Zap Your Brain with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

Have you ever wanted to stimulate some part of your brain, only to be thwarted by that pesky skull ensconcing it? Don’t want to drill holes and implant electrodes? Well lucky it’s the 21st century so now you don’t have to. Let’s take a dive into the weird science of transcranial magnetic stimulation.

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First Impressions of a Sensory Deprivation Tank

Content warning: unapologetically first-person perspective; smattering of objective stuff at the end.

My friend and I were sitting in the hippie-vibes foyer sipping water from tiny ceramic mugs. Dream catchers dangled across from us and ambient New Age music was subtly setting the mood. A guy with damp hair emerged from a corridor, having just completed his first session. The receptionist looked up to ask how he’d found the experience. He had gotten motion sickness.

“The first time’s a write-off for everyone,” she informed him consolingly, immediately glancing at us and apologising.

His more elated girlfriend soon emerged, and it was now our turn. This is the contraption I was to get into, the Apollo model:

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Top Novels of the 20th Century: the Internet’s Foxiest Guide Yet

If you want to skip all the rambly introduction stuff and just get to the list, scroll right on down to section 3.

1. Your brain on fiction

Believe it or not, reading fiction is a super beneficial activity, and doesn’t get anywhere near the credit it deserves.

It may come as no surprise that readers of fiction have superior vocabularies, but the magnitude of this effect is nonetheless striking. According to the massive data set at http://testyourvocab.com, frequent fiction readers can have vocabularies almost double that of non-readers:

Fiction also rewires the brain in more complex ways (much like juggling does). According to a pair of experiments published in PLOS ONE in 2013 Continue reading

Five Days of Water Fasting

A couple of weeks back I took part in Oaktree’s Live Below the Line fundraising campaign. If you’re not familiar with Oaktree, they’re an Australian nonprofit organisation with the mission of eliminating poverty in South-East Asia. Live Below the Line (LBL) challenges participants to get through five days spending no more than AU$2 per day on all their food, mimicking life at the extreme poverty line.

Having completed two previous LBLs, this year I decided to up the ante (and hopefully the donations) by attempting to get through the challenge without consuming anything except water. Here’s a rundown of what I found sucky, not so bad, and outright surprising during the week. But first, a word to our sponsors.

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A word to our sponsors

I launched into this LBL with the moderately ambitious but, I thought, achievable fundraising target of AU$600. It turns out I underestimated the generosity of my donors, because they smashed right through that figure to pledge over AU$1500 in total. If you can count yourself one such donor, THANK YOU! I was humbled by the daily outpouring of support and “You’ve received a donation!” emails. Oaktree tells me these funds will be put towards much-needed infrastructure repairs to classrooms in East Timor, scholarships to vulnerable students, training workshops for teachers, school supplies and more. Good job team, you are rad.

If you were meaning to donate but never got around to it, despair not. Head over to my fundraising page and you can still donate any time until the end of June:

https://www.livebelowtheline.com.au/me/nooshbag

One final brief detour into development before getting onto the hungriness.

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A brief detour into development

Oaktree operates by supporting a select group of local organisations in Cambodia, Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea to roll out education programs. Oaktree supplies the raw ingredients of books, uniforms and materials that students need to go to school, as well as teacher training, libraries and computer labs. The local organisations then churn it all up into (hopefully) great learning outcomes.

I like Oaktree. Having lived in Cambodia and Nepal, my feelings on international development are fairly ambivalent and caveat-riddled. While the moral imperative of such work is obvious, the reality on the ground is complex. Seeing the countless nonprofits and social enterprises swarming about (largely oblivious to each other) puts one uncomfortably in mind of a troupe of well-intentioned wrench-wielding bonobos loosed on a grounded passenger jet. Sure, some will do some good. But plenty of others will just bang annoyingly on the outside, and some will accidentally break things that had been working perfectly well already. If you chase them all way, odds are it will be entirely unclear which ones are responsible for what.

Groups such as GiveWell and Effective Altruism have written plenty about what a good nonprofit looks like, so if you’re interested in this issue I highly recommend you check out their stuff. All I’ll say here is that Oaktree seems to me to be one of the nonprofits doing it right. They work through local organisations instead of contributing to the clustercuss of foreign aid workers on the ground, they have reasonably well defined and measurable goals, and importantly, are extremely big on transparency. So for all these reasons, I think they’re a group worth supporting. And thus we come to my big fasting adventure.

My big fasting adventure

I’d like to reassure all previously concerned friends and family members that I didn’t leap into a prolonged fast on a whim. Fasting has become a topic of increasing interest among various clever PhD/MD folks such as Rhonda Patrick, Peter Attia and Valter Longo in recent years, and they’re all talking about it as a health intervention. The scientific literature is swelling with preliminary evidence for the benefits of fasting (more on that below), and first-hand experiences of enterprising self-experimenters are also plentiful.

Having explored a lot of this material, I went into my fast expecting it to be predictably unpleasant, but also interesting and unlikely to pose long-term health risks. And really, in a world where more people are now obese than underweight, a sober discussion of our implicit beliefs about eating may well be in order. Anyway, here are the things I found good, bad, and outright unexpected throughout the week.

Good: Hunger was barely an issue, especially after the first day. The hungriest I got all week was not even as bad as on some normal days when I’m waiting for dinner to cook. Ray Cronise, a former NASA scientist who recently completed a 24 day water fast, argues that the sensations we commonly associate with hunger – craving, irritability, distractibility – are actually something else: withdrawal. It’s a radical idea, but do those symptoms not sound quite like nicotine or alcohol withdrawal? Maybe food is physiologically addictive, and maybe true hunger is what I was experiencing by day 3: a vague feeling of emptiness and not much more.

hungryorbored

Good: On the morning of the second day, my meditation session practically ran itself. It was the easiest, calmest and most focused I’d been in weeks.

Unexpected: My sense of smell, which is usually pretty feeble, exploded in sensitivity. It turns out this is also a common fasting experience. Food aromas became rich and vibrant even from way across a room. One time I halluci-smelled delicious toasted bread for about half a kilometer on a bike ride. Mmm damn.

Bad: Socialising. It’s funny how ubiquitous food is in social interactions. There aren’t that many activities to do with normal people, especially in evenings when the weather is bad, that don’t tend to include putting liquids or solids in mouths. I ended up feeling guilty for making people feel guilty about eating around me.

Good: Free time. It’s surprising what a tremendous amount of our lives is taken up by food: shopping for it, cooking it, washing dishes, actually eating it, getting to and from cafes/restaurants/wherever. Even just planning your day around three meals leaves you with only relatively small blocks of unbroken time. Instead what I had was: wake up. Blank. Do anything at any point between now and falling asleep in ~16 hours.

Unexpected: The intensity of weight loss. This could be a plus for a lot of people, but I started things already a tad lighter than I prefer. Here’s me pre-fast:Pre.JPG

The green line, 71.3 kg, is the exact middle of the healthy BMI range (18.5-25 kg/m²) for my height. (About 18 months back, having become worried about mid-twenties beer belly creep, I calculated this to be my ideal weight and set myself the long-term mission of staying +/- 2 kg of it. [Sub-tangent: Yes, there are problems with using BMI as a measure of health, but it’s SO convenient.] I was somewhat above my ideal weight at the time, so I spent several months struggling to shed a few kilos using intermittent fasting, without much success. Then came a year of living in Nepal without scales. Turns out a year of dahl baat and water-borne parasites is an excellent weight loss strategy.)

The red line, 65 kg, indicates the abort weight I agreed to with my girlfriend prior to starting. I also agreed to drop out if I ever fainted or started feeling seriously unwell. I anticipated losing about half a kilo a day. What actually happened:

During

I plummeted from the get-go and never really stopped, with the curious exception of day four. I had been aiming to fast for a full week, but was forced to abort at the end of day five. I lost an average of 1.4 kg every day, lots of which I assume was water weight. However, according to some fancy iHealth scales my lady friend acquired, which purport to measure body composition by passing a small electrical current through your feet:

  • My water content went up slightly, from 60% to 61.8%
  • Body fat decreased from 13.5% down to 10.2% (-2.8 kg)
  • Muscle mass decreased from 56.6 kg down to 53.5 kg (-3.1 kg)

I have no idea how much to trust these data, if at all. In any case, overall weight bounced right back in a matter of days (days of shameless, shameless binging), and I feel and look exactly the same as pre-fast.

Bad: Day 3. I expected this one to be a struggle because other blogs had told me it would be, and they exaggerated nothing. It was the only day I didn’t go to work, or even leave the house… or barely even my bed. A stabbing pain developed across my back which felt like my muscles running out of energy to even just sit there holding my torso together. I confess that I cheated in the afternoon and had a Berocca. Sheer existence was feeling so icky that I started worrying that some kind of critical nutrient deficiency was kicking in. Nope, turns out that’s just what three days without food feels like. (Some people claim the discomfort is your body properly shifting into ketosis, see below). Despite fatigue I woke up at 3am and couldn’t get back to sleep. Mood: maudlin.

Bad: Utter, utter lethargy. I’ve never before known what it’s like to feel weak. Not just tired, but genuinely weak, where standing up would take a serious, concerted effort (if it’s even possible – you’re not sure), and something like jumping is unthinkable.
On day 1 I rode my bike to work and went swing dancing as usual; I even got an impromptu flu vaccine, and didn’t feel toooo bad about any of it. On day 2 I also cycled, though very slowly. Day 3 was the worst, but days 4 and 5 were still difficult, shuffling affairs. Some other fasting blogs have people claiming absurd things about this period, like “Feeling awesome in general, super focused, no afternoon fatigue” and “This might be the best I’ve felt mentally in my entire life.” Let the record show that I felt like a bag of pulped slugs the whole time.

Good: Breaking fast. I don’t think any Christmas eve in my whole life has had me as excited as I was the night before getting to eat again.
There’s a bunch of advice online about how you should ease yourself back into food after a fast, i.e. start with juices, ease into fruits and vegetables etc. I tried to follow the advice… sort of, briefly. But let’s be honest: it’s almost all conjured up by people who believe in juice detoxes and have dumb things to say about gluten. I doubt there are any proper studies about how humans should break a fast. So by lunch time I decided ‘screw it’.

EDIT: Several intelligent medically-trained friends have pointed out to me that whether or not such studies have been done, refeeding syndrome definitely is a real and serious condition. I’m not sure if it’s relevant to such a short fast, but I’m now somewhat embarrassed about the recklessness of the following paragraph.

I won’t describe the shameless orgy of binging that ensued that day (hint: it included Tim-Tams, dark chocolate, coffee, ice-cream, lentils, Smarties, popcorn, chocolate cookies, halloumi, calzones and beer). By that night I was feeling vaguely sick and trembly with what was probably some combination of hyperglycaemia, adrenaline, cortisol, caffeine and sleep deprivation.

The next day, however, was magical. I weighed in at almost 4 kg heavier, my energy and strength were back with a vengeance, and it felt like a foggy veil had lifted from my mind, boosting me to a level of mental acuity and positivity that I never thought possible (though which was probably just what normal life with food feels like).

The science of fasting

Things are going to swerve into a bit of a science lesson here, so if you’re not interested it’s probably a good time to drop out. Also, my attorney advises me to state here that none of the following constitutes medical advice, and anything you decide to do, you do at your own risk. Happy hunting!

Firstly: starving is different to fasting. Starving means your body has entered crisis mode and started breaking down important tissues and organs for energy. Not good at all. The average healthy human, however, won’t enter starvation for many days, possibly even weeks.

After a decent meal most people will put away sufficient reserves of glycogen to last 12-16 hours without needing to eat anything. Glycogen – a big glob of tightly-packed glucose molecules – is your body’s preferred fuel and will always be used first. This means that if you never skip breakfast or dinner, you may never get through your glycogen reserves, and therefore never need to tap into your stored fat.

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Glycogen, which you have spent your entire life endlessly constructing and deconstructing and constructing and deconstructing.

If your glycogen ever runs out, e.g. during fasting, your body kicks into an alternative, evolutionarily ancient metabolic mode and starts mobilising stored fatty acids and certain amino acids to build glucose and ketone bodies. These compounds can cross the blood-brain barrier, making them useful fuels for neural cells. Note that the process of generating ketone bodies (“ketosis”) is completely benign and distinct from ketoacidosis, which is destructive and generally a result of uncontrolled diabetes.

Depending on body weight and composition, most human beings can survive for 30 or more days in the absence of food. (source)

Thirty days without food would almost certainly not be healthy or advisable. But the notion that we need to eat every day, let alone three meals a days, is false. Due to the high degree of variability in people’s physiology, there don’t seem to be any universal medical guidelines to how long a fast can be safely maintained. However, it’s illustrative that thousands of people have completed 5-40 day fasts without suffering long-term health problems. And despite 24 days on nothing but water, former NASA scientist Ray Cronise didn’t become deficient in a single micronutrient.

A mounting body of evidence is showing that occasional fasts are probably not just acceptable, but actually a great thing to do.

The best overview of the current fasting literature is probably this 2014 paper by Valter Longo, so check it out if you’d like the full biochemical nitty gritty. Some of the key findings from recent fasting studies are:

Caloric restriction increases lifespan. As the mortality curve below shows, when lab mice are allowed to eat as much as they like (‘ad libitum’), their average age at death is about 30 months. When calories are increasingly restricted however, their average lifespan increases up to a maximum of around 45 months. The inlaid graph shows that maximum as well as average lifespan decreases with extra calories.

survival

Weindruch and Sohal, New Engl J Med, 1997

In fact, restricting calories is the most robust and reproducible way of extending lifespan in lab animals – better than any drug or intervention yet discovered. The trick works for bacteria, yeast and worms too. Results in primates (usually Rhesus monkeys) are still forthcoming due to the long lifespan of these animals. However, preliminary results from one experiment show an increased chance of survival in calorie-restricted monkeys from 50% to 80%, while another experiment shows a reduction in death from age-related disease in calorie-restricted monkeys from 37% down to 13%.

We’ll probably never know for sure whether caloric restriction confers longevity in humans, because that experiment will probably never be done. But it’s a good bet that nature has programmed us the same way as all those lab species. Some of the best human longevity evidence comes from the so-called “Blue Zones“, human populations who lead the longest, healthiest lives on the planet. When Blue Zone diets are analysed, sure enough, they typically involve moderate caloric intake. (Interestingly, vegetarianism features heavily as well.)

longevity

So why does caloric restriction extend lifespan? A longstanding explanation has been that the mere process of metabolising food causes unavoidable oxidative damage to DNA and proteins, and this is what aging really is. However, two recent Cell Metabolism papers used a combination of mouse experiments and human epidemiological data to show that it is not all calories, but specifically protein intake that decreases lifespan and leads to age-related diseases like cancer. If you’re a biochem nerd, the effect appears to be mediated by the pro-growth IGF-1 and mTOR pathways.

What else is fasting ostensibly good for? Seemingly, just about everything. It’s actually dizzying trying to get your head around it all. In rodents, alternating days of feeding and fasting leads to the generation of new neurons, which is demonstrated by improved performance in tests of learning and consolidation. In mouse brain cancer models, intermittent fasting combined with chemotherapy resulted in long-term cancer-free survival, whereas both treatments in isolation failed. The proposed mechanism is fascinating. To simplify a little, fasting stresses cells and causes them to switch to a self-protection/survival mode where they conserve resources. Because cancer cells have lost the ability to do this, they misjudge and leap the other way, attempting to grow and synthesise ever more, and consequently “burn themselves out”. Clinical trials are currently testing whether this approach might work for human cancers.

In a human 10-day water fast study, hypertension was reduced by a potentially life-saving 37/13 mm Hg on average (even better were the results for people with the greatest hypertension, who dropped an average of 60/17 mm Hg). Fasting followed by switching to a vegetarian diet alleviates rheumatoid arthritis and pain in humans. The massive beneficial effects fasting has on metabolic disease markers, weight management and heart protection probably go without saying.

Conclusion

Having pored over an overwhelming number of fasting studies, my general impression is that this is still a young field of research, though massively ripe for exploration and an exciting space to watch in coming years. There are clearly health benefits out there to be had, and probably longevity benefits too, though it’s still far from clear how best to fast. How long for? How frequently? And I didn’t even mention all of the different types of fasting being explored: intermittent fasting, caloric restriction, prolonged fasting, restricted feeding window, 5/2, fast-mimicking diets, and so on.

While the best kind of fasting is still unclear, something I’m more confident of is that there may be no worst kind. That is to say, I didn’t come across a single study that had anything very bad at all to say about fasting. I’m sure it would be possible to get reckless and overdo things, but at the moment, the proven benefits seem to far outweigh any possible risks, at least for short fasts. Barely any human studies have investigated fasts of more than 2 or 3 days, so until more evidence comes out on that front (or until I develop rheumatoid arthritis or hypertension) I think I’ll avoid another lengthy stint on water, if for no other reason than how unpleasant it was. Conversely, there does seem to be good evidence that periodically burning through your glycogen stores is a healthy thing to do, so I will be aiming for the occasional shorter fast. Even if that just means skipping breakfast now and then.

 

Sources

The Vipassana Diaries

A couple of months back I shipped off to a leafy retreat to spend ten days in silence doing pretty much nothing but meditate. It sucked. It was magical. Here’s how it all went down.

Day 0: First impressions

The girls and boys stood in separate lines. This is as close as the genders would get for the duration of the retreat, a helpful policy for the easily distracted heteros in our midst; tough luck for everyone else. The guy at the registration desk looked up from my application form. His baseball cap read ‘Grateful Dad’. “Ooh, you do genetics? Just make sure you don’t go turning girls into boys and boys into girls, ok?” he joked. I laughed awkwardly.

Rumbling out of town in a run-down bus, heading for the retreat, a friendly young Nepalese guy in a tracksuit struck up conversation with me. He was about to start working for the government as a lawyer, he told me, and attending the retreat was part of a compulsory training programme. Vipassana would teach them morality.

We arrived at the meditation centre, located high an a mountainside overlooking the city. It was leafy with flowery gardens and meandering paths that connected the various dorms and meditation halls. A golden stupa perched higher up the mountain glowed in the sunlight. Signs dotted around the retreat, baring instructions such as “Please do not pass this point”, “Noble silence!” and “Place shoes on the rack” inevitably ended with the cheery postscript “Be happy!”. This struck me as weirdly passive aggressive, but in days to come I found them surprisingly reassuring during periods of frustration.

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Final dungeon?

After surrendering wallets, phones, books, passports, pens – everything potentially interesting – we were directed to our dorms and… that was it. No further instructions were given. My room mate hadn’t yet arrived, so after I unpacked I decided to head outside and explore. I soon felt like I was in a video game. There was no way to measure time, no normal life tasks or objectives in the back of my mind, no reason to talk to anyone (we would all soon be under vows of silence, so I figured I might as well start now).

The sense of exploratory freedom soon mutated however into a more rat-in-a-cage vibe. The domain to roam was actually tiny. I had to spend the next ten days in a three-minute walking radius?

As night fell we were finally admitted to the main teaching hall, taking our vows of silence as we did so. This meant not just mouth silence, but silence of body, speech and mind. We weren’t to communicate by any means, not by gesture or word or even eye contact.

Plot twist: Buddhism! All up in this meditation technique! A booming recording of the voice of S. N. Goenka, the deceased Burmese businessman-cum-meditation-teacher who spread Vipassana to the rest of the world, explained a bunch of things:

  • We were obliged to chant our agreement with the “three jewels” of Buddhism: the Buddha, the teachings and the community. Quite a few Sanskrit words started being bandied about around this point, but I’ll stick to the English equivalents to avoid obfuscation.
  • To my relief, this agreement actually meant agreement with the essence of those things – insightfulness and compassion and such – and not anything worship-like or supernatural.
  • We also had to chant-agree to live by the five Buddhist precepts for the duration of the retreat. The precepts are incidentally perfectly Christiany and Jewy and Muslimy too: no stealing, killing, lying, sex or drugs. Living in this way would ostensibly help build a base of morality. Or something. It wasn’t entirely clear at this point.

Back in my room that night I finally got to meet my room mate. Well, sort of. He was a large balding man, probably in his 30s. I didn’t know his name. The instructions hadn’t been entirely clear, but it sounded like we weren’t supposed to look at each other. I became mildly obsessed with him over the coming days. He had huge gothic writing tattooed across his forearms in a language I didn’t know. What did it mean? Who was he?

But that first night, lying in the dark sensing a stranger across the room, the nagging sensation I got was of sharing my room with a ghost, some spirit from a parallel dimension slightly out of sync with mine. We couldn’t speak or even look directly at each other, but if we peeked out of the corners of our eyes, we knew there was some other being there. If we entered the same physical space, would we pass right through each other?

 

Day 1: Badlands

Technique: Nose breathing

I was awakened in the clutching darkness of 4am by a distant gong. I sleepily dressed and struggled down to the meditation hall along with my ghost to join the ~200 others in spending the next two hours focusing on nothing but the breath flowing in and out of my nostrils. Bluuuurgh. I was exhausted, soon super hungry, and sitting on a cushion wasn’t working. I could only hold a position for about five minutes before my aching hips necessitated a shift. My ghost was on the cushion in front of me and sat there cross-legged, peaceful and completely motionless.

Dark thoughts enveloped me, thoughts I don’t normally have. Crippling pessimism, anxiety that circled round and round on itself, fear. I entirely forgot that I was meant to be monitoring my breathing. After about five hours had passed (surely it had been five hours), the situation worsened: a recording started playing of Goenka doing this weird chant-singing in Hindi. It meandered, briefly hitting a strong resonant note, waivering unpredictably to some other random pitch, then plummeting to an obnoxious gravelly flapping of his epiglottis. It sounded awful. Worse yet: I soon learnt it would play every day for a full half hour at the end of each session (I calculated the duration by counting how many times I breathed throughout the singing [360] then counting my breaths per minute [18] on an outside wall clock. Little experiments like this kept me sane.)

I began wondering what the hell I was doing there. Had I stumbled into some kind of cult?

Once the gong rang though and we filed out to the dawning day and got some food ingested, my mood changed immensely. I guess to some extent I was just hangry. Ok, maybe it wasn’t a cult after all.

The meditation sessions dragged on into the afternoon, one hour, two hours, small breaks in between, mind constantly wandering, one thought triggering another triggering another – crap! supposed to be monitoring breathing – a breath, a breath, a breath, back into thoughts again without noticing, ow ow knees, shift position.

In between sessions guys sat around blandly, doing nothing. The most nothing-y sitting I’ve seen. Because there was truly nothing to do. I was reminded of stray dogs lying around gormlessly, minds completely empty. During those first few breaks I strolled restlessly around the small grounds, desperate for movement. Or I stretched desperately, trying to prepare my joints for the next session. Or if the break was long enough, I napped desperately. Our schedule only allowed 6½ hours of sleep per night and I was pooped.

During one such afternoon nap, a strangely vivid notion arose in my half-waking mind: what if I was dead? And this was actually purgatory? There seemed plenty of clues. The way we all drifted past each other, ghost-like. The lack of traffic sounds from anywhere. The confined grounds and the misty white emptiness where the view of the city should’ve been, as though this were a simulated mini-world. Why had I signed up for this again? Did I actually remember the bus ride here, or had my mind just invented it? What if the purpose of all the meditation was to come to terms with how we’d died and what we’d done in life, a kind of cleansing of the soul before moving on?

thesixthsense

Pull yourself together, I thought. If you continue down weird thought paths like this you could be very unhinged indeed by the end of the course.

That afternoon, seven hours of meditation in, the point of the breathing was finally explained. We were using it, apparently, to hone our focus. We would be honing this focus sharper and sharper each day. After seven clueless hours of thinking about my nostrils and feeling like nothing useful was happening, this was tremendously exciting: a sense of purpose!

That evening we got our first theory lecture, via an amusingly badly produced video from the ’90s, and our first look at Goenka.

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Despite the laughably crappy production values, in our stimulus-starved existence I was riveted to every word he said. He mostly waxed Buddhist philosophy, peppering the discourse with miscellaneous parables and tales from his experiences in India. He eventually explained that the next day we would be observing which of our nostrils the breath was coming out of more strongly – progression!

And so Vipassana became an unfolding mystery. I didn’t know what the final truth was or where we were heading or really what I was hoping to discover, but each day a little bit more of the puzzle would be revealed, bringing us closer and closer to our true goal.

Want to hear the rest of the story? Join up for the mailing list above right, and never miss a post!

 

The Neuroscience of Juggling

Over the past few years a slew of news outlets have been singing the cognitive benefits of learning to juggle. If one is to believe the hype, this ancient circus activity will increase your brain powermake your brain bigger (permanently, no less), and may even prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Dang.

Can there be any truth to these heady claims, or is it another case of the media committing that most egregious of sins: distorting science for the sake of a catchy headline? Here we plunge into the literature and investigate what has actually been shown experimentally.  Continue reading

A Handy Guide to the Meaning of Life

For some lucky people, existential dread is no problem. Either they have religion to give their life a sense of meaning, or they find satisfaction in some pursuit, maybe hedonism or creative expression or trying to take over the world. Or they just never think about it.

For the rest of us though, oh the existential dread. The curse of modern life is having to find your own meaning. Unlike in simpler times when there were prophets and seers and such to explain the mystery of it all, there are now no signs pointing the way, and most educational systems don’t touch the topic.

Luckily, countless clever people have thought about this question and offered detailed answers, and we get to pick which one(s) we like best! So here is a by no means exhaustive overview of takes on the meaning of life, in a vague order of sorts. Each one comes with a recommended text for further reading and a totem Pokémon. You’re welcome.

Note: The section on Dice living was amended on 13/3/16. The article originally asserted incorrectly that the author was a psychologist and that the novel was based on, rather than inspired by, real life dice experimentation.

1. Nihilism

0l_r8sm_-o2iuwck0

Nihilism says that life has no intrinsic meaning, purpose or value. You – actually the entire species – are insignificant and unspecial. Morality is an arbitrary human construct.

Various responses to these facts are acceptable and reasonable, including: despair, depression, starting a network of secret underground fighting clubs, and delighting in amoral anarchy.

Bleak. Would not recommend.

Further reading: Chuck Palahniuk – Fight Club
Totem Pokémon: Gloom

 

2. Existentialism

manivelu-dws-existentialism-symbol_ful

An incredibly complex and diverse field of philosophical discourse, but in a nutshell, nihilism without the helplessness. Yes, life is intrinsically meaningless, but a person can create values and meaning for themself. Your existence precedes everything, including your essence (i.e. character, goals etc.). Therefore, you get to direct these things. Take responsibility, live passionately and authentically, and forge a path for yourself.

Further reading: Jean-Paul Satre – L’existentialisme est un humanisme (“Existentialism is a Humanism”)
Totem Pokémon: Eevee, for its ability to evolve in many different directions

 

 

3. Absurdism

punishment_sisyph

 

Philosophically, the Absurd is the tension between humankind’s deep need for meaning in the universe, and the universe’s insistent apparent lack of meaning. Absurdism is existentialism for those who can’t shake the little cynical voice that keeps pointing out that, whatever purpose you choose for yourself, the universe is still inscrutable and probably meaningless and ahhhh!

One can try to escape the Absurd by committing suicide – but this is not particularly fruitful – or by pretending they know the meaning of life (or don’t need one) – but this is dishonest, so-called ‘philosophical suicide’. The only possible response therefore is to embrace the Absurd. Sure, choose some purpose for yourself, but never forget that there’s nothing intrinsically meaningful about it. Revel in the confusing apparent pointlessness of life and you may just find some freedom.

Further reading: Albert Camus – The Myth of Sisyphus
Totem Pokémon: Magikarp, for futilely just splashing away and never expecting anything more

 

4. Bokononism

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The Bokononist ritual of Boko-maru, the mingling of souls.

“All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.”

Why get all hung up on truth? Self-deception is fine if it leads you to be brave, kind and happy. Screw those 20th century virtues of honesty and authenticity.

Bokononism is a religion invented by Kurt Vonnegut that teaches that all religions (including Bokononism) are nothing but lies. It further asserts that people are arranged into invisible teams which work blindly towards some divine goal. You will never find out for sure who is in your team or what your goal is. Happiness is more important than truth. Everything that happens was always meant to happen. Also, it is very wrong not to love everyone exactly the same, and the only sacred thing is mankind (not even god).

See also: Pragmatism.

Further reading: Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle
Totem Pokémon: Ditto, for its willingness to shift shape into anything useful

 

5. Humanism

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Start with a base of uncaring-empty-cosmos Nihilism, mix in the lovey human-centric values of Bokononism, and replace the fake religion with a healthy dose of science and rationality. Voila, humanism!

Humanism holds that we arose by unguided evolution, and knowledge comes from experimentation and rational analysis. Values can be determined from intelligent inquiry into human needs and experience. Let’s all lead ethical lives, work for the greater good of the species and help everyone reach their potential. Let’s even look after animals as much as possible. The meaning of life question may just disappear when one is fully engaged in a free, fruitful and altruistic existence.

See also: Utilitarianism

Further reading: American Humanist Association – Humanist Manifesto III
Totem Pokémon: Chansey

 

6. Dice Living

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“Why did children seem to be so often spontaneous, joy-filled and concentrated while adults seemed controlled, anxiety-filled and diffused? It was the Goddam sense of having a self.”

Maybe the real issue is not finding meaning in the world but finding our true selves. Inspired by the author’s real life experiments with dice-based decision-making, this philosophy argues that we are not a single cohesive self, but rather complex multi-faceted creatures. Within all of us lurks a poet, a murderer, a lover and a lunatic, and they demand expression. However, as we go through life a single aspect of our personality tends to seize power and come to dominate and repress all the other selves, leaving us incomplete and stifled.

The solution is to live by the Dice. Whenever you’re faced with a decision, think of the first six things that come to mind – however socially unacceptable, weird or even immoral they might be – then roll a die to determine which option you take. Sure, living like this for very long will take you down a chaotic rabbit-hole of increasingly illegal and immoral ridiculousness. But maybe a dash of that is just what you need.

Further reading: Luke Rhinehart – The Dice Man
Totem Pokémon: Dotrio, for its triple-headed identity crisis

 

7. Theravada Buddhism

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Buddhism also holds that the sense of being a single self is an illusion. Buddhism also likes lists: the 3 marks of existence, 4 Noble Truths, Eightfold path, 7 hindrances, 5 precepts, and on and on. All these are tools to an end though, and needn’t carry any religious or supernatural beliefs.

One of Buddha’s great insights was figuring out the hedonic treadmill. Long before psychologists started demonstrating it empirically, Buddha realised that nothing brings lasting happiness. The human psyche is set up to acclimatise to circumstances, whatever they may be, so it’s extremely difficult not to start taking things for granted and have them become the new normal. Not only that, but lots of unpleasant things inevitably happen in everyone’s life: injury, sickness, loss, aging. So Buddha says: jump off the silly treadmill. By following the Eightfold path, one can ostensibly achieve a “blowing out” of desire, see reality for what it really is, and find a deep bliss in mere existence.

Further reading: Walpola Rahula – What the Buddha Taught
Totem Pokémon: Snorlax. It sleeps the carefree slumber of a liberated mind

 

8. Zen Buddhism

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By its very nature, Zen is extremely difficult to write about. Evolving as a later school of Buddhism after Theravada, Zen posits that language (and by extension conscious thought, which works via language) misconstrues reality. Language breaks reality into a linear sequence of symbolic representations of things (words), but each word is an imperfect simplification of that which it seeks to capture. “Table” comes nowhere near capturing the complexity or specifics of any given table. Furthermore, reality is not a linear sequence, but rather happens all at once constantly. For these reasons, we can’t understand reality or life by thinking about them. Trying to find the meaning to life with thought is therefore impossible. Zen instead prescribes a series of “riddles” designed to break the grip of the conscious mind, freeing the individual to experience sheer reality  as it is. In this state of pure experience lies liberation and truth, the closest we can get to meaning.

Further reading: Alan Watts – The Way of Zen
Totem Pokémon: Shellder. As a bivalve mollusc it presumably lacks a central nervous system, and therefore can’t commit the error of trying to understand reality by thinking about it

 

And that’s it!

All book hyperlinks go not to Amazon but to Betterworldbooks.com. Better World Books is an astounding social enterprise that has donated over 17 million books to people in need. They fund literacy programmes in the developing world, provide literacy grants, recycle books and carbon offset all their shipping and operations. So if you ever again buy a physical book online, make them your first port of call.

Thanks to my brother for sharing his brain’s startlingly detailed knowledge of Pokémon. He writes award winning Harry Potter fan fiction if that’s your cup of tea.

Subscribe to the mailing list (top right), like the Facebook page, and see you next month!

How to Improve your Crappy Memory – With Evidence!

It’s a fact universally acknowledged that physical fitness can be trained, and that this is a healthy and clever thing to do. What is less often considered is that mental fitness can also be trained. And luckily for us, we live in an age when we have the science to point us in the right direction!

Before we dive into the following techniques, it’s worth pointing out that learning is really just the process of acquiring memories. As such, some of these tricks will address the acquisition phase of memory (learning), and others will address the retention phase (remembering). Learning a physical skill involves a similar neurological process to learning information, so that might come up too.

Continue reading

Pixar’s Inside Out: children’s films, moral psychology and neurospirituality

My mum likes to remind me how, as a little kid, I cried in the movie Bambi when Bambi’s mother gets killed by the hunter. Looking back, it feels like it may have been one of my most salient developmental moments. Bambi was a kid just like me, a massive mummy’s boy just like me, and I probably didn’t have much of a concept of death up until that point. Maybe Bambi was the very first time I realised that loved ones don’t stay with us forever.

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Shortly thereafter The Lion King came out, and because of my brother’s massive obsession, I was dragged to see it at the cinema three times. It’s hard to mount a compelling defence for staying home alone when you don’t even have armpit hair to back you up. For all my protesting though, the movie touched me deeply. I hated the dastardly Scar. I probably cried every single time I had to watch young Simba hopefully nudging the lifeless body of his father. (I recently re-watched The Lion King for the first time in over a decade, and I still cried when Mufasa died. Whatever. It’s sad!)

Seeing animals lose parents is distressing, and so is seeing evil triumph over good. These are very simple moral messages that anyone can relate to, even prepubescent kids. We’ll return to this point shortly.

Fast forward to 2015, and the latest children’s blockbuster is Pixar’s Inside Out. If you haven’t yet seen it yet, bookmark this page and go watch it ASAP. It received a rating of 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, plus it’s Pixar so you already knew it would be good. Also, spoilers be coming.

The film follows the development of an American girl named Riley from birth until the age of 11. That sounds kind of dull, and it possibly would be if it weren’t for the twist: Riley is only a surrogate protagonist. The real action takes place inside her brain, where a bunch of anthropomorphised emotions – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger – caper and banter and ultimately control all of Riley’s thoughts via a “cognition” control panel.

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The gang at the control panel: Anger, Envy, Joy, Fear and Sadness

The film colourfully explores other aspects of Ripley’s cognition such as memory formation and loss, abstract reasoning and dreaming. The narrative is delightfully engaging, but the most significant aspect of Inside Out is an implicit message it carries which is both surprisingly scientifically accurate and spiritually profound, as well as representing a major advancement in the broad moral history of children’s films. Before we get to what it is –

The broad moral history of children’s films

There are many ways in which humans are socialised and morally wired during their developmental years. Obvious influences include school, parents and religious teachings. However, it’s possible to overlook the significant role played by stories, including those told in TV shows and movies. Humans are powerfully predisposed to respond to stories. This is why they are heavily exploited in marketing and may account for why one death can be a tragedy when a million is just a statistic. The stories told in movies, and their moral messages, may truly affect people’s long-term world views.

For example, I grew up on a diet of Bambi, Captain Planet and Pokemon. These days I’m a vegetarian environmentalist with a weird compulsion for collecting sets of things. Coincidence, or something more significant?

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Could they be any less subliminal?

If it’s true that children’s films can have a meaningful impact on moral development—and admittedly this is extremely difficult to demonstrate experimentally—then we might have more cause for optimism about the upcoming generation than we realise.

The popular children’s films of the past few decades (almost of them Disney) are extremely diverse in the situations and moral issues they address. Compare Sleeping Beauty with Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid with Aladdin, etc). For all their diversity though, a few underlying themes stand out to me as pretty much constant:

  1. There is a clear delineation between good and evil characters. There is never any doubt that Captain Hook, Ursula the Sea Witch and Jafar are baddies. They look evil and everything they do is evil. A motive isn’t necessarily needed for being a baddie; some characters just are that way.
  2. Old timey gender roles. This one is a bit obvious since movies are products of their times, but it bears consideration nonetheless. A heterosexual romance is almost always involved, it’s generally a male protagonist who saves the day, and it’s always happily and monogamously ever after.

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Along with a slew of other moral values such as individualism and self-reliance, these are the messages that the previous generations grew up hearing. And, these are the generations now controlling governments and institutions the world over: governments that base foreign policies on a concept of evil baddies, and institutions that fail to see the justice in marriage equality.

Something happened in the past decade though to take children’s film morality in a radically new direction, and that something is largely Pixar. Check out the following major releases:

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The issues explored in these films are so much more complex than those of 20th century Disney, it’s hard to overstate it. Compared to narratives based on good defeating evil and old timey gender roles, consider the messages these films might be sending:

WALL-E

Humans run the risk of rendering Earth uninhabitable, mindless consumption strips people of their humanity, artificially intelligence machines may one day possess every bit as much humanity as humans do—or conversely, they might enslave us through an innocuous mistake in their programming (see: the paper-clip maximiser and Wait But Why’s The AI Revolution)

Up

Even in the best case scenario of marriage and happily ever after, there will still be hardships such as miscarriages and death, if you’re not careful it’s possible to go your whole life neglecting to ever pursue your dreams, old people can also do interesting things, scientists tend to get tiresomely hung up on their life’s work

Frozen

Even loving healthy relationships can deteriorate because of personal burdens, there is such thing as moral ambiguity! (people can have reasons and experiences that lead them to destructive behaviour), there are also charismatic sociopaths to watch out for who can seem benign at first, girls can save the day just fine without the help of a prince

And now along comes Inside Out, taking things to a whole new level again by exploring one of the deepest moral and existential issues there is: neurospirituality.

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The neurospirituality of Inside Out

If you’ve never heard of neurospirituality before, it’s essentially an ever-expanding intersection of agreement between the radically unrelated fields of neuroscience and spirituality. It considers the neuroscientific basis of spiritual experiences such as meditation and contemplation of the Self. The term neurospirituality seems to have been coined in this 2005 journal article, which predictably and annoyingly is hidden behind a pay wall (but that’s a conversation for another day).

It turns out that neuroscience and spirituality are by no means as incompatible as one might assume. Both seek to understand human consciousness—that voice in our head that we call our “Self”. One discipline does it externally and experimentally, while the other does it internally and experientially. To find out what the neurospiritual view of Self is, there may be no easier and more enjoyable way than by watching Inside Out.

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Long-term memory: damn daunting when you see the scope of it

The film repeatedly cuts back and forth between Riley in the physical world, where she plays and interacts like any normal child, and the inside of her brain, where we see that her every thought and emotion is actually triggered by some anthropomorphised emotion pulling a lever or fiddling with a memory. All the emotions and other characters inside her brain have unique personalities and interests which frequently conflict and undermine each other.

Early in Riley’s life, Joy manages to hold sway over the other emotions and Riley’s infancy is consequently mostly happy. As Riley matures and things start to go wrong in the physical world though, emotions like Sadness and Anger wrest more time for themselves at the control panel of her consciousness. This directly directs Riley’s feelings and behaviours. In addition to all this, dream monsters and imaginary childhood friends get up to trouble in other parts on her brain, and mischievous maintenance workers in her long-term memory repeatedly trigger an annoying ad jingle, setting Riley to humming the jingle in the real world.

Let’s consider these plot devices from both the neuroscientific and spiritual angles.

The neuroscientific angle

The science in Inside Out is excellent, and was achieved by Pixar following in the footsteps of Interstellar and conferring with actual scientists in storyboarding the film. This is a practice we will hopefully see a lot more of in the near future.

Every day of Riley’s life, hundreds of memories form. When she goes to sleep at night, these memories are siphoned away and either stored in her labyrinthine long-term memory or discarded into a pit of forgetting. This accurately reflects the critical role that sleep plays in memory consolidation. Even memories that make it to Riley’s long-term memory aren’t safe indefinitely, as old ones that she stops caring about gradually fade to grey and get dumped, just as in a real brain. In one giggle-inducing moment, several containers of facts and opinions get knocked over and jumbled together, something we probably all do more often than we care to admit.

An interesting decision was to depict Riley’s emotions as gendered: Joy is female, Fear is male etc. While the producers surely couldn’t have known this at the time, a landmark brain imaging study just published found that “human brains are comprised of unique ‘mosaics’ of features, some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males compared with females.” I.e. most people’s brains really are mishmashes of typically male and female parts, regardless of their biological sex. Whichever part of the brain is responsible for fear (and it may not be the amygdala after all), it’s now completely plausible that an 11 year-old girl could have a ‘male’ Fear character.

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Not all the brain’s workings in Inside Out are depicted entirely accurately. Perhaps most misleading is the portrayal of memories as self-contained and immutable¹, rather than conceptually linked and constantly being rewritten. But Inside Out fundamentally aims to be a fun children’s movie, and by that metric the science is superb.

For all its cute and clever explorations of cognitive processes, Inside Out‘s most profound message is this: there is no single ‘Self’ controlling Riley’s consciousness. There is no ‘Riley’ inside her own head, no character that could be described as her will or volition. Riley’s mind is a plurality. Thoughts, feelings and memories pop up because one of the characters in her brain decided unilaterally to make it happen. And this is exactly how neuroscience thinks the brain works.

Do you feel like a unified Self? If so, you might like to read about some experiments that have been conducted in patients with the two hemispheres of their brain severed, so-called “split-brain” patients. In these subjects, it appears that the two halves of their brain can process information independently, have separate desires, and even reach moral judgements differently. If this is how the brain works, which one is the real ‘you’? Or consider this Nature article, which concludes that “different mental processes are mediated by different brain regions, and there is nothing to suggest the existence of any central controller”. All of our minds are pluralities with no core Self to be found.

While this may seem an uncomfortable concept, what does spirituality have to say about the matter?

The spiritual angle

According to spiritual teachings stretching back 2500 years to the time of Buddha, the Self (that thing in your mind that feels like ‘you’) is an illusion. It is actually a stream of spontaneously arising thoughts and feelings that your mind clumps together and erroneously interprets as a unified persisting identity.

While the growing accessibility of scientific ideas to the general public has been a wonderful advancement for humanity, one distasteful side-effect has been New Agey spiritualists co-opting and misrepresenting these ideas. In the case of neurospirituality though it’s the other way around: science is co-opting a spiritual concept, or at least happily supporting it.

One of the three core tenets of Buddhism is No-Self, a believe which, as we’ve just seen, has been supported by the latest neuroscientific findings. As noted by Quartz, “Some scientific researchers have recently started to reference and draw on the Eastern religion [Buddism] in their work—and have come to accept theories that were first posited by Buddhist monks thousands of years ago.”

Think about that. Way before a single living human being had any clue that heliocentricity or DNA or neurons or sporks could be things—back before anyone even knew that the freaking planet was round—Buddha was relaxing under a tree pointing out a neuroscientific truth that it’s taken us until now to confirm.

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“No biggie, you’re welcome.”

(Interestingly, the other core tenets of Buddhism are Impermanence, which agrees eerily well with quantum mechanics and Suffering, perhaps better translated as “lack of lasting satisfactoriness”, which recapitulates the observed psychological phenomenon of the hedonic treadmill. Either Buddha landed some crazy lucky guesses, or there really must be something to meditation huh?)

So, with children’s cinema kicking off in 1937 with Snow White, which features a cheery outlook on what would today be deemed sexual assault, almost 80 years later we’ve arrived at Inside Out, which explores the profoundest neuroscientific and spiritual insights yet achieved by humankind.

The social significance

While this may be well and good, an obvious question is: will children even be able to understand it? The concept of an absence of Self is, after all, supremely unintuitive and difficult even for highly educated adults to grasp. Will children be able to draw the connection between Riley’s haphazardly emergent consciousness and their own?

One of the psychologists who advised the creators of Inside Out gives a touching example of just such a case:

“I got an email from a mom who took her highly functioning autistic boy to the movie, and seeing the movie was the first time that this young guy had insight into his emotional difficulty. He said: “Mom, I know I have anger, fear, and disgust, but I really struggle with sadness and joy—I don’t know where they are.” And she said it was their breakthrough moment.”

It would be fascinating to find out how many children interpreted the film so literally or found similar personal relevance in it. If you too have a child who has seen Inside Out, please leave a comment below about their response.

Finally, what would the ramifications be of a society that broadly understood and accepted the truth of No Self? Well, a lack of Self is very closely related to concepts such as determinism and there being no such thing as free will, so we may see an upsurge in these beliefs. While many people find such ideas superficially scary, public figures such as Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have argued elegantly for why they needn’t be: Even if you were always destined to do every single thing that you do done, it still feels as though you’re in control. You can still act, plan, exercise compassion, learn etc. There’s no reason to resort to apathy or fatalism.

One likely policy shift in such a society would regard the criminal justice system. A lack of free will removes any rational justification for shaming or punishment, at least on moral grounds². The justice system could form policies based of pure pragmatism: how can we most effectively deter crime? Given the predispositions of this or that criminal cognitively, is rehabilitation and reintegrate into society possible? If so, how can it most effectively be achieved?

*       *       *

One children’s film won’t single-handedly launch a spiritual and cultural revolution. But shifts in values and world views can and do gradually occur with the changing moral zeitgeist. And with such excellent influences as WALL-E, Up, Frozen and Inside Out becoming increasingly commonplace (especially amongst little humans who are still compiling their moral frameworks), it’s hard not to get a tiny bit excited for the future of civilisation.

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¹In Inside Out the main emotion associated with a memory can change, but the details of the event seem to be kept constant

²This doesn’t mean punishments wouldn’t still be used, but that the rationalisation would be different, and likely also the execution. Punishment would only be seen as justified or useful insofar as it influenced future behaviours.

All Your Favourite Drugs Exist Thanks To… Insects?

Well, maybe not your *favourite* drugs, depending what you’re into. But it’s true: the existence of many of the most popular drugs on the planet can be traced directly back to insects.

This includes nicotine, cocaine, possibly cannabis (with a fuzzy asterisk), and of course the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world: caffeine.

Coffee is the second most highly traded commodity globally, losing out only to crude oil. 500 billion cups are consumed every year – an average of 70 cups for every man, woman and child. As a species we’re junkies for it.

Pretty much everyone everywhere.

So why are psychoactive compounds, A.K.A. drugs, so appealing? The answer lies in how they work. Once inside our bodies, psychoactives slip mischievously inside our brains and start fiddling around with the control panel. Different psychoactives fiddle in different ways, but something the popular ones all have in common is that they tend to crank up the happiness dial.

Many of these popular drugs, from caffeine to cocaine, were invented by plants. But why did they do this? Plants don’t have happiness knobs to be twiddled by drugs, and they’re definitely not just out to give us humans kicks. And how do insects come into the picture?

To properly understand this tale, we’ll have to travel 450 million years back in time, trace the progression of a brutal conflict that has claimed more lives than the entire history of human warfare, and finish by shrinking down to gaze at the very foundations of consciousness itself.

Hold on tight, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

In the Beginning…

The majestic Planet Earth, 450 million years ago in the late Ordovician period:

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Well, something like this. Maybe.

The first multicellular organisms to blob up onto land were sluggish low-lying plants that looked pretty much like modern day mosses and liverworts. And for a while, that’s all there was.

For those stunted critters, this brave new rocky world above the roiling sea must have seemed an idyllic paradise. Vast stretches of land awaited colonisation, the air was heady with CO2, and there wasn’t a predator to speak of. Alas, it wasn’t to last.

When we hear the word “herbivore”, we usually think of sizable mammals like cows and rabbits and giraffes. But plants have a far more ancient, insidious, and destructive foe. More than 200 million years before evolution wobbled out its first half-arsed proto-rat, there were insects.

By raw numbers, insects are the most successful branch of life of all time, boasting an estimated 6-10 million species. Four “super-radiations” have been particularly virile: beetles, moths, wasps and flies. These types of insect alone make up the majority of animal life on Earth.

Back in the Ordovician though, it was a different story. Much like early plants, the first insects were actually kind of crappy.

They were probably scavengers or predators, feeding on decaying organic matter and each other. They also weren’t particularly mobile. It would take evolution 70 million years to puzzle out how to build wings, so these early pioneers were stuck with crawling and walking to get around.

It wasn’t long though before something clicked, and the early insects turned their prehistoric compound eyes to the untapped treasure lying at their (numerous) feet: a delicious, stationary and completely undefended food source.

The Never-Ending War

Those first few centuries must have been a gustatory massacre: hordes of rampaging insects feasting on the soft succulent vegetation.

But plants fought back. They diversified, developing intricate vein-like vascular tissue that allowed them to grow larger and migrate inland. Insects followed, and responded by evolving Sap Suckers, fiendish vampires who could stab into the plants and drink their very fluids. This one keeps its enormous proboscis tucked back under its body:

Plants began secreting waxy coatings to make their leaves slippery and harder to penetrate. Marauding proto-aphids toppled hundreds of times their body height to the ground.

Insect forms multiplied, and one lineage decided to get into the mining business, adapting their bodies to best burrow into leaves, submerging themselves in a giddy world of pure deliciousness. Plants retaliated, developing machinery to sacrifice infected leaves and toss them scornfully to the ground, curled and brown.

The battle was well and truly under way.

Plants reinforced their critical systems – stems and seeds – with tough fibres that gradually evolved into woody bark and shells. Insects found ways to keep pace by strengthening their mandibles. Worse yet for plants, a strain of Leaf Miners mutated themselves into a grotesque new foe: Plant Borers. These creatures were able to burrow not just into leaves but directly into stems, roots and even the precious seeds.

Life force battled hard against life force. Ecosystems diversified and increased in complexity as military innovation piled up upon military innovation. Bizarre alien forests rolled across the Earth as the Ordovician Period faded into the Silurian, which in turn faded into the Devonian. And all the while, inexorably, the death toll crept higher.

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A Devonian forest, courtesy of http://www.fossilmuseum.net

About 406 million years ago, insects finally mastered flight. Having wings transformed their world from essentially flatland into a rich 3-dimensional environment of endless possibilities. Migration and innovation boomed, and with it insects differentiated into a dizzying array of never-before seen forms.

During the next 60 million years most modern orders of species came into existence. Early winged arthropods included crickets and the elegant predatory dragonflies. And soon enough, there were beetles.

Beetles are so endlessly varied that they alone account for 30% of all animal species in existence. As the evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane summed it up:

“The Creator, if He exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

Shortly afterwards, beetles were joined by wasps, moths and flies, and the four super-radiations were loosed upon the world – a beautiful insect evolutionary tree can be found here. It seemed that insect domination over plants was assured.

In a final twist of the plot, in this harsh prehistoric world when all seemed lost, plants stumbled upon a way to turn the tide of the war. They would transform insects’ greatest strength – mobility – into their greatest weakness. Plants invented chemical warfare.

Insects aren’t just gifted with movement; they are dependent upon it to do anything – to find food, to escape predators or to reproduce. Movement requires the coordinated use of multiple systems: powerful flight muscles, machinery for vision, advanced aerial navigation equipment. And all of these systems are plugged directly into a brain.

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Behold: Flybrain

Plants began producing toxic compounds called allelochemicals to attack insect brains. Any insect eating a plant would have to eat its allelochemicals too. These toxins would then seep into its brain and start messing with the delicate movement systems. Insects would either have a seizure and die from energy depletion, or become paralysed and be eaten by predators.

What do these deadly allelochemicals looks like? Examples include nicotine, caffeine and cocaine.

As always in evolutionary wars, insects responded, this time by developing resistances. But the cost was great. Many species were forced to become specialists, living on only a narrow range of plants whose poisons they could tolerate. Some probably failed to adapt altogether.

Insects and plants dug into the trenches, so to speak, and gradually, over a long period, the conflict settled into a kind of equilibrium. The two ancient enemies constantly refined their poisons and resistances, their weapons and armour, but neither ever again gained a real upper hand over the other. Eventually some plants and insects even set aside their differences and, with their powers combined, forged one of nature’s all-time greatest collaborations: flowering plants and pollinators.

And what about us mammals? Millions of years passed in this period of plant-insect equilibrium; amphibians arose; reptiles arose; and finally, some time in the early Triassic, the very first mammals peeled away from reptiles to launch our own evolutionary journey of diversification and warfare. We sure were latecomers to the party though. By this point, insects and plants had been at each other for 200 million years.

Now, to finally answer the mystery about drugs, it’s time to go…

Inside the Mind Itself

To understand how brains work, it’s surprisingly useful to look at how computers are built. Computers are essentially big networks of logic gates connected by wires. If you’re not familiar with them, logic gates take in two signals and use them to output one signal. The signals can be either ‘on or ‘off‘, and different types of logic gate behave differently.

An OR logic gate outputs on when either input is on.
Think: “I’ll go out with my friends if either mum or dad says I’m allowed to.”

An AND logic gate outputs on when both its inputs are on.
Think: “I’ll only clean my room if both mum and dad make me.”

With enough logic gates strung together, computers are able to carry out the endless complex operations that we tell them to.

Brains work is a remarkably similar way, using neurons instead of wires. There are two major differences though:

  • Neurons aren’t limited to just two inputs, and instead can receive signals from up to hundreds of other neurons
  • Neurons communicate on and off signals using neurotransmitters, tiny molecules that substitute for electricity

So really, a brain is just a (mind-bogglingly complex) tangle of neurons that form an astronomical number of logic gates. These logic gates are endlessly being bombarded with neurotransmitters carrying on and off signals. Logic gates rapidly read these inputs, process them into their own on or off signal, and fire it onwards, from neuron to neuron, logic gate to logic gate, racing and rippling and splitting and looping around, all in a vast never-ending neurotransmitter Yin-Yang sea of Dos and Don’ts, of ons and offs.

And through this process, we control every minuscule aspect of our existences: breathing, feeling, moving and consciousness itself.

Plant allelochemicals, A.K.A. psychoactive drugs, work by mimicking insect neurotransmitters. They screw up the fine Yin-Yang balance of signalling, either by sending an unregulated blast of ON, or freezing the system with a wave of OFF. Enough allelochemical and the insect dies from either seizure or paralysis.

Humans are very distant cousins of insects, around 500 million years distant, and we use many of the same neurotransmitters. However, with so much time apart, our brains have obviously evolved down separate paths, and our logic gates are made somewhat differently. Because of our shared ancestry with insects, plant drugs designed to attack insects can still affect us, but only in a weak and wobbly kind of way. If allelochemicals are like a bolt of lightning to insects, we get a warm shower of sparks.

Also unlike insects, we have the unintended benefit of having evolved pleasure centres in our brains. It is one of nature’s great chemical coincidences that, just as no one predicted that aspartame would be sweet, or that angina medication would cause whopping erections, plants never imagined that their anti-insect drugs would be great at turning up the happiness dials of distant future humans.

So next time you’re enjoying your morning cup of java, maybe spare a thought for the countless poor insects who gave their lives in order that we may have our buzz.

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