelings, and intentionality to plants.
Darwin, [Charles] Darwin’s grandfather and
a believer in free love, was so taken with the Linnaean sexual system of
classification that he wrote an epic poem, The Loves of Plants, in which
he personified stamens and pistils as ‘swains’ and ‘virgins’ cavorting on their
flower beds in various polygamous and polyandrous relationships.
you were startled, just now, to learn about the existence of risqué plant
poetry. Do some people log onto
Literotica to read about daffodils or ferns?
caught my attention was Erasmus Darwin’s designation as a believer in free
In a flash, an entire essay composed itself in my mind. Charles Darwin’s grandfather was a polyamorist! Suddenly, the origin of The Origin of the Species made so much more sense! After all, exposure to polyamory could help someone notice evolution by natural selection. An essential component of polyamory is freedom of choice – during the 1800s, when nobody had access to effective birth control, people might wind up having children with any of their partners, not just the one with whom they were bound in a legally-recognized and church-sanctioned marriage.
Evolution occurs because some individuals produce more offspring than others, and then their offspring produce more offspring, and so on. Each lineage is constantly tested by nature – those that are less fit, or less fecund, will dwindle to a smaller and smaller portion of the total population.
Similarly, in relationships where choice is not confined by religious proscription, the partners are under constant selective pressure if they hope to breed. When people have options, they must stay in each other’s good graces. They must practice constant kindness, rather than treating physical affection as their just desserts.
proud of this analogy. To my mind,
Erasmus Darwin’s belief in free love had striking parallels with his grandson’s
And it’s such a pleasure when essays basically write themselves. All I’d need to do was skim a few biographies. Maybe collect some spicy quotes from Erasmus himself. And I’d try to think of a clever way to explain evolution to a lay audience. So that my readers could understand why, once I’d learned this juicy tidbit about Erasmus, his connection to Charles Darwin’s theory seemed, in retrospect, so obvious.
I wish it hadn’t, obviously. It was going to be so fun to write! I was ready to compose some sultry plant poetry of my own.
And I feel happy every time there’s another chance to explain evolution. Because I live in a part of the United States where so many people deny basic findings from science, I talk about this stuff in casual conversations often. We regularly discuss evolutionary biology during my poetry classes in jail.
essay wasn’t going to work out. Because
the underlying claim – Erasmus Darwin believed in free love! – simply isn’t
Maybe you have lofty ideals about the practice of science. On the children’s record Science Is for Me,Emmy Brockman sings:
I am a
explore high and low
question what I know
That’s the goal. A good scientist considers all the possibilities. It’s hard work, making sure that confirmation bias doesn’t cause you to overlook alternative explanations.
scientists are human. Just like anybody
else, we sometimes repeat things we’ve heard without considering whether any
evidence ever justified it.
Human Advantage, neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel describes how
baffled she felt when she began reading scientific papers about the composition
of our brains.
the literature held many studies on the volume and surface area of the brain of
different species, and various papers on the densities of neurons in the
cerebral cortex, estimates of numbers of neurons were scant. In particular, I could find no original
source to the much-repeated “100 billion neurons in the human brain.”
ran into Eric Kandel himself, whose textbook Principles of Neural Science,
a veritable bible in the field, proffered that number, along with the
complement “and 10-50 times more glial cells.”
When I asked Eric where he got those numbers, he blamed it on his
coauthor Tom Jessel, who had been responsible for the chapter in which they
appeared, but I was never able to ask Jessel himself.
2004, and no one really knew how many neurons could be found on average in the
with the oft-repeated numbers, Herculano-Houzel liquified whole brains in order
to actually count the cells. As it
happens, human brains have about 86 billion neurons and an equal number of
consider the psychology experiments on behavioral priming. When researchers “prime” a subject, they
inoculate a concept into that person’s mind.
The basic idea here is relatively uncontroversial. It’s the principle behind advertising and paid product placement – our brains remember exposure while forgetting context. That’s why political advertisements try to minimize the use of opponents’ names. When people hear or see a candidate’s name often, they’re more likely to vote for that candidate.
Facebook has also demonstrated again and again that minor tweaks to the inputs that your brain receives can alter your behavior. One shade of blue makes you more likely to click a button; there’s a size threshold below which people are unlikely to notice advertisements; the emotional tenor of information you’re exposed to will alter your mood.
When research psychologists use priming, though, they’re interested in more tenuous mental links. Study subjects might be primed with ideas about economic scarcity, then assessed to see how racist they seem.
The first study of this sort tested whether subconsciously thinking about elderlies could make you behave more like an elderly person. The researchers required thirty undergraduate psychology students to look at lists of five words and then use four of these words to construct a simple sentence. For fifteen of these students, the extra word was (loosely) associated with elderly people, like “Florida,” “worried,” “rigid,” or “gullible.” For the other fifteen, the words were deemed unrelated to elderlies, like “thirsty,” “clean,” or “private.”
(Is a stereotypical elderly person more gullible than private? After reading dozens of Mr. Putter and Tabby books — in which the elderly characters live alone — I’d assume that “private” was the priming word if I had to choose between these two.)
After completing this quiz, students were directed toward an elevator. The students were timed while walking down the hallway, and the study’s authors claimed that students who saw the elderly-associated words walked more slowly.
even a graph!
This conclusion is almost certainly false. The graph is terrible – there are no error bars, and the y axis spans a tiny range in order to make the differences look bigger than they are. Even aside from the visual misrepresentation, the data aren’t real. I believe that a researcher probably did use a stopwatch to time those thirty students and obtain those numbers. Researchers probably also timed many more students whose data weren’t included because they didn’t agree with this result. Selective publication allows you to manipulate data sets in ways that many scientists foolishly believe to be ethical.
If you were to conduct this study again, it’s very unlikely that you’d see this result.
Some scientists are unconcerned that the original result might not be true. After all, who really cares whether subconscious exposure to words vaguely associated with old people can make undergraduates walk slowly?
UCLA psychology professor Matthew Lieberman wrote,
care about is whether priming-induced automatic behavior in general is a real
phenomenon. Does priming a concept
verbally cause us to act as if we embody the concept within ourselves? The answer is a resounding yes. This was a shocking finding when … first discovered … in 1996.
Lieberman bases this conclusion on the fact that “Hundreds of studies followed showing that people primed with a stereotype embodied it themselves.” Continued success with the technique is assumed to validate the initial finding.
Twenty years of mistaken belief has given the walking speed study – and its general methodology – an undeserved veneer of truth.
Darwin didn’t believe in free love. But
he did have some “radical” political beliefs that people were unhappy
about. And so, to undermine his
reputation, his enemies claimed that he believed in free love.
people repeated this slander so often that Erasmus Darwin is now blithely
described as a polyamorist in scientific review articles.
did conservative writers feel the need to slander Erasmus Darwin? What exactly were his “radical” beliefs?
Erasmus Darwin thought that the abject mistreatment of black people was wrong. He seems to have thought it acceptable for black people to be mistreated – nowhere in his writings did he advocate for equality – but he was opposed to the most ruthless forms of torture.
Somewhat. His opposition didn’t run so deep that he’d
deny himself the sugar that was procured through black people’s forced labor.
when Erasmus Darwin sired children out of wedlock – which many upper-class
British men did – he scandalously provided for his children.
British society, plenty of people had affairs.
Not because they believed in free love, but because they viewed marriage
as a fundamentally economic transaction and couldn’t get a divorce. But good British men were supposed to keep up
appearances. If a servant’s child
happened to look a great deal like you, you were supposed to feign ignorance.
worse, the illegitimate children that Erasmus Darwin provided for were female. Not only did Darwin allow them to become
educated – which was already pretty bad, because education made women less
malleable spouses – but he also helped them to establish a boarding school for
girls. The contagion of educated women
would spread even further!
This was all too much for Britain’s social conservatives. After all, look at what happened in France. The French were unduly tolerant of liberal beliefs, and then, all of a sudden, there was murderous revolution!
And so Erasmus Darwin had to be stopped. Not that Darwin had done terribly much. He was nationally known because he’d written some (mediocre) poetry. The poetry was described as pornographic. It isn’t. Certain passages anthropomorphize flowers in which there are unequal numbers of pistils and stamens. It’s not very titillating, unless you get all hot and bothered by the thought of forced rhymes, clunky couplets, and grandiloquent diction. For hundreds of pages.
reading about Erasmus Darwin, I learned that some people also believe that he
was the actual originator of his grandson’s evolutionary theories. In a stray sentence, Erasmus Darwin did write
that “The final course of this contest between males seems to be, that the
strongest and most active animal should propagate the species which should thus
be improved.” This does sound rather
like evolution by natural selection. But
not quite – that word “improved” hints at his actual beliefs.
Darwin did believe all life had originated only once and that the beautiful
variety of creatures extant today developed over time. But he thought that life changed from simple
to complex out of a teleological impulse.
In his conception, creatures were not becoming better suited to their
environment (which is natural selection), but objectively better (which
I’m not arguing that Charles Darwin had to be some kind of super genius to write The Origin of the Species. But when Charles Darwin described evolution, he included an actual mechanism to rationalize why creatures exist in their current forms. Things that are best able to persist and make copies of themselves eventually become more abundant.
That’s it. Kind of trivial, but there’s a concrete theory backed up by observation.
Darwin’s belief that life continually changed for the better was not unique,
nor did it have much explanatory power.
biography Erasmus Darwin, Patricia Fara writes that,
end of the eighteenth century, the notion of change was no longer in itself
especially scandalous. For several
decades, the word ‘evolution’ had been in use for living beings, and there were
several strands of evidence arguing against a literal interpretation of the
Bible. Giant fossils – such as mammoths
and giant elks – suggested that the world had once been inhabited by distant
relatives, now extinct, of familiar creatures.
breeders reinforced particular traits to induce changes carried down through
the generations – stalwart bulldogs, athletic greyhounds, ladies’ lapdogs. Geological data was also accumulating:
seashells on mountain peaks, earthquakes, strata lacking fossil remains – and
the most sensible resolution for such puzzles was to stretch out the age of the
Earth and assume that it is constantly altering.
Darwin thought deeply about why populations of animals changed in the
particular way that they did. Erasmus
Darwin did not. He declaimed “Everything
from shells!” and resumed writing terrible poetry. Like:
LOVE! who ere the morn of Time,
outstretch’d, o’er Chaos hung sublime;
into life the bursting egg of Night,
young Nature to admiring Light!
didn’t develop the theory of evolution.
You could call him an abolitionist, maybe, but he was a pretty
half-hearted one, if that. By the
standards of his time, he was a feminist.
By our standards, he was not.
like a nice enough fellow, though. As a
doctor, he treated his patients well.
And he constantly celebrated the achievements of his friends.
Fara writes that,
several years of immersion in [Erasmus]
Darwin’s writing, I still have a low opinion of his poetic skills. On the other hand, I have come to admire his
passionate commitment to making the world a better place.
knows? If Erasmus Darwin was alive
today, maybe he would be a polyamorist.
Who’s to say what secret desires lay hidden in a long-dead person’s
But did Darwin, during his own lifetime, advocate for free love? Nope. He did not. No matter what his political opponents – or our own era’s oblivious scientists – would have you believe.
Header image from the Melbourne Museum. Taken by Ruth Ellison on Flickr.