On meditation and the birth of the universe.

On meditation and the birth of the universe.

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. 

Hubble peers into a stellar nursery. Image courtesy of NASA Marshall Space Flight on Flickr.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The fireball of Tsar Bomba, the Kuz’kina Mat.

Every second, our sun produces twenty billion times more energy than this largest Earth-side blast.

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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.

Supernova remains. Image by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

More is different.

On Constantine Cavafy’s ‘Body, Remember,’ and the mutability of memory.

On Constantine Cavafy’s ‘Body, Remember,’ and the mutability of memory.

Because we’d had a difficult class the week before, I arrived at jail with a set of risqué poetry to read.  We discussed poems like Allison Joseph’s “Flirtation,” Galway Kinnel’s “Last Gods,” and Jennifer Minniti-Shippey’s “Planning the Seduction of a Somewhat Famous Poet.”

Our most interesting conversation followed Constantine Cavafy’s “Body, Remember,” translated by Aliki Barnstone.  This is not just a gorgeous, sensual poem (although it is that).  Cavafy also conveys an intriguing idea about memory and recovery.

The poem opens with advice – we should keep in mind pleasures that we were privileged to experience.

“Rumpled Mattress” by Alex D. Stewart on Flickr.

Body, remember not only how much you were loved,

not only 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,

but also those desires for you

that glowed plainly in the eyes,

and trembled in the voice – and some

chance 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.

Missed Connection 1 by Cully on Flickr.

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.

Now that all of them belong to the past,

it almost seems as if you had yielded

to those desires – how they glowed,

remember, in the eyes gazing at you;

how they 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. 

Brain nebula by Ivan on Flickr.

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.

And 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. 

Our 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: remember, body.

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.

I 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.

The main 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.

In public life, however, consensus reality matters.  Personally, I will have difficulty respecting the court rulings of a person who behaved this way.  Especially since his behavior toward women continued such that law professors would advise their female students to cultivate a particular “look” in order to clerk for Kavanaugh’s office.

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.

And, for 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 intoxicated.

Episodic 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.

But 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.

Some people really like opiates, though.  Sadly, those are the people who shouldn’t take them.

Brett Kavanaugh likes beer.  Sadly, he’s the sort of person who shouldn’t drink it.

Honestly, 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.

But, whether you drink or don’t, you can still bask later in the rosy glow of (mis)remembrance.

On Darwin and free love.

On Darwin and free love.

For the moment, let’s set aside the question of why I was reading a review titled “Plants Neither Possess nor Require Consciousness.”  Instead, I’d like to share a passage from the end of the article:

Plant neurobiologists are hardly the first biologists to ascribe consciousness, feelings, and intentionality to plants.

Erasmus 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.

Maybe 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?

But what caught my attention was Erasmus Darwin’s designation as a believer in free love. 

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.

I felt proud of this analogy.  To my mind, Erasmus Darwin’s belief in free love had striking parallels with his grandson’s theory.

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.


My essay failed.

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.

But my essay wasn’t going to work out.  Because the underlying claim – Erasmus Darwin believed in free love! – simply isn’t true.


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 scientist

I explore high and low

I question what I know

Emmy is great. Find her at emmybrockman.com.

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.

But scientists are human.  Just like anybody else, we sometimes repeat things we’ve heard without considering whether any evidence ever justified it.

In The Human Advantage, neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel describes how baffled she felt when she began reading scientific papers about the composition of our brains. 

Although 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.”

I later 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.

It was 2004, and no one really knew how many neurons could be found on average in the human brain.

Unsatisfied 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 glial cells.

Or, 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.

There’s 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,

What we 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 discoveredin 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.

Unfortunately, many if not most of those subsequent studies are flawed in the same way as the original.  Publication biases and lax journal standards allow you to design studies that prove that certain music unwinds time (whose authors were proving a point) or that future studying will improve your performance on tests today (whose author was apparently sincere).

Twenty years of mistaken belief has given the walking speed study – and its general methodology – an undeserved veneer of truth.


Erasmus 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.

Other people repeated this slander so often that Erasmus Darwin is now blithely described as a polyamorist in scientific review articles.


So, why 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.

And, when Erasmus Darwin sired children out of wedlock – which many upper-class British men did – he scandalously provided for his children.

In 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. 

Even 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.


While 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.

Erasmus 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 isn’t).

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.

Erasmus Darwin’s belief that life continually changed for the better was not unique, nor did it have much explanatory power. 

In the biography Erasmus Darwin, Patricia Fara writes that,

By the 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. 

Animal 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.

Charles 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:

IMMORTAL LOVE! who ere the morn of Time,

On wings outstretch’d, o’er Chaos hung sublime;

Warm’d into life the bursting egg of Night,

And gave young Nature to admiring Light!

*

Erasmus Darwin 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.

He seems like a nice enough fellow, though.  As a doctor, he treated his patients well.  And he constantly celebrated the achievements of his friends.

Patricia Fara writes that,

After 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.


And, who 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 soul?

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.

On meditation.

On meditation.

More is different.

In the beginning, subatomic particles careened too quickly to connect.  The universe was “hot.”  (Temperature is a measure of average speed as objects jiggle.  When physics people say that our universe was “hot,” they mean that everything was moving just shy of the speed of light.)

In the beginning, our universe wasn’t very interesting.  But then the homogeneous cloud of fast-moving particles cooled as it expanded.  Speeds slowed.  Soon, particles dawdled long enough in each others’ vicinity that they could interact.  Hydrogen atoms formed, then hydrogen gas, then stars. 

Stars are interesting – when a cloud of gas is big enough, its net gravity can pull everything inward until the density becomes so high that nuclear fusion begins.  This raging cascade of explosions counteracts the force of gravity and the star reaches an unsteady equilibrium until, eventually, it runs out of fuel and collapses or explodes.

An exploding star scatters heavier atoms across the sky.  When these are incorporated into a new star, they can participate in nuclear fusion events in turn, producing even heavier atoms. 

Then that star might explode, too.

Eventually, there were enough heavy atoms floating about the universe that a condensing cloud could form both a star and a set of orbiting satellites.  On these satellites – planets – atoms combine in more interesting ways than inside the bellies of stars. 

After all, the infernal core of a star is pretty hot, too.  Inside that blazing oven, particles can form atoms, and atoms can combine to form heavier atoms, but these are too frantic to form molecules – long strings of atoms bonded together.

The chemical bonds that hold a molecule together are much weaker than the electrostatic and nuclear forces that maintain an atom.  But planets – even broiling, meteor-bombarded ones – are peaceful places compared to stars.  On the primordial earth, lightning strikes or UV radiation probably catalyzed the formation of complex molecules like amino acids and nucleic acids.

These molecules are just big amalgams of subatomic particles.  The underlying stuff is the same … but there’s more of it.

More is different.

Consider the behaviors of a single amino acid.  An amino acid is complex compared to a quark or electron.  It can do acid-base chemistry!  Its mix of charged and neutral surfaces lets it interact in neat ways with various solvents. 

But if you compare that single amino acid to a protein – and a protein is just more amino acids joined together – you’ll realize that the single amino acid is total snoresville.

Proteins, though … wow!  They can fold into fantastical shapes.  They can function as molecular machines, their parts churning and twisting and flipping as they shuttle other molecules from place to place, or even create whole new molecules.

When you glom more and more and more subatomic particles together, eventually you create things that are complex enough to imprint patterns on the world.  They create more things like themselves.  Proteins and RNA make new proteins and RNA.

And then, a cell!  A cell is an amalgam of molecules all dissolved inside a bubble of fat.  If you thought proteins were cool, check this out!  Cells can swim, they can eat, they can live and die.

Or, what if there were more cells?  Then you can make us!  With many cells, you can make brains, which makes consciousness, which can give all those subatomic particles the ability to work together and realize that they are subatomic particles.

Well, no. One single human animal, in isolation, probably wouldn’t figure that out.  Each human, as an individual, can be pretty great – but to form a culture complex enough to study particle physics, you’ll need more people.  Contemporary physics papers list hundreds of authors, and that doesn’t even credit everybody who worked to build the equipment, and or worked to grow the food, and took care for the children, or taught the physicists, when they were young, allowing them to one day become physicists …

And each of those physicists, and engineers, and farmers, and caregivers, and teachers … each is a collection of cells, which are collections of molecules, which are collections of atoms, which are collections of subatomic particles.  As we transition between scales, we see qualitative differences in behavior from adding more.

This essay is made from a set of just 26 letters, but these can be combined to form a few hundred thousand different words, and those can be combined to convey an infinite number of different ideas.

We blink many thousands of times each day.  Our eyes close, pause, and then open again.  We need to blink.  Staring at screens – as I’m doing now, typing this essay, and as are you, reading it – causes us to blink less frequently, and that can lead to headaches.  But the quality of each blink doesn’t affect us much.  Most blinks pass by without our even noticing.

Meditation is just a long blink.  Close your eyes and let more time elapse before you open them again.

But more is different.  A blink doesn’t disrupt your thoughts.  Meditation, however, can be a psychedelic experience.

Many religions praise the value of meditation, especially in their origin stories.  Before he began his ministry, Jesus meditated in the Judaean Desert – he saw all the world’s kingdoms before him, but rejected that vision of power in order to spread a philosophy of love and charity.  Before he began his ministry, Buddha meditated beneath the Bodhi tree – he saw a path unfurl, a journey that would let travelers escape our world’s cycle of suffering.  Buddha decided to share that vision with others.

Before teaching his fellows to reshape the world with words, Odin meditated from a tree branch – he felt that he had died, transcended life, and could see the secret language of the universe shimmering before him.

I’ve been preparing anti-racist material about paganism and spirituality so that we have more things to send to people who contact Pages to Prisoners.  As part of this project, I’d like to include information about meditation.  After all, neo-paganism is invented – typically quite recently – and, as above, many religions have preserved stories suggesting that their founders’ meditation inspired their faith.  These religions don’t always prioritize meditation as a contemporary practice, but many do: Christian monks repeat prayers in a way that’s strikingly similar to mantra meditation, Hindu adherents are advised to sit and experience a simulacrum of Shiva’s asceticism, and even warrior cultures have prized pre-battle stillness as a way to focus attention and more fully inhabit the present.

The scientific literature is also replete with papers about meditation — but most of these are junk. It’s fairly easy to find published studies claiming that mindfulness training can confer disease resistance, immunity to aging, or even paranormal abilities like extra-sensory perception.  Scientific papers aren’t inherently more trustworthy than the internet.

But it’s true that your mind is plastic, and your moods can dramatically alter the way you perceive the world.  Conditions that affect our nervous system – like depression, insomnia, and even chronic paincan be treated through meditation.  The experiments that scientists use to assess things like “creativity” or “attentiveness” are often open to interpretation, but it’s not unreasonable to imagine that meditation would help.

All people are creative.  Our problem, often, is that our ideas can flit away before we fully grasp them.  Like dreams, they fade, and we’re left with the irksome sensation that “I feel like I just had a good idea, but …”

Meditation can clear the turbid waters of your mind.  Like gazing into a pellucid lake, it could become easier to spot your good ideas when they come.

I’ve never been inside a prison, so I’ll have to collaborate with friends who have spent time there as I make the pamphlets.  But everything I’ve read suggests that most prisons are loud, chaotic, stressful, and dangerous.  Which has obvious implications for how easily people can meditate.  If you live near a beautiful glen, you could probably do well by your brain by simply taking some time each day to sit peacefully beside some flowing water.

Instead, I’ve been learning about mantra meditation.  By silently intoning the same phrase over and over – even if it’s just a nonsense word – you can overcome a fair bit of external distraction.  To test, I’ve tried meditating at the YMCA.  This place is very calm compared to our county jail, which I’ve heard is itself calmer than a prison, but where I sit, people are usually conversing, and there are a variety of rattling exercise machines.

Several of the guide books I’ve read recommend that you pay somebody a bunch of money to teach you transcendental meditation.  During your training, you’ll be given a secret Sanskrit word or phrase.  People who’ve taken these training courses have posted a bunch of the words online, and apparently a mantra is selected based upon your age and gender. 

That seems silly to me – although it’s possible that different people’s minds would respond best to different mantras, my gender isn’t a big component of my identity, nor is my age. 

I did pick out a Sanskrit phrase, which is perhaps a silly choice in and of itself.  After all, I can’t speak Sanskrit.  But I thought it might be nice to have a set of sounds that didn’t carry a lot of semantic meaning in the rest of my daily life.  Although Sanskrit mantras would have held meaning to the original practitioners of this style of meditation, Sanskrit is generally considered a formal, ritual language, not something that people speak at home with their families.  Even for native speakers, the chance of crossed wires, in which people were inadvertently saying their special mantras at other times of day, was probably pretty low.

While meditating, there are times when I’m pretty oblivious to my environs, even though I’m sitting in a crowded, noisy place.  I assume that I should recommend, for people meditating in prison, that they use a buddy system.  Unless somebody you trust immensely was sitting nearby, I assume it would feel too unsafe to allow yourself to completely let go in the way that deep meditation requires.

In case you’re interested in trying, I can tell you what’s worked so far for me.  I’ve been thinking the phrase “sat nam.”  I liked the translation when I looked it up online, and it’s felt convenient to have two discrete sounds – I think the “sat” while breathing in, and “nam” while breathing out.  I’ve read that people aim to spend about six seconds each on inhalation and exhalation, but I breath much more rapidly than that. 

If nothing too distracting is going on nearby – maybe just some clanking from the ellipticals, treadmills, and stairmasters – I breath in and out once every four to eight seconds.  But when people are having a conversation right next to me, I take a breath every one or two seconds, which means I’m intoning my little mantra more often and can do a better job of isolating myself from what’s going on around me.

As far as I can tell, that isolation is the goal of meditation.  Our minds evolved to expect constant stimulus during our waking lives.  If you reduce the degree of outside stimulation, like with a sensory deprivation chamber, you invite your mind to conjure strange thoughts, visions, and sounds to replace the inputs that it expects.  But you have to keep at it long enough.

When particle physicist Richard Feynman described his experience with sensory deprivation tanks, he wrote:

Ordinarily it would take me about fifteen minutes to get a hallucination going, but on a few occasions, when I smoked some marijuana beforehand, it came very quickly.  But fifteen minutes was fast enough for me.

Mr. Lilly had a number of different tanks, and we tried a number of different experiments.  It didn’t seem to make much difference as far as hallucinations were concerned, and I became convinced that the tank was unnecessary.  Now that I saw what to do, I realized that all you have to do is sit quietly.

I would like to have done it at home, and I don’t doubt that you could meditate and do it if you practice, but I didn’t practice.

I’ve only had a bit of practice, but when I sit still with my eyes closed and block out the outside world with a repeated phrase, my mind will sometimes drift.  I’ve been trying to sit for twenty minutes, although I often inadvertently rouse myself after about fifteen – which hasn’t seemed to be quite enough, for either me or Dr. Feynman.  But I get the feeling that it has to be continuous.  Once I’ve opened my eyes and glanced at the clock, I stop for the day.  Even if nothing much has happened.

On these days, I console myself with a quote from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that I learned from Bob Roth’s Strength in Stillness:Even in a shallow dive, you still get wet.

I begin by stretching – although I’m practicing in a relatively distracting environment, it seems reasonable to minimize the distractions of my own body.  I try not to move while meditating, and it’d be harder to maintain a single posture if I could feel my body ache.

After I close my eyes, the first few minutes typically feel like a waste of time.  I’m sitting there repeating a nonsense phrase and I can’t help but think of the myriad other things that I ought to be doing.

As long as I can force myself to keep at it, though, the experience changes.  More becomes different.  Undulating phosphenes blossom in the umber field of my closed eyes.  Sometimes I slip into reverie; if I catch myself daydreaming, I’ll resume intoning my bit of Sanskrit, which helps me set aside whatever vein of thought led me astray.

Nobody is totally sure why we need sleep, but recent results have suggested that nitrogenous waste and other metabolic toxins can only be cleared from brain cells while we’re snoozing.  If you stay awake too long, trash piles up along the roadways of your mind, and all that junk prevents learning, memory formation, and attentiveness. 

During my classes in jail, I often work with men who have stayed awake for weeks at a time by taking methamphetamine – they’ve experienced a wide variety of hallucinations, paranoia, and mental turmoil.  Amphetamines aren’t very toxic, but loss of sleep can seriously damage a person’s brain.

One day without sleep won’t kill you.  Luckily so – since having kids, there have been many nights when a little one wakes up screaming and I never get to rest.  But more is different.  After three days without sleep, the shadow people start talking.  After eight days, my students have started talking back: “I knew they weren’t real … but I still didn’t want to be rude.  But we got into all these arguments.

Sleep washes away the argumentative shadow people.

When meditation goes well, I sometimes imagine my mind being cleansed – I’ll sit there thinking sat nam, sat nam and envision a cascade of water flowing over me like Heracles used to clean King Augeas’s stables.  But meditation might not help with keeping a brain tidy – those experiments on the waste-clearing function of sleep were done with mice, and (to the best of my knowledge) nobody has taught mice to meditate.

If you trust my spouse’s subjective evaluation, though, meditation seems to help.  I’ve apparently been more pleasant to live with since I started practicing. 

If you’re going to try, aim for at least twenty minutes, maybe once or twice a day for a few weeks.  My apologies if it seems pointless at first.  I’d recommend you keep at it – just like a single minute won’t give you the same benefit as twenty, it seems reasonable to expect that a single day wouldn’t have the same benefit as a month’s daily practice.

After all, more is different.

.

Featured image by Mitchell Joyce on Flickr.

On writing.

On writing.

At high doses, psilocybin mushrooms trigger transcendent, mystical experiences.  Many researchers are incorporating these into treatments for PTSD, depression, and other maladies that stem from a crisis of meaning or identity.

There are challenges inherent in using medicines that disrupt the workings of a person’s consciousness.  William Richards, who conducts psychedelic therapy at Johns Hopkins, writes in Sacred Knowledge that participants in his studies have felt their sense of self temporarily dissolve after a dose of psilocybin.

Most commonly, the term “death” is employed as the ego (everyday self) feels that it quite literally is dying. 

Though one may have read that others have reported subsequent immersion in the eternal and experiences of being reborn and returning to everyday existence afterward, in the moment imminence of death may feel acutely – and for some terrifyingly – real.

Because this sensation is so frightening, most researchers recommend a trip-sitter – in Richards’s words, “having someone present who one honestly can choose to trust without reservation.  The attitude ‘I can manage on my own and don’t really need anyone else’ clearly can be very counterproductive in some high-dose sessions when the ‘I’ needs to totally relinquish control.

At times, an arrogant attitude of self-reliance is unhelpful.  It is also, unsurprisingly, the attitude with which I approached nearly all aspects of my life.  I’m an athlete, an academic, usually in full command of my own mind and body.  I mostly work alone (although I’m very grateful that my spouse helps me run this website). 

Why wouldn’t I do my own psychotherapy?

I tried psilocybin mushrooms during graduate school.  Shortly after we met, the person who is now my spouse asked if we could visit her sibling in Portland for her birthday.  We left Stanford at 7 p.m. on a Friday, then drove north through the night.  We arrived at about dawn on Saturday morning, collapsed, and slept until noon. 

We were visiting a punk house, it seemed, where the bulk of the rent was paid by one person’s trust fund, with others occasionally chipping in money from various odd jobs (there was a nearby sporting event during the second day of our visit, and one of the housemates put on an official-looking reflective vest and charged people to illegally park in an abandoned lot down the street).  A dozen misshapen mattresses were strewn about the skunky-smelling attic; I picked the second-least stained to sleep on.

On Saturday night, for the birthday celebration, our hosts threw a party.  Several bands played – it was the sort of event where the scrawny white weed dealer’s terrible hip-hop group (bass, drums, and the dealer on the mic) was allowed to play a set.  The others were mostly metal bands.

One of the housemates (the faux-parking attendant, as it happens) brewed a large mason jar of psilocybin tea.  As he was gamboling about the house, we crossed paths and he proffered the nearly empty jar: “Hey, man, you want these dregs?”

I shrugged and drank it.

“Whoa,” he said.

“What?”

“Just, that was a lot of dregs.”

Which, honestly, was not the best moment to be warned. I’d already drank it. I obviously couldn’t do anything about it then.

Richards and other medical professionals involved in psychedelics research would find it unsurprising that the tenor of the evening turned intensely spiritual for me.  Ken Kesey and other psychonauts would find it unsurprising that the goings on seemed exceedingly trippy, as well.  I sat on a couch in front of the bands’ performance area and watched as a singer seemed to smear her face across the microphone; soon I saw her with three mouths, the two in her neck relegated to singing harmony.

I felt intense paranoia; as I waited in line for a bathroom, people nearby seemed to be snickering at me.  Of course, snickers often follow in my wake at parties – my behavior can be outlandish – and I might’ve been making goofy facial expressions.

I understood only snippets of conversation.  A squinty-eyed Thor-looking blonde man named Hyacinth was saying, “I always wanted to get with a Gemini, and then, bam, last winter, I met this older lady with these, like, enormous eyes, and I was like, whoa, and wouldn’t you know it, bam, she’s a Gemini!” 

(I later learned that he worked as an, ahem, “intimate massage therapist,” or “hired companion,” that sort of thing.  He also cornered me and spent thirty minutes explaining his take on quantum mechanics.  His version involved a lot of positive energy radiating from crystals.  The abundance of positive energy in his own life is part of what brought him together with that Gemini, it seems. The waning disorientation from psilocybin left me totally unable to extricate myself from the conversation.)

And, as per Richards’s expectations, I felt myself losing a fundamental component of my identity.  I temporarily forgot how to speak. Then felt as though I was losing all ability to translate my thoughts into external action. 

Perhaps I should’ve noticed that I was still passively influencing my surroundings – nobody else could stand where I was standing, and Hyacinth wouldn’t have stood there simply lecturing the air – but the flickering of my short term memory caused these examples to slip away from me.  I felt like a ghost, and the sensation terrified me.

But I was lucky.  Even at parties (to be perfectly honest, especially at loud parties), I carry a pencil and paper.  That way, I can draw horrible cartoons. Sometimes I try to use these to communicate.

It should come as no surprise that I make few friends at parties.

I found a secluded corner of the party and began to write.  And then, minutes later, when I felt another wave of loss of self pass over me, I was able look at the sheet of paper in my hand and see. I wrote that.  I did change the world.  I am changing it. 

I was able to regain a sense of object permanence, despite the ego-erasing effects of psilocybin. If I were a ghost, my marks would wisp from the page like so much abluvion. But here they are.

Because I can still communicate with the outside world, I still am.

In all, the experience was probably good for me.  Someday I could write about why.  But for now, I’d simply like to stress that, in that moment, writing saved me.  Writing kept me anchored and tamped down the terror sufficiently that I could accept whatever was happening inside my brain.  (Indeed, one of the things I wrote that night was, “Without this paper, I’d wander the streets, wake tomorrow in a gutter with a rat gnawing on my eyeball.”)

And I’ve seen the way that writing has saved other people, too.  When people fear that they’re turning into ghosts – cut off from the outside world, unable to reach their friends and families – even severely dyslexic men will start sending letters.

Being held in jail can dissolve a person’s sense of self just as surely as psilocybin mushrooms.

Each week, I bring in another dozen pencils.  I occasionally wondered what was happening to the pencils, whether they accumulated like Lincoln Logs in the block.  But I kept bringing more because we need a way to write during our class. And I’d let the guys keep them. So much has been taken from these men that I couldn’t bear to ask for the pencils back.

Eventually, somebody told me.  “Oh, yeah, my bunkie, he writes a lot at night, he always sharpens like a dozen pencils before lockdown.”

The men in jail aren’t allowed to have pens.  They can’t have mechanical pencils.  And they don’t have sharpeners in their cells.

At night … or if there’s a disciplinary infraction … or if the jail is understaffed … the men are locked into their little cells.  Unless they sharpen pencils beforehand, they cannot write.  Each broken tip brings an inmate that much closer to enforced silence, unable to communicate with the outside world.

Recently, people have been forming a big line at the pencil sharpener whenever I teach class.  I slowly pass out the poems that we’ll read that week, then pass out pencils, then pass out paper, then sit and wait. The waiting takes a while.  Guys come with twenty or thirty pencils bristling from the shirt pocket of their orange scrubs, then stand and sharpen all of them.  A dozen men, sharpening perhaps twenty pencils each.

At the table, they mention trades they’ve made.  Losses, due to theft: “At the beginning of the week I had fifteen pencils; now I’m down to three.”  They exhort me to bring more.  I say I’ll do my best.

“There’s only one pencil sharpener in the block, and it’s been broken for three months.  It’s like that one, a wall mount.  The gears are all screwed up.  The handle was broken off, but you could sort of still use it then.  But now, anybody who doesn’t get to come to your class can’t sharpen any.”

“I’m sharpening some for my bunkie,” yells the guy currently cranking the handle.  A few of the others nod; they’ll also sharpen some for charity.

Image by emdot on Flickr.

Twenty … thirty … maybe forty sharpened graphite tips.  While those last, the guys will be able to write.  Time will pass, but they’ll be able to prove to themselves, and to the outside world, that they really do exist.

With luck, those sharpened pencils will last all week.

On drugs and drug laws.

On drugs and drug laws.

Humans have been ingesting dimethyltryptamine, a potent psychedelic, for over a thousand years.  We’ve been using cocaine even longer.  Marijuana was used medicinally in China thousands of years ago; soon after, celebrants in India began to ingest it as a psychedelic to potentiate religious experience.  Mind-altering experiences were so prized in ancient Greece that prophets huffed narcotic vapors.

The Oracle of Delphi.

Our ancestors began intentionally brewing alcohol nearly 10,000 years ago.  We’ve been using opium as a sacrament – not just a painkiller – for perhaps 3,000 years.

Drugs are very important to our species. 

Not all drug use is good, obviously.  Narcotics like opium, heroin, oxycontin, et al., can latch onto a person’s mind and compel continued use at any cost.  Somebody told me recently, “I knew I was gonna get caught.  I’m on probation, they drug test me all the time.  I mean, I was thinking about it while I was cutting it up: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me.  I was thinking about it while I was loading the syringe: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me. I thought I’d only have to do a week, though, and that seemed okay. Which is insane! I know it’s insane, but that’s what I was thinking.  I guess I was wrong. I’ve been here three weeks and I still haven’t had my court date.”

Even fish, if they get hooked, will risk their lives for another dose.  When human parents are snared by addiction, they endanger their children. The man whom I quoted above? He’d managed to stay sober for almost seven months, but relapsed the night of his son’s second birthday. His wife had to break down the bathroom door. After the ER, they brought him straight to jail.

In class together, we read Josh Rathkamp’s “Single Father,” in which the narrator fears that his diabetes will cause him to fall out and be unable to help his daughter.  Several parents recognized their own dread. Then we read “Daddy Wake Up” by local poet Travis Combs. Combs loves his son, but, like a diabetic, a person suffering from opiate addiction might find himself paralyzed, “a mass of mess.”

DADDY WAKE UP

Travis Combs

I hear the sound of his little feet running

down the hall, I look to make sure the door

is locked, I pull the plunger back, I hear

his joy as he yells, I’m superman.

       I do the shot

                      thinking What if?

       What if I fall out, what if he finds

me here, what if his little fingers have to

press 911, something we all teach them to do.

The fear in his voice when he says Daddy

won’t get up.  The pain in his heart when

he shakes me, yelling daddy wake up, daddy

wake up.

              Then I do wake, the needle

still in my arm, I feel his tears on my chest

as he lays there hugging me, crying, daddy

wake up.

Psychedelic drugs are safer.  They tend to be non-addictive. Most are relatively non-toxic. And a single dose can initiate self-discovery that buoys a person’s spirits for six months or more.

But psychedelic drugs are tightly controlled.  Despite thousands of research findings to the contrary, they’re classified by the U.S. government as having no accepted medical treatment use.  Possession is a felony.

Perhaps this shouldn’t seem surprising.  Spiritual drug use has been prized by our ancestors for thousands of years, but most cultures closely regulated which people would be privileged with access to those sacraments.  Depending on the time and place, only wealthy people would be allowed to use drugs, or only people born to a certain caste, or only men.

In the United States, cocaine was rightfully recognized as a wonder drug for decades, but then a cadre of white supremacist politicians claimed that cocaine would turn black men into monsters.  Prohibition was mediated through racism.

It’s true that cocaine is dangerous – both psychologically and physiologically – if you’re ingesting the purified compound.  But coca tea is no more dangerous than earl grey.  Indeed, if you decided to purify caffeine from tea leaves and snort it, you might die.

Marijuana was also legal in the United States until the racist propaganda machine started spinning stories about what would happen when people from Mexico smoked it.

And even now, wealthy people throughout the Bay Area blithely use psychedelic drugs.  Authors like Ayelet Waldman and Michael Pollan openly publicize their experiences flaunting the law.

Yet when people in Denver supported a ballot initiative that reduces the legal risk of possessing psilocybin-containing mushrooms, Pollan wrote an editorial denouncing the initiative.  Yes, there is some nuance; Pollan states that

No one should ever be arrested or go to jail for the possession or cultivation of any kind of mushroom – it would be disingenuous for me to say otherwise, since I have possessed, used and grown psilocybin myself.

And he claims, oddly, that the ballot initiative would be merely symbolic, citing as evidence the fact that only 11 psilocybin cases have been prosecuted in the last three years, out of approximately 150 arrests.  I personally have never been prosecuted for a crime, nor even arrested, but I’ve been told that it’s a very traumatic experience.  I’ve heard this from very reliable sources, men who have been through all sorts of horrific trauma in addition to their arrests. 

For all the people subject to this trauma – not to mention everyone more deterred than Pollan himself by the current legal status of this medicine – the initiative would have very meaningful consequences.

Michael Pollan. Photograph by Sage Ross on Wikipedia.

Instead, Pollan centers his cautionary argument on the idea that psilocybin “is not for everyone.

That idea is true enough, as far as things go.  Some people probably shouldn’t use psilocybin.  Some people feel traumatized by the bad experiences they go through while under its influence.  But I would argue that arrest is more traumatizing, and that the very illegality of the substance increases the likelihood that someone will go through a bad trip.

And the regulations seem absurd compared to how we treat other drugs.  For instance, someone with a predisposition to develop schizophrenia could be pushed closer to this condition by ingesting psilocybin.  The drug can hurt someone who uses it.  But alcohol, which is totally legal for most U.S. citizens over 21 years of age to purchase and consume, causes a huge amount of harm even to people who abstain.  Alcohol is the psychoactive drug that causes the most harm to others. 

Graph made by Tesseract2 on Wikimedia.

It’s unlikely that our sitting Supreme Court justices would have sexually assaulted anyone while using psilocybin for a meditative journey of self-discovery.  Indeed, that sort of experience might have led someone to develop much more empathetic political views. 

Because alcohol consumption is so likely to lead to poor decision-making and violence, it’s illegal for people on probation to drink.  Many have to check in at “blow & go” breathalyzer stations once or twice a day, which is really tough for people whose drivers’ licenses are suspended.  But, still, we passed this law to keep other people safe.

Or consider antibiotics.  Every time you use antibiotics, you make the world a little worse.  With every dose, there’s a risk that the bacteria you’re hoping to kill off will instead evolve to resist them.

And yet, even though using antibiotics hurts everybody else, they’re regulated much less than other drugs.  If you take psilocybin, it’s not going to hurt me at all.  But if you take an antibiotic – or, worse, if you decide to manufacture huge quantities of antibiotics and them inject 80% of them into cows, pigs, and chickens, all of whom are being raised in fetid conditions – you’re making it much more likely that I will die.

In the past, somebody might get scratched by a cat … and die.  Any infection could turn septic and kill you.

In the future, a currently-treatable infection might kill me.  Or kill my children.

Because we’ve allowed people to be so cavalier with antibiotics, medical professionals expect that within a generation, more people will die from bacterial infections than from cancer.

Obviously, this terrifies me.

But we’re not stopping the meat industry from using them.  We’re not using our legal system to protect all of humanity from their misuse.  Instead we’ve outlawed psilocybin, a compound that could usher you through a spiritual experience that helps you become a kinder, happier person.

Is that reasonable?

On happiness and mind control.

On happiness and mind control.

Many of us would like to feel happier.

In the United States, people are having sex less often.  And between alcohol, marijuana, recreational painkillers – not to mention anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication – we take a lot of drugs. 

Many of us work long hours at jobs we dislike so that we can afford to buy things that promise to fill some of the emptiness inside.  The most lucrative businesses are advertising companies … one of which, Facebook, is designed to make you feel worse so that you’ll be more susceptible to its ads.

The suicide rate has been rising.

From Dan Diamond’s Forbes blog post
Stopping The Growing Risk Of Suicide: How You Can Help.”

It might seem as though we don’t know how to make people happier.  But, actually, we do.

Now, I know that I’ve written previously with bad medical advice, such as the suggestion that intentionally infecting yourself with the brain parasite Toxoplasma gondii could make you happier.  This parasite boosts dopamine levels in your brain (dopamine is a neurotransmitter that conveys feelings of pleasure and mirth) and makes you feel bolder (in controlled laboratory experiments, infected mice show less stress when making risky decisions, and observational data suggests the same to be true for infected humans).  You also might become more attractive (infected rodents have more sex, and portrait photographs of infected human men are perceived as more dominant and masculine).

There are drawbacks to Toxoplasma infection, of course.  Infected rodents are more likely to be killed by cats.  Infected humans may become slower as well, both physically and intellectuallyToxoplasma forms cysts in your brain.  It might increase the chance of developing schizophrenia.  It can kill you if you’re immunocompromised.  And the surest way to contract toxoplasmosis, if incidental exposure hasn’t already done it for you, is by eating cat excrement.

My advice today is different.  No feces required! 

And I’m not suggesting anything illegal.  I mentioned, above, that people in the United States take a lot of drugs.  Several of these boost dopamine levels in your brain.  Cocaine, for instance, is a “dopamine re-uptake inhibitor,” ensuring that any momentary sensation of pleasure will linger, allowing you to feel happy longer.

But cocaine has a nasty side effect of leading to incarceration, especially if the local law enforcement officers decide that your epidermal melanin concentration is too high.  And jail is not a happy place.

Instead, you could make yourself happier with a bit of at-home trepanation, followed by the insertion of an electrode into the nucleus accumbens of your brain.  Now, I know that sounds risky, what with the nucleus accumbens being way down near the base of your brain.  But your brain is rather squishy – although you’ll sheer some cells as you cram a length of conductive wire into your cranium, the hope is that many neurons will be pushed out of the way.

The nucleus accumbens tends to show high activity during pleasure.  For instance, cocaine stimulates activity in this part of your brain.  So does money — tell research subjects that they’ve won a prize and you’ll see this region light up.  If rats are implanted with an electrode that lets them jolt their own nucleus accumbens by pushing a lever, they’ll do it over and over.  Pressing that lever makes them happier than eating, or drinking water, or having sex.  They’ll blissfully self-stimulate until they collapse.  From James Olds’s Science paper, “Self-Stimulation of the Brain”:

If animals with electrodes in the hypothalamus were run for 24 hours or 48 hours consecutively, they continued to respond as long as physiological endurance permitted.

Setup for Olds’s experiment.

Perhaps I should have warned you – amateur brain modification would carry some risks.  Even if you have the tools needed to drill into your own skull without contracting a horrible infection, you don’t want to boost your mood just to die of dehydration.

After all, happiness might have some purpose.  There might be reasons why certain activities – like eating, drinking water, having sex … to say nothing of strolling outdoors, or volunteering to help others – make us feel happy.  After discussing several case studies in their research article “How Happy Is Too Happy,” Matthis Synofzik, Thomas Schlaepfer, and Joseph Fins write that using deep brain stimulation for the “induction of chronic euphoria could also impair the person’s cognitive capacity to respond to reasons about which volitions and preferences are in his or her best interests.

When an activity makes us feel happy, we’re likely to do it again.  That’s how people manage to dedicate their lives to service.  Or get addicted to drugs.

And it’s how brain stimulation could be used for mind control.

If you show me a syringe, I’ll feel nervous.  I don’t particularly like needles.  But if you display that same syringe to an intravenous drug user, you’ll trigger some of the rush of actually shooting up.  The men in my poetry classes have said that they feel all tingly if they even see the word “needle” written in a poem.

For months or years, needles presaged a sudden flush of pleasure.  That linkage was enough for their brains to develop a fondness for the needles themselves.

If you wanted to develop a taste for an unpalatable food, you could do the same thing.  Like bittermelon – I enjoy bittermelons, which have a flavor that’s totally different from anything else I’ve ever eaten, but lots of people loathe them.

Still, if you used deep brain stimulation to trigger pleasure every time a person ate bittermelon, that person would soon enjoy it.

Bittermelon. Image by [cipher] in Tokyo, Japan on Wikimedia.

Or you could make someone fall in love. 

Far more effective than any witch’s potion, that.  Each time your quarry encounters the future beloved, crank up the voltage.  The beloved’s presence will soon be associated with a sense of comfort and pleasure.  And that sensation – stretched out for long enough that the pair can build a set of shared memories – is much of what love is.

Of course, it probably sounds like I’m joking.  You wouldn’t really send jolts of electricity into the core of somebody’s brain so that he’d fall in love with somebody new … right?

Fifty years passed between the discovery of pleasure-inducing deep brain stimulation and its current use as a treatment for depression … precisely because one of the pioneering researchers decided that it was reasonable to use the electrodes as a love potion.

In 1972, Charles Moan and Robert Heath published a scientific paper titled “Septal stimulation for the initiation of heterosexual behavior in a homosexual male.”  Their study subject was a 24-year-old man who had been discharged from the military for homosexuality.  Moan and Heath postulated that the right regimen of electrode stimulation – jolted while watching pornography, or while straddled by a female prostitute whom Moan and Heath hired to visit their lab – might lead this young man to desire physical intimacy with women.

Moan and Heath’s paper is surprisingly salacious:

After about 20 min of such interaction she begun [sic] to mount him, and though he was somewhat reticent he did achieve penetration.  Active intercourse followed during which she had an orgasm that he was apparently able to sense.  He became very excited at this and suggested that they turn over in order that he might assume the initiative.  In this position he often paused to delay orgasm and to increase the duration of the pleasurable experience.  Then, despite the milieu [inside a lab, romping under the appraising eyes of multiple fully-clothed scientists] and the encumbrance of the electrode wires, he successfully ejaculated.  Subsequently, he expressed how much he had enjoyed her and how he hoped that he would have sex with her again in the near future.

The science writer Lone Frank recently published The Pleasure Shock, a meticulously researched book in which she concludes that Heath was unfairly maligned because most people in the 1970s were reticent to believe that consciousness arose from the interaction of perfectly ordinary matter inside our skulls.  Changing a person’s mood with electricity sounds creepy, especially if you think that a mind is an ethereal, inviolable thing.

But it isn’t.

The mind, that is. The mind isn’t an ethereal, inviolable thing.

Zapping new thoughts into somebody’s brain, though, is definitely still understood (by me, at least) to be creepy.

Discussing the contemporary resurgence of electrical brain modification, Frank writes that:

In 2013, economist Ernst Fehr of Zurich University experimented with transcranial direct current stimulation, which sends a weak current through the cranium and is able to influence activity in areas of the brain that lie closest to the skull. 

Fehr had sixty-three research subjects available.  They played a money game in which they each were given a sum and had to take a position on how much they wanted to give an anonymous partner.  In the first round, there were no sanctions from the partner, but in the second series of experiments, the person in question could protest and punish the subject. 

There were two opposing forces at play.  A cultural norm for sharing fairly – that is, equally – and a selfish interest in getting as much as possible for oneself.  Fehr and his people found that the tug of war could be influenced by the right lateral prefrontal cortex.  When the stimulation increased the brain activity, the subjects followed the fairness norm to a higher degree, while they were more inclined to act selfishly when the activity was diminished.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking thing was that the research subjects did not themselves feel any difference.  When they were asked about it, they said their idea of fairness had not changed, while the selfishness of their behavior had changed. 

Apparently, you can fiddle with subtle moral parameters in a person without the person who is manipulated being any the wiser.

The human brain evolved to create elaborate narratives that rationalize our own actions.  As far as our consciousness is concerned, there’s no difference between telling a just so story about a decision we made un-aided, versus explaining a “choice” that we were guided toward by external current.

Frank believes that Heath was a brilliant doctor who sincerely wanted to help patients. 

When bioethicist Carl Elliott reviewed The Pleasure Shock for the New York Review of Books, however, he pointed out that even – perhaps especially – brilliant doctors who sincerely want to help patients can stumble into rampantly unethical behavior.

The problem isn’t just that Heath pulsed electricity into the brain of a homosexual man so that he could ejaculate while fooling around with a woman.  Many of Heath’s patients – who, it’s worth acknowledging, had previously been confined to nightmarish asylums – developed infections from their electrode implantations and died.  Also, Heath knowingly promoted fraudulent research findings because he’d staked his reputation on a particular theory and was loathe to admit that he’d been wrong (not that Heath has been the only professor to perpetuate falsehoods this way).

Elliott concludes that:

Heath was a physician in love with his ideas. 

Psychiatry has seen many men like this.  Heath’s contemporaries include Ewen Cameron, the CIA-funded psychiatrist behind the infamous “psychic driving” studies at McGill University, in which patients were drugged into comas and subjected to repetitive messages or sounds for long periods, and Walter Freeman, the inventor of the icepick lobotomy and its most fervent evangelist.

These men may well have started with the best of intentions.  But in medical research, good intentions can lead to the embalming table.  All it takes is a powerful researcher with a surplus of self-confidence, a supportive institution, and a ready supply of vulnerable subjects.

Heath had them all.

It’s true that using an electrode to stimulate the nucleus accumbens inside your brain can probably make you feel happier.  By way of contrast, reading essays like this one make most people feel less happy.

Sometimes it’s good to feel bad, though.

As Elliott reminds us, a lot of vulnerable people were abused in this research.  A lot of vulnerable people are still treated with cavalier disregard, especially when folks with psychiatric issues are snared by our country’s criminal justice system.  And the torments that we dole upon non-human animals are even worse.

Consider this passage from Frans De Waal’s Mama’s Last Hug, discussing empathy:

[University of Chicago researcher Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal] placed one rat in an enclosure, where it encountered a small transparent container, a bit like a jelly jar.  Squeezed inside it was another rat, locked up, wriggling in distress. 

Not only did the free rat learn how to open a little door to liberate the other, but she was remarkably eager to do so.  Never trained on it, she did so spontaneously. 

Then Bartal challenged her motivation by giving her a choice between two containers, one with chocolate chips – a favorite food that they could easily smell – and another with a trapped companion.  The free rat often rescued her companion first, suggesting that reducing her distress counted more than delicious food.

Is it possible that these rats liberated their companions for companionship?  While one rat is locked up, the other has no chance to play, mate, or groom.  Do they just want to make contact?  While the original study failed to address this question, a different study created a situation where rats could rescue each other without any chance of further interaction.  That they still did so confirmed that the driving force is not a desire to be social. 

Bartal believes it is emotional contagion: rats become distressed when noticing the other’s distress, which spurs them into action. 

Conversely, when Bartal gave her rats an anxiety-reducing drug, turning them into happy hippies, they still knew how to open the little door to reach the chocolate chips, but in their tranquil state, they had no interest in the trapped rat.  They couldn’t care less, showing the sort of emotional blunting of people on Prozac or pain-killers. 

The rats became insensitive to the other’s agony and ceased helping. 

You could feel happier.  We know enough to be able to reach into your mind and change it.  A miniscule flow of electrons is enough to trigger bliss.

But should we do it?  Or use our unhappiness as fuel to change the world instead?

On storytelling in games.

On storytelling in games.

I recently read my friend Marco Arnaudo’s Storytelling in the Modern Board Game, a detailed history of the games that were designed to give players an interesting narrative experience.  These have ranged from Renaissance-era parlor games in which permutations of Tarot cards were used to inspire tall tales, to Dungeons & Dragons, in which a narrator ushers a group of friends through a fantasy quest that they collaboratively embellish, to the contemporary board games that, despite their meticulously-delineated rules and victory conditions, also include gorgeous art and fanciful text to evoke cinematic moments along the way.

Arnaudo’s expertise is unquestionable.  He produces a popular series of video reviews.  And I often join him for Friday night gaming, where we play surrounded by his mind-boggling collection.  I only wish that there had been space in his book to address the topic of precisely which types of narrative are better conveyed by board games than other forms of media.

I’ve written previously about the narrative potential of games, but not board games specifically.

Consider a story of moral complicity.  When presented through text, as in a newspaper article or novel (perhaps Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, or J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians), it’s easy to think that we would do better than the characters described.  Even when a tale of depravity is written in the second person, like Jay McInerney’s  Bright Lights, Big City, it’s easy to maintain a sense of moral superiority, because the actions taken by McInerney’s “you” aren’t things that I would actually do.

But there’s no excuse within a game.  The actions taken by a game’s protagonist are things that you might do, because you were in control.

In “The Soldier’s Brief Epistle,” poet Bruce Weigl writes:

You think you’re better than me,

cleaner or more good

because I did what you may have only

imagined

When we learn that the soldiers in Vietnam murdered civilians, or that military guards at Abu Ghraib tortured prisoners, it’s easy to think that we would never sink to that level. 

In “Life on Mars,” U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith writes:

                                    The guards

Were under a tremendous amount of pleasure.

I mean pressure.  Pretty disgusting.  Not

What you’d expect from Americans.

Just kidding.  I’m only talking about people

Having a good time, blowing off steam.

Despite the fact that many Americans worship a deity who would torture prisoners, we feel that we would not sink to that level.  We can feel unmitigated disgust at our compatriots when we see horrific photographs like those presented in the (Not Safe For Work, nor emotionally safe for any other setting) Abu Ghraib article on Wikipedia.

And yet.  In Grand Theft Auto, players are asked to torture a prisoner.  And players did it.  Some people might have felt dismayed that they needed to, but they rationalized their action because there were sunk costs … after all, they’d purchased a copy of the game … and they’d spent so many hours progressing that far … and there was no possible way to move forward in the story without torturing the guy …

Screenshot from GTA 5.

You could say, “it’s just a game!,” but that should actually make it easier to walk away from.  Imagine, instead, that someone has made a career in the military.  Then it wouldn’t be about progressing to the next level – their family’s next meal might depend upon torturing someone if a superior demands it.

From Alex Hern’s report in The Guardian:

“Rockstar North has crossed a line by effectively forcing people to take on the role of a torturer and perform a series of unspeakable acts if they want to achieve success in the game,” said Freedom from Torture chief executive Keith Best.

There are some pieces of art that I personally don’t want to engage with – this game, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, etc. – but I believe that they can succeed as art.

I would argue that Grand Theft Auto, as a piece of narrative art, teaches a valuable lesson about how to prevent torture.  It succeeds precisely because it is able to lure so many people into committing immoral acts.  We learn that torturers, or the soldiers in Vietnam, or Nazi prison guards, are not monsters – or perhaps that whatever monstrosity those people called upon lurks inside nearly all of us.

The volunteers who played the twisted role-playing games known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment,” in which players were assigned to be either captives or guards, or the “Milgram experiment,” in which players were instructed to shock an actor to death for making mistakes on a memory test, already understood this truth.  But by packaging the experience into a video game, Grand Theft Auto made this lesson widely accessible.

We are monsters.  That’s why social norms that constrain our worst impulses are so valuable.

And I don’t believe this message could be conveyed as powerfully by a novel, film, or painting as it was by a game.

Similarly, board game designers Max Temkin, Mike Boxleiter, and Tommy Maranges created Secret Hitler as an interactive form of art that could teach people how easily widespread confusion and distrust can lead to horrendous political outcomes.  The role-playing experience in Secret Hitler evokes the distress of trying to root out treachery in a world of non-overlapping information sets — and does so better than any text-based historical narrative.  Even my favorite films about uncertainty and information sets pale in comparison as ontological tools.

Picture of Secret Hitler by Nicole Lee on Flickr.

When I played Secret Hitler, I learned that I wasn’t clever enough to stop my nation’s descent into fascism.  I only wish Temkin, Boxleiter, and Maranges had made their game earlier.  It’s better to learn about moral failures from a game than to glance at the news and watch the worst unfolding around us.

Header image by Padaguan.

On attentiveness and names.

On attentiveness and names.

When a scientist first discovers a function for a gene, that scientist gets to name it.  Sometimes these names seem reasonable enough: I worked with a hematologist who did a study to identify proteins involved in apoptosis, which means roughly “programmed cell death” or “cellular suicide,” and so each gene wound up named “Requiem 3”, “Requiem 4,” etc.

Fruit fly geneticists tend to give their discoveries more creative names than other scientists.  There’s the gene “cheap date” – if a fruit fly is missing that gene, it will – ha ha – be unable to process ethanol and  so quickly passes out.  Another genetic mutation produced male flies that would court either males or females, and so this was known for over a decade as “fruity,” until another scientist decided that universal courtship could be less offensively described by the term “fruitless,” because clearly any mating-like activity that does not lead to progeny is a waste of time.

Yup, some gene names were bad.  One person’s idea of a joke might seem to somebody else like a mean-spirited reference to the wider world’s power dynamics.

Other gene names were bad not out of malice, but because humor at the expense of a fruit fly doesn’t make as many people laugh when a human child is dying. 

A gene that produces a somewhat spiky-shaped protein was named after Sonic Hedgehog.  It seemed funny at the time!  See?  The protein is spiky, the video game character has spiky hair, and … get it?  You get it, right?

 Okay, so this Sonic Hedgehog protein doesn’t look all that much like Sonic the Hedgehog.  But spend enough time staring at something like protein crystal structures and you’ll experience pareidolia, like seeing animal shapes in irregularly dappled plaster ceilings, or anthropomorphic gods amongst the twinklings of the stars.

Well, the Sonic Hedgehog protein establishes a concentration gradient that allows cells to recognize their spatial position in a developing body.  If a human fetus comes to term despite having a mutation in the Sonic Hedgehog gene (genetic abnormalities will often result in a miscarriage, but not always), the resulting child will have severe brain defects.

And then a doctor has to explain, “Your baby is suffering because of a Sonic Hedgehog mutation.”

And so, in 2006, geneticists capitulated to medical doctors. No more fanciful names for genes that might lie at the root of human health problems … which, because humans and fruit flies are actually pretty similar, means most genes.  Patients would now be told about a mutation in the SHH gene instead of Sonic Hedgehog, or a mutation in the LFNG gene instead of Lunatic Fringe.

Words have power, after all.


Some people are more attentive to their environments than others.  During evolutionary time, this trait was obviously good for humanity.  If your tribe is traveling through a hostile environment, it helps to have somebody around who is paying attention to the world.  A friend who’s primed to notice encroaching threats like a hungry lion about to leap out and attack.  Maybe we should take a different path.  Which, yeah, that sounds like a good idea.

Other people are particularly inattentive to their surroundings, so it’s easy for them to ignore the world and focus instead on one single problem.  During evolutionary time, this trait was surely good for humanity, too.  It’s helpful to have somebody on the lookout for threats that might eat you, obviously.  But it’s also helpful to have somebody who might discover a way of using dried grass to weave baskets.  A way of cooking mud into pottery that could carry or store water.

Image by Herb Roe on Wikimedia Commons.

Neurodiversity is a virtue in and of itself.  Over the millennia, the world has offered our species many challenges.  Populations that were sufficiently diverse that some members were good at each of a variety of tasks were most likely to flourish.  A cooperative species like termites or Homo sapiens benefits from specialization among its members.

Left to our their own devices, people would naturally fall asleep and wake up at different times.  Some brains are primed to work best in the early morning; others work best late at night.  And that’s good.  It reduces the amount of time that a tribe would be susceptible to attack, everyone asleep.

But in the modern world, we occasionally forget to feel grateful for the diversity that allowed our species to thrive.  The high school students whose brains are primed for late-night thinking drag themselves through morning classes like zombies.  They’ll be midway through first period before the sun rises.  Their teachers glance derisively at their slumped and scruffy forms and call them lazy.


Eventually, humans invented language.  Much later, we invented writing.  Much, much later, we invented the printing press, and then written words became so widely accessible that most humans could benefit from learning how to read.

Of course, reading is easier for people who are inattentive to their environment.

If I had been born earlier in human evolution, I totally would have been lion bait.  When I’m reading a book, or am deep in thought, the rest of the world melts away.  When I’m typing at home, K or the kids sometimes shout my name several times before I even realize that I’m being spoken to. 

People like me, or this kid at a library, totally would’ve been lion bait.

Luckily for me, I wasn’t born way back then.  Instead I was born into a world where inattentive people – the people best able to block out the world and instead focus on their own thoughts – are the most likely to find academic success.  People like me become medical doctors.  Then we get to name the world’s various conditions and maladies.

And so, when it came time to categorize the sort of person who is especially attentive to the world, people like me (who obviously thought that our way of being is the best way to be) referred to those others as having an attention deficit disorder.

Identifying those people’s awareness of their environs might sound like a virtue; instead, we castigated those people’s difficulty at ignoring the world.

I’ve never read the Percy Jackson books, but I’m glad that they exist, if only for passages like this (from The Lightning Thief):

“And the ADHD – you’re impulsive, can’t sit still in the classroom.  That’s your battlefield reflexes.  In a real fight, they’d keep you alive.  As for the attention problems, that’s because you see too much, Percy, not too little.”


Childhood trauma can cause symptoms that medical doctors term “attention deficit disorder.”  Which makes sense – if you’ve gone through an experience where your environs were threatening, you should learn to be more aware of your environment.  It should become more difficult to ignore a world that has proven itself to be dangerous.

Even for somebody with my type of brain, it’s going to be easier to sit outside and read a book when there’s a squirrel nearby than if there’s a prowling grizzly fifteen meters away.

Some children have to learn early on that daddy’s sometimes a grizzly.  And if it can happen to him, why not other grown-ups, too?  Best to stay on high alert around the teacher.  She’s trying to get you absorbed in these number tables … but what if that’s a trap?


Certain drugs can narrow a person’s perception of the world.  They act like blinders, chemicals like nicotine, ritalin, and amphetamines, both un-methylated (sold under the trade name Adderall) and methylated (a CH3 group attached to the amine moiety of Adderall will slow its degradation by CYP2D6 enzymes in the liver, increasing the duration of its effects).

Note to non-chemists: the methylated analogue of Adderall goes by several names, including “ice,” “shard,” and “crystal meth.”  Perhaps you’ve heard of it — this compound played a key role in the television show Breaking Bad.  And it’s very similar to the stuff prescribed to eight year olds.  Feel free to glance at the chemical structures, below.

In poetry class last week, a man who has cycled in and out of jail several times during the few years I’ve taught there – who I’d said “hello” to on the outside just a few weeks earlier when he rode his bicycle past the high school runners and me – plonked himself down in the squeaky plastic hair next to mine.

I groaned.

“I know, I know,” he said.  “But I might be out on Monday.”

“What happened?”

“Failed a urine screen.  But I was doing good.  Out for six months, and they were screening me like all the time, I only failed three of them.”

“With … ?”

“Meth,” he said, nodding.  “But I wasn’t hitting it bad, this time.  I know I look like I lost some weight, dropped from 230 down to 205, but that’s just cause it was hard getting enough to eat.  Wasn’t like last time.  I don’t know if you remember, like, just how gaunt my whole face looked when they brought me in.  But, man, it’s just … as soon as I step outside this place, my anxiety shoots through the roof … “

This is apparently a common phenomenon.  When we incarcerate people, we carve away so much of their experience of the world.  Inside the jail, there is a set routine.  Somebody is often barking orders, telling people exactly what to do.  There aren’t even many colors to be distracted by, just the white-painted concrete walls, the faded orange of inmate scrubs, the dull tan CO shirts and dark brown pants.

The world in there is bleak, which means there are very few choices to make.  Will you sit and try to listen to the TV?  (The screen is visible from three or four of the twelve cells, but not from the others.)  Try, against all odds, to read a book?  Or add your shouting voice to the din, trying to have a conversation (there’s no weather, so instead the fall-back topic is speculating what’s going to be served for dinner)?

After spending time locked up, a person’s ability to navigate the wider world atrophies, the same as your leg would if you spent months with it bundled up in a cast.

And these are people whom we should be helping to learn how to navigate the world better.

“ … so I vape a lot, outside.  I step out of this place, that’s the first thing I do, suck down a cigarette.  And, every now and then … “

He feels physically pained, being so attentive to his surroundings.  And so he doses himself with chemicals that let him ignore the world as well as I can.

And, yes.  He grew up with an abusive stepfather.  This led to his acting squirrelly in school.  And so, at ten years old, medical doctors began dosing him with powerful stimulants.

Meanwhile, our man dutifully internalized the thought that he had a personal failing.  The doctors referred to his hyper-vigilance as an attention deficit disorder.


Words have power.

We can’t know now, after all the hurt we’ve piled on him, but think: where might our man be if he’d learned to think of his attentiveness as a virtue?

On the water-fueled car.

On the water-fueled car.

“I heard there was, like, a car that runs on water … “

“Dude, no, there’ve been, like, six of them.  But oil companies bought all the patents.”

A lot of the people who attend my poetry class in jail believe in freaky conspiracy theories.  Somebody started telling me that the plots of various Berenstain Bears books are different from when he was a child, which is evidence that the universe bifurcated and that he’s now trapped in an alternate timeline from the path he was on before …

old hat(New printings of some Berenstain Bears books really are different.  Take Old Hat New Hat, a charming story about shopping and satisfaction: after the protagonist realizes that he prefers the old, beat-up hat he already owns to any of the newer, fancier models, a harried salesperson reacts with a mix of disgust and disbelieve.  This scene has been excised from the board book version that you could buy today.  Can’t have anything that tarnishes the joy of consumerism!)

I’ve written about conspiracy theories previously, but I think it’s worth re-iterating, in the interest of fairness, that the men in jail are correct when they assume that vast numbers of people are “breathing together” against them.  Politicians, judges, police, corporate CEOs and more have cooperated to build a world in which men like my students are locked away.  Not too long ago, it would have been fairly easy for them to carve out a meaningful existence, but advances in automation, the ease of international shipping, and changes to tax policy have dismantled the opportunities of the past.

Which means that I often find myself seriously debating misinterpretations of Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” theory (described midway through my essay, “Ashes”), or Biblical prophecies, or Jung-like burblings of the collective unconsciousness.

Or, last week, the existence of water cars.

In 2012, government officials from Pakistan announced that a local scientist had invented a process for using water as fuel.  At the time, I was still running a webcomic – one week’s Evil Dave vs. Regular Dave focused on news of the invention.

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When scientists argue that a water-powered car can’t exist, they typically reference the Second Law of Thermodynamics (also discussed in “Ashes”).  The Second Law asserts that extremely unlikely events occur so rarely that you can safely assume their probability to be zero.

If something is disallowed by the Second Law, there’s nothing actually preventing it from happening.  For an oversimplified example, imagine there are 10 molecules of a gas randomly whizzing about inside a box.  The Second Law says that all 10 will never be traveling in the exact same direction at the same time.  If they were, you’d get energy from nothing.  They might all strike the north-facing wall at the same time, causing the box to move, instead of an equal number hitting the northern and southern facing walls.

But, just like flipping eight coins and seeing them all land heads, sometimes the above scenario will occur.  It violates the Second Law, and it can happen.  Perpetual motion machines can exist.  They are just very, very rare.  (Imagine a fraction where the denominator is a one followed by as many zeros as you could write before you die.  That number will be bigger than the chance of a water-fueled car working for even several seconds.)

When chemists talk about fuel, they think about diagrams that look roughly like this:

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The y axis on this graph is energy, and the x axis is mostly meaningless – here it’s labeled “reaction coordinate,” but you wouldn’t be so far off if you just think of it as time.

For a gasoline powered car, the term “reactants” refers to octane and oxygen.  Combined, these have a higher amount of energy stored in their chemical bonds than an equivalent mass of the “products,” carbon dioxide and water, so you can release energy through combustion.  The released energy moves your car forward.

And there’s a hill in the middle.  This is generally called the “activation barrier” of the reaction.  Basically, the universe thinks it’s a good idea to turn octane and oxygen into CO2 and H2O … but the universe is lazy.  Left to its own devices, it can’t be bothered.  Which is good – because this reaction has a high activation barrier, we rarely explode while refueling at the gas station.

Your car uses a battery to provide the energy needed to start this process, after which the energy of the first reaction can be used to activate the next.  The net result is that you’re soon cruising the highway with nary a care, dribbling water from your tailpipe, pumping carbon into the air.

(Your car also uses a “catalyst” – this component doesn’t change how much energy you’ll extract per molecule of octane, but it lowers the height of the activation barrier, which makes it easier for the car to start.  Maybe you’ve heard the term “cold fusion.”  If we could harness a reaction combining hydrogen molecules to form helium, that would be a great source of power.  Hydrogen fusion is what our sun uses.  This reaction chucks out a lot of energy and has non-toxic byproducts.

But the “cold” part of “cold fusion” refers to the fact that, without a catalyst, this reaction has an extremely steep activation barrier.  It works on the sun because hydrogen molecules are crammed together at high temperature and pressure.  Something like millions of degrees.  I personally get all sweaty and miserable at 80 degrees, and am liable to burn myself when futzing about near an oven at 500 degrees … I’d prefer not to drive a 1,000,000 degree hydrogen-fusion-powered automobile.)

Magnificent_CME_Erupts_on_the_Sun_-_August_31.jpg
Seriously, I would not want this to be happening beneath the hood of the family ride.

With any fuel source, you can guess at its workings by comparing the energy of its inputs and outputs.  Octane and oxygen have high chemical energies, carbon dioxide and water have lower energies, so that’s why your car goes forward.  Our planet, too, can be viewed as a simple machine.  High frequency (blue-ish) light streams toward us from the sun, then something happens here that increases the order of molecules on Earth, after which we release a bunch of low-frequency (red-ish) light.

(We release low-frequency “infrared” light as body heat – night vision goggles work by detecting this.)

Our planet is an order-creating machine fueled by changing the color of photons from the sun.

A water-fueled car is impractical because other molecules that contain hydrogen and oxygen have higher chemical energy than an equivalent mass of water.  There’s no energy available for you to siphon away into movement.

If you were worried that major oil companies are conspiring against you by hiding the existence of water-fueled cars, you can breathe a sigh of relief.  But don’t let yourself get too complacent, because these companies really are conspiring against you.  They’re trying to starve your children.