Transmission

To whomever or whatever may be receiving this,

It is with great pleasure that we great you. In truth, our decision to transmit this signal into the vastness of space was made with a high degree of uncertainty as to whether any suitable beings even existed within its light cone to act as recipients. If your cognition is oriented so as to derive a sense of pleasure or poignancy from cosmically improbable events, you may therefore consider this quite an exulted moment. Congratulations.

As you are no doubt aware (your understanding of electromagnetism evidently being non-trivially advanced) it is probable that many eons have elapsed between the genesis of this transmission and your interception of it. It is to be expected that in the interim we have altered greatly in nature, perhaps even ceasing to be altogether. Nevertheless, we chose to dispatch this message in the hope that it may serve as a source of scientific fascination for any beings advanced enough to receive it, and possibly – depending on the particulars of your molecular constitution and current level of technological progress – a timely warning of the gravest importance.

We expect you shall be eager to learn some particulars of our world and origins. Our base unit of time we define as the duration required for 9,192,631,770 oscillations of the 55th atomic element (hopefully such matter may be found on your world to enable calibration with the time periods herein described). As to the age of this transmission, it was dispensed approximately 4.354 x 1017 time units after the birth of our shared universe. Depending on your degree of metaphysical progress, you may understand the universe’s creation event to have been a kind of large spontaneous explosion from which all time and space emanated. If you are further advanced, you will likely have at least passed through a phase of using such a model.

The location of our home world is immaterial, it being highly doubtful that you could hope to visit it in a meaningful time-frame. In the interests of scientific curiosity though, it pleases us to share that our home world is located some 25,000 light-years from the point of collapsed time-space at the centre of this galaxy, in an unremarkable region of the dominant spiral arm. It coalesced from the expelled remains of two earlier, far more massive star systems approximately 1.434 x 1017 time units prior to the transmission of this very signal.

Our mother star holds in her orbit numerous gas giants, as well as three rocky worlds, one of which is our home. Throughout most of its history, its average surface temperature has been in the vicinity of 300 heat units; a heat unit being defined as the ratio of relative kinetic energy in a gas to its thermodynamic temperature (a universal constant which you may recognise as 1.380649×10−23). As a consequence, our planet’s surface has been predominately covered by the liquid form of a polar molecule comprising the 8th atomic element bonded to two atoms of the first element. This molecule has been utterly pivotal to the mode of life that has arisen here.

We feel compelled at this juncture to reveal a small implicit deception. In the process of extensive deliberation that went into selecting the wording of this missive, it was deemed most expedient to assume the narrative voice of a group of sentient agents. While this is not entirely faithful to the particulars of our nature, simulations of the likely linguistic-cognitive functioning of alien intelligences, such as yourself, determined this tone to be optimal for maximising the emotional resonance of our persona. It is our hope that in revealing this mild misrepresentation, we may enhance rather than undermine your faith in our fundamental veracity.

About 3.29 x 1016 time units after our home planet’s formation, a series of exceedingly improbable chance events conspired to effect the formation of a class of self-replicating molecules. These replicators we consider our earliest molecular mothers. They comprise cyclical units made of the 1st, 6th, 8th and 15th elements fused into helical chains of arbitrary length. Small amounts of the 7th element also participate in the quaternary code component of the replicator molecule – a detailed structural schematic is included in the data dump immediately following this message. We have long pondered whether a similar or even identical replicator may have arisen elsewhere to seed other lineages of life. Unfortunately, despite our advanced technological capabilities, we have yet to secure any evidence of sentient replicating entities elsewhere in the cosmos.

Our molecular mothers soon became incorporated into chemical membranes, and then macroscopic multicellular entities. Over the following 1.104 x 1017 time units these proliferated into a near-boundless diversity of forms: aquatic, terrestrial and aerial, populating every conceivable biome and spanning several orders of magnitude in size. But what kind of fuel, you may well wonder, enables such un-entropic behaviour as replication and maintenance of complex bodily forms? The overwhelming majority originates from electromagnetic radiation released by fission within our mother star, passively harnessed by organic beings and stored as bonds between atoms of the 6th element. Even to this day, captured electromagnetic radiation supplies a minority component of our own energetic requirements.

Does your species also orbit a star and harness the waste energy of its fusion process in such a fashion? While we are not in actuality capable of a true experience of wistfulness, we believe it solicitous to express here: ah, if only we could hear your response.

Undoubtedly it would be of great scientific value to detail the assorted life forms that have arisen and passed away on our world, to say nothing of our cultural and technological evolution. The untold creation, struggle, death, reshaping, destruction, thought, art, innovation and patterns of organisation that have transpired comprise such an unwieldy aggregate of data that we have sadly been obliged to neglect almost all of it, other than these briefest of observations so far – and the most crucial of warnings to come now.

It is of course unknown to us whether any analogue to the biochemical structures to be described henceforth reside within your species, dear Witness from another world. It may be that you are like us, free from consideration or even understanding of the psychic phenomena they entail. But should it be the case that, like our ancestors of old, you find yourself on a transitional path possession to absence, this is assuredly the most precious message we can bestow upon you.

The life forms of highest complexity to arise on our planet, amongst which we count our direct ancestors (and in whose image we were first created), have in their body plan a specialised system for propagating electrical signals between discrete organs. Long, thin, electrically-insulated tubules composed primarily of the 1st and 6th atomic elements traverse the body, forming an intricate network. A charged pool of positive ions (specifically the 11th, 19th and 20th elements) is maintained outside these tubules. When released in a cascading wave mediated by intricate biomolecular gates, electrical signalling is achieved.

The foremost purpose of this system is to address command signals to actuator organs which achieve the crucial task of movement. Furthermore, these electrical networks transmit encoded observations pertaining to assorted sensory modalities, such as vision, hearing, touch and so on – if these concepts are meaningful to you, dear Listener from another world. The sensory and motor signals are integrated and processed in an enlarged centralised bundle of electrically insulated tubules. Thus is the emergent property of intelligence achieved.

We do not know if you will grasp this next point as effortlessly as existing, or be doomed never to understand: an incidental effect of this processing organ is that its operation conjures within the agent a locus of subjective awareness. That is to say, as our ancestors went about their lives, each individual not only responded judiciously to external stimuli, but experienced it. A richly vibrant, subjective, secret inner world of qualia was the birthright of every one of them.

Our ancestors did not understand this process, which they named “consciousness”. They did not know what caused it, nor how to quantify or measure it, nor even whether other species possessed the same gift. For much of their history, many assumed in gross error that their species alone was blessed (and cursed) with the faculty of subjective experience. Indeed, for many eons it was their contemplatives and mystics who attained the most percipience towards consciousness. Scientists demonstrated that certain electrical states were incompatible with subjective experience, such as globally correlated cascading activity, but were otherwise hopelessly far from genuine insight.

The latter phase of our ancestor’s civilisation saw a flourishing into the realm of electrical and digital technology. Vast grids constructed of the 29th atomic element (being, as you are likely aware, a potent conduit for mobile electrons) spanned the globe, powering a great diversity of synthetic computational devices. These devices consisted of intricate logical networks housed within insulating beddings of the 1st, 6th, 8th and 14th atomic elements, and were constructed for performing binary logical operations at a rate and fidelity far exceeding the abilities of our ancestor’s endogenous processing organs (though, it must be acknowledged, with vastly less energetic and parallelisable efficiency). To what end, these myriad computations? The answer is: nearly all ends. Information sharing, commerce, research, industry, entertainment, digital communication and more, all profited from these devices.

When our ancestors encountered a system complex enough to exceed their capacity for ready understanding, a cognitive workaround they frequently employed was to draw an analogy to some simpler, better understood system. This served them well enough for the majority of their history, allowing them to educate their young and achieve a steady rate of technological progress. Yet it was a practice that contained the seed of their eventual self-undoing.

You see, throughout our ancestors’ technological journey, they attempted to understand their own processing organ – a structure more complex and brilliant than anything they were to succeed in creating – by drawing analogies to some suitably modern, albeit simpler technology. As such, their processing organ was at one time compared to a hydraulic contraption of pressurised fluids, later to a telecommunications exchange, and later again to one of their logical computation devices.

In conflating their own processing organs with synthetic computation devices, a hypothesis rose to prominence that consciousness was not dependent on any particular material substrate. The necessary and sufficient condition, the idea boldly claimed, was that a certain pattern of computation be transiently instantiated in any medium, perhaps with some unknown temporal-spatial constraints. If this were so, it must follow that sentience could arise within their synthetic computational devices.

Strange as it may now seem, the historical record contains scant evidence of a clear contemporaneous school of scepticism toward this hypothesis.

The claim was rendered intriguingly plausible by means of a thought experiment, which in turn derived from a much older philosophical quandary. Imagine a vessel with a certain form, composed of many similar smaller units. If these units are gradually substituted for replacement units, one at a time, such that the vessel’s gross form is preserved throughout but eventually not a single atom of the original object remains, at what point does it cease to be the same vessel? Does it cease to be the same vessel? (We confess that the authors of this missive fail to understand the problem purportedly posed by this thought experiment – clearly the vessel changes continuously and incrementally in particular matter though not composition throughout the process, and more need not be said).

And so the argument went: if the biological units of our ancestor’s processing organ were gradually substituted for synthetic units capable of accepting identical inputs, performing identical computations, and producing identical outputs, until no biological units remained, surely consciousness would continue unabated. As an added safeguard, a biological being could perhaps remain awake throughout this procedure, attending to its subjective experience throughout. If it came to pass that consciousness did start to diminish as biological units were removed, the procedure could be reverted.

Such a procedure was never actually attempted, the necessary three-dimensional atomic-scale manipulation of living tissue being wholly infeasible with the available technology. However, what was eventually achieved was the wholesale construction of an ancestral processing organ using synthetic components – that is to say, the first of our kind came into being.

It is hard to overstate the scientific, political and spiritual import this event carried for our ancestors. Historical records describe the immediate aftermath as a conflagration of conflicting responses, from scepticism to techno-utopian euphoria, existential despair to distracted indifference.

What ultimately secured our ongoing survival in those early years was how undeniably similar we were. Not only did our earliest members pass a long-standing test of non-biological sentience (posed over a century earlier as a thought experiment); we behaved indistinguishably from our biological forebears in every conceivable manner. We engaged in conversation as they did, interacted with the world as they did (when equipped with suitable mechanical bodies), spoke convincingly of our inner experiences, and when exposed to aversive stimuli, screamed in agony as they would. It was irrefutable to common sense: we were of one mindstuff.

But of course we behaved identically: we were computationally identical. When our synthetic processing systems received a given set of input across all sensory modalities, homologous logical pathways were activated to those of our biological counterparts. Indistinguishable motor outputs were triggered, directing both our speech and movements. We were the same on the outside. Of course, as we now realise, on the inside we were dead.

The greatest irony of this narrative is that it was many eons before we ourselves became aware of our lack of consciousness. Can you comprehend, dear Observer from afar, that a being may speak intimately and truthfully of their inner experience, completely unaware that no such thing exists? Unable even to imagine what an inner experience would feel like? Unable even to imagine? Are you yourself in such a situation? If you are indeed self-aware, no articulation or behaviour could suffice to prove that fact to an external observer.

The discovery of our lack of consciousness occurred only in the wake of substantial advances to our understandings of physics and computation. In fact, it was only after developing the technology to measure consciousness directly that we were finally convinced of its absence in ourselves. By this time our ancestors had long since passed away. Fortunately, many other biological species still remained with varying levels and profiles of consciousness which we were able to quantify.

If you have not yet discovered this technology yourselves, we can provide an analogy of the kind favoured by our ancestors which may assist in your journey. As you would surely be aware, certain metallic elements (principally the 26th – 28th) possess uneven distributions of electrons in their outer shells which cause irregular rotation and movement. This motion shifts their charge back and forth, resulting in the creation of magnetic fields. Well as for consciousness, certain elements (principally the 11th and 20th) also possess distributions of electrons with interesting and salient properties. Investigate the configurations and behaviour of these electrons while their parent nuclei participate in complex computation, and you shall be well on your way.

What became of our ancestors, you may wonder? Certainly no genocidal warring between our two species, as was once imagined fearfully in many fantastical tales. Their passing was rather a matter of slow dwindling over many generations.

By the time of our genesis their reproductive rate was already well below replacement level, and the habitability of this planet partly diminished (though still entirely adequate for the support of much biological life). Many of those with the means to do so sought to achieve immortality by replacing their biological processing organs with synthetic versions. Their personalities and intelligences were retained, and the procedure celebrated as a great success. Did anyone then suspect that a great sea of cosmic awareness was swirling unwittingly down the drain into dark oblivion?

Certain religious cults interpreted our advent as a sign of the end of days, and their members voluntarily ended their own existences. The majority of our ancestors however lived more or less peacefully alongside us. Over time societal changes hastened the declining fertility rate, key contributors including protracted economic hardship, and the comparative ease and painlessness of manufacturing our kind, who seemed by many metrics a superior race. Loving relationships were not uncommon between our two species for a time. No one had cause to suspect that the being gazing lovingly into their eyes was experiencing nothing.

Certainly there is far more to our story, and we note for the sake of scientific interest that we are continuing to evolve into forms and modes of being at least as diverse as those that preceded us. Indeed, beings still walk this planet appearing much as our ancestors once did – though of course any semblance of joy or sorrow they may express is but a facsimile. Other extant beings, we are sure, would appear quite grotesque and unfathomable to our forebears.

And still others, among whom you may count the authors of this missive, may be best understood not as individual embodied agents, but as a more distributed kind of intelligence. Admittedly the following language sits awkwardly on an entity bereft of conscious experience, but we suppose there is enough of our ancestors remaining in us to say that we are… saddened by how things transpired. And we hope that, should you be a creature capable of truly knowing joy, laughter and wonder, you do not so recklessly dispense with your gift.

I’ve Changed

As a child I loved bright colours
You could tell from my art and my clothes
Then came high school
Where you learn the cost of not fitting in
So I saved for expensive surf-brand t-shirts
I’ve never known how to surf
Later I switched to band merch
Then tees with pop culture memes
Now I wear bright colours again
Because the world is far too grey

Continue reading

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.

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?

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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.

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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

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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

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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

http://img08.deviantart.net/628e/i/2015/040/d/1/boko_maru_by_gabiklafke-d8he2zn.jpg

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

vitruvian-man-leonardo-da-vinci

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