The Casual Blog

Tag: Scientific American

Scary stuff: Dracula, the ballet, and Ebola, the hysteria

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In general, I have very little interest in ghosts, ghouls, witches, vampires, and suchlike. There are enough truly scary things in the world that are real (e.g. global warming, thermonuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, and tainted food from factory farms, to name a few). So it puzzles me a little that people spend mental energy scaring themselves with made-up monsters. Maybe it’s something like the fun/fear of riding the thrill rides at the fair (which I’m also over).

So, as much as I adore the Carolina Ballet, I was not eagerly anticipating Dracula, which we saw Saturday night. It is certainly not pure ballet. But boy, is it sexy! There was a good amount of stimulating vampire vamping, and even some touching dancing.

Marcelo Martinez was muscular and mesmerizing as Count D, and Lara O’Brien was a delicate, then demonic, Lucy. The marvelous Pablo Javier Perez played perhaps the scariest character, Renfeld the lunatic, who eats flies, prowls, and watches with superhuman intensity. The Twisted Sisters (Dracula’s harem, I guess) – Randi Osetek, Sarah Newton, Elizabeth Ousley – were naughty and highly exotic. I also particularly enjoyed the dancing of Elice McKinley and Nikolai Smirnov as Colette and Jack — sweet, innocent, loving mortals.

The other work on the program, The Masque of the Red Death, is based on the E.A. Poe story about a ball in a time of plague. The costumes for the costume ball were particularly sumptuous. Richard Krusch was the Red Death. He is a really fine dancer, but of extremely serious mien; he usually looks like he isn’t having any fun at all. But this was not a problem in this role, in which he wears a skull mask.

The dance of death/plague theme seemed timely, and a little jarring, after weeks of daily headlines about the Ebola virus in Africa, and also (a couple of cases) in the U.S. It is sad for the victims and their loved ones, but it strikes me that the media frenzy is out of all reasonable proportion. How many more people are dying daily of AIDS? Or the flu? Or car accidents, for that matter? Plainly, this is a dangerous bug, and we need to watch and take care, but why try to get more scared than necessary?

As I mentioned last week, I’m trying to spend a few minutes every day doing mindfulness meditation. The basic idea, which is well described in this short infographic is to sit quietly, focus on breathing, and observe what’s happening with your thoughts. It’s simple, but not easy.

By coincidence, Scientific American, which arrived this week, has a cover story on the neuroscience of meditation. The headline is that there is substantial research showing that it improves focus, reduces stress, and has other positive health effects. It also can boost feelings of well-being, and improve empathy and compassion.

The story doesn’t mention this, but I’m hopeful that if meditation helps us understand our thought processes, it might improve our ability to distinguish between imaginary threats and real ones, and apply our energy to problems we might be able to solve.
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A forced break from piano playing, and thoughts on autodidacts and other learners

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After work on Friday I drove up to Raulston Arboretum to check on the flowers and insects. The rose garden was gone – nothing there but dirt. But there were still plenty of things growing, and bees and other insects hard at work. I particularly liked this uninhibited butterfly.
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It’s been a whole month now that I’ve been unable to play the piano. I’ve been following my hand doctor’s orders and keeping my fingers taped up, hoping that the torn ligament serving the middle finger of my right hand will heal. Practicing the piano every day is a habit of many years. While I wouldn’t say I’m going through withdrawal, I certainly don’t feel as happy and balanced as usual. Piano music is a big part of my life, and I miss it.

But I’m trying to stay positive. The hand will get better eventually, probably. And I’ve used some of the time freed up from practicing to do ear training exercises that should make me a better musician. I had some exposure to these in my student days, and learned enough to pass the theory course, but not enough to feel really competent. The reason I didn’t do more was, it’s more work than fun. But I see now how a richer understanding of intervals and harmony could help me as a sight reader and interpreter.

Anyhow, I’m learning something. It feels normal to me to continually be learning new things. I tend to think that being curious and having the stamina and gumption required to take on new intellectual challenges is itself a gift, bequeathed by my parents and their ancestors, and also a product of my friends, teachers, and the books and other information that shaped me. But how it works, and why not everyone gets it, are mysteries.
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There was a piece in Slate this week about education that suggested folks like me were outliers, “autodidacts,” and part of a minority able to learn without teachers, classrooms, and surrounding students. I suppose that’s possible. But I did not agree with the author’s premise that schools as they currently exist are optimal learning environments for most people. I suspect that as often as not schools destroy kids’ natural love of learning and at the same time fail to give them the tools they need to pursue their own learning paths.

So what is the best way to learn? Scientific American this month had a piece on recent research on this. The central idea was that we’ve done very little research into the most effective methods of helping people to learn. Instead we simply keep repeating traditional methods. The field of science-based education methods is still in its infancy, but there’s already enough to suggest that a lot of our methods are not very effective, and that we’ve got a lot of work to do.
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Sleepwalking and critical thinking

Some weeks ago I hurt myself sleepwalking when I wandered into the shower in the middle of the night. I remember not knowing where I was. I felt confused and frightened. Then I fell and hit my head on the tile, gashing my forehead, and woke up.

In the last couple of years, I’ve seen evidence a handful of times that I must have been sleepwalking in a fairly benign way, such as lights left on that I’d turned out the night before. On one occasion, I started to take off for a drive in the middle of the night and backed into a parked car. These incidents have been mildly or very unsettling. They make you wonder about what else is going on in your brain that you aren’t aware of.

Back in college, I enjoyed listening to a comedy album by Firesign Theatre titled Everything You Know Is Wrong. Earlier this week I checked out the first few minutes on in video form on YouTube, and verified that it still seems funny and disconcerting. The title has rattled around in my head for decades now ike a verbal Escher drawing, impossible either to forget or resolve. Lately it has seemed to me increasingly resonant as I’ve read more about neuroscience and consciousness. It’s inherently interesting, at least to me, and by moments I think it could lead toward a fuller, better understanding and a happier life. But if Everything I Know Is Wrong, this could also be wrong.

Speaking of sleepwalking, last month’s Scientific American had a somewhat sensationalistic but still interesting article on recent sleep research by James Vlahos titled The Case of the Sleeping Slayer. As you’d expect, it describes some violent and tragic cases, such as persons who commit murder while asleep, and also describes a new theory about the nature of sleep.

According to Vlahos, sleep is not a whole-brain phenomenon, but rather “a scattered, bottom-up process. ‘The new paradigm views sleep as an emergent property of the collective output of smaller functional units within the brain,” according to James Krueger of Washington State University. Krueger and other researchers think that individual parts of the brain “go to sleep at different times around the clock depending on how much they have been taxed recently.” What we think of as sleep (stillness, closed eyes, slackened muscles) happens when most of the neurons are in the sleep condition. Apparently parts of the brain may be snoozing without our looking like that.

There’s good evidence that other animals have modular sleeping habits. Vlahos’s article notes that dolphins sleep with half of heir brain at a time and keep an eye open for the non-sleep part. I’ve also read that birds also rest their brains in this modular way so they can always keep an eye out for predators. The theory seems promising. I occasionally note waking behaviours in myself, like forgetting where I parked, that could be explained by the partial wakefulness approach. It would explain not only sleepwalking, but other odd behavior, like people who sit on airplanes without reading anything.

When I get to thinking about thinking, I sometimes have flashbacks to the my days as a freshman at Oberlin College, where amidst the midwestern corn fields I got a hard blast of serious philosophy and critical thinking about social issues. It would be an understatement to say it was humbling. The air was dense with intense ideas. No matter how hard I worked, I usually had the feeling there was a lot I was missing, along with the feeling that some of my fellow students were getting a lot more. But by moments I felt real excitement as I wrestled with an idea and managed to pin it.

In retrospect, I think that learning the skill of wrestling with challenging ideas was more significant than any particular idea. A significant amount of what I learned was eventually superseded by new and better understandings. An example: we all took Freud seriously as a scientist, but now do not consider him as such.

But my teachers drilled into me the habit of testing an unfamiliar concept rather than simply swallowing it. It’s related to the scientific method in its insistence on evidence and logic, and its use of thought experiments. This habit of mind is sometimes called critical thinking. Once you start doing it, you tend to think it’s the best way to think.

My liberal arts education inspired me to be curious and to explore new ideas. But to some extent it may also have led me down the garden path. My recent reading in neuroscience and evolutionary biology has called into question some of my deeply held beliefs about the power of reason. It’s exciting, though: Its helping me understand various oddities about my own subjective experience and the observable lives of others.

If this sounds interesting, I recommend Jonathan Haidt’s recent book, The Righteous Mind, Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. You may recall that I wrote about this book some months back; I’ve been re-reading it and getting more out of it. Haidt, a professor at University of Virginia, (my law school alma mater) has a style that is accessible and friendly, but he challenges our usual was of thinking about thinking. The heart of his message is at odds with most of what I learned in my undergraduate years and have mostly assumed ever since.

There are a lot of big ideas in Haidt’s book, but probably the biggest is that the primary driver of our behavior is not rational conscious thought, but rather our unconscious system of feeling and emotion. It’s the system that tells us quickly what needs to be done. (Freud was right in guessing that there was subconscious, but he didn’t figure out much about what it did.) Haight compares our moral intuitions to an elephant, and the rational mind to the rider of the elephant. The rider developed to serve the elephant. The elephant usually goes where it wants to go, although the much-less-powerful rider can influence the elephant. This understanding of our nature leads Haidt to focus closely on the nature of our moral perceptions and beliefs.

Some of Haidt’s research relates to differences in moral systems among different communities. In one study, he used a questionnaire with narratives intended to invoke disgust (like incest and cruelty), but structured to defy an easy explanation for the disgust (no one was hurt). In the face of such dumbfounding problems, people came up with explanations for their feelings — but the explanations didn’t make much sense. This suggests that some of what our reasoning mind is doing is pretending to understand things it doesn’t, and making up post hoc rationalizations for feelings that start elsewhere.

Haidt contends that emotions are a kind of cognition — intuitive, rather than rational, but not inferior to reason. Intuitive processes are essential to our lives; we couldn’t possibly reason about the hundreds of decisions we make every day. We like or dislike things instantly and decisively, and adjust our behavior without noticing the process. Our conscious reasoning processes are along for the ride, and only get involved with explaining our behavior when there’s some anomaly or challenge.

Another theme of Haidt’s book relates to human cooperation. He observes that we are the best species in the animal kingdom at cooperating outside kinship groups. Haidt investigates this from an evolutionary perspective. In the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we had to form effective groups in order to defendant against predators and find food. This involved development of intuitive cognitive skills, including the ability to easily track the emotions of other human beings.

Haidt suggests thinking about the most successful human groups not just as collections of individuals, but as superorganisms. Humans have evolved the ability by moments to lose their individuality and merge with a group, whether it be hunters, warriors, or dancers. Some of our peak moments come when we lose ourselves in such groups.

Looking at ourselves as having two natures, individual and group members, explains some of our apparent contradictions, such as how we can be both deeply selfish and deeply altruistic. Looking at emotions as driving reasoning explains a lot of political behavior, not to mention personal decisions that are from a rational standpoint inexplicable. It might even help us avoid some bad decisions.