28 September 2007

Humanity's "Progress": Creativity, Tools, or Sheer Population?

Picture progress' progress over, say, the past 500 years. Without computers, we did amazing things. With computers, we've done more amazing things. But, how much progress is due to technology, and how much is due to individual creativity, and how much is due to the pure number of humans increasing?

Meaning: Leonardo da Vinci thought, drew, painted, and built amazing things. One guy, without a computer. Radio and television were developed, as well as computers, using vacuum tubes and slide rules. The first successful small computers were built in garages and small, run-down warehouses, by very few people.

But, find things that are coming out now: biotech, software, whatever. In many cases, it's not "just one person" doing it, but a team or a company, or a country. Is that due to sheer numbers of people being thrown at the problem? Are we becoming more stupid because we each, individually, have to give less to have a project succeed when there are multitudes working on it?

Maybe we need to return to slide rules and hand-mixed paints, and using our own minds instead of computers.

Formality Isn't Just a Formality

In the United States, people often downplay the importance of ritual. It is looked at as haughty, unimportant, and/or repetitive. What people don't realize is that ritual is a vitally important part of how we interact with ourselves, with others, and with the universe around us.

Rituals have many purposes. They can help one focus on an object. They can teach. And they can bring people together to celebrate an event, whether present, past, or future. They do all these things and more, yet modern Americans don't see their power. I believe this stems from the fact that the United States was formed by a non-ritualistic group of religious fanatics. Their influences still affect us down to the present day.

I recently heard of a wedding where the groom wore blue jeans. This is a perfect example of how someone doesn't take a serious ritual seriously. He may have thought, "Oh, this is all pomp and circumstance. No matter, we are still married.", or "This ritual means nothing; it is our love which is important." Both of these things are true, but neither abrogates the importance of the ritual itself, both to its participants and its spectators. I would go so far as to say that he disrespected himself, his new wife, and their marriage by his actions; his clothing reflected the state of his mind. I wonder if they will remain married.

Human beings are hard-wired for ritual. We do better when we have a bit of order to which we can cling — but not too much. Rituals should be performed with all of one's energy, which will be directed towards the purpose of the ritual itself. Then, the ritual's purpose will manifest into something stronger than if someone "just does it". Yet, these days, everyone "just does it". Proof abounds of the failure of such an approach. Look around you.

We are allowing magic, strength, companionship, bonds, and emotion to flow out of our regular direct experience, and we are the worse off for it.

25 September 2007

Do We Need As Much Sleep As We Think We Do?

Here's an article about a gentleman in England who stayed awake (in a pub, of course!) for over 11 days. His idea is that when parts of our brains get tired, other parts take over. I wonder a little bit about his hypothesis, but I think that, with training, one could train their brain to do exactly that. The article is quoted below in case it disappears off the Net.

Staying Awake by Switching Brain Hemispheres
Adam Conner-Simons
Adam Conner-Simons is a Gelf intern and a student at Pomona College.

New sleep-deprivation record holder Tony Wright tells Gelf he's altered his brain chemistry and thus can stay up indefinitely.

On May 14, Tony Wright walked into the Studio Bar in Penzance, England. For 11 days and two hours, the long-haired horticulturist stayed there, playing pool, talking with other customers, and taking notes. One thing he didn't do, though, was sleep. When he finally left, he had broken the unofficial world record for sleep deprivation that has stood for more than 40 years.

"I was frustrated that 99 percent of the coverage was. 'Crazy guy stays awake, blah blah blah.' Very few people wanted to know why I actually wanted to do it."

Tony Wright

Wright, 43, readily admits his feat was a PR stunt designed to drive interest in his radical theory about diet and brain development (and perhaps sell a few copies of his self-published book Left in the Dark). He claims that as humans have switched from our ancestral diet of fruits, vegetables and nuts, to our current meat- and fat-laden culture, we've lost access to important hormones that protect the left side of the brain during its development. As a result, Wright says, not only does the weak left-side of the modern human brain get tired out more quickly than it should, but the connection between the hemispheres is also damaged, meaning that we're not able to tap into our fully-charged right hemisphere when we get sleepy. Wright claims, by changing his diet and using meditative techniques, he is now able to switch over from his tired left hemisphere to his right, which he says can go several days without needing a recharge.

Even if his ideas seem far-fetched, it's hard to deny that he has done something that most of us—regardless of how many college all-nighters we pulled—can't even imagine. Gelf emailed with Wright to learn more about his theory, what he thinks of the media coverage of his feat, and what it's like to stay up for so damn long. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Gelf Magazine: How do you tire out the left hemisphere and make the switch to the right? Do you make conscious efforts through things like avoiding reading, etc.?

Tony Wright: Simply staying awake is sufficient, as my proposal is that the left hemisphere's batteries are effectively weak and cannot hold much charge, whereas the right hemisphere's batteries have much greater capacity. Talking will speed up tiring out the left, as it is one of the things it is dominant for.

GM: This wasn't the first time you had deprived yourself of sleep for experimental purposes. Why did you decide to try to break the world sleeplessness record?

TW: I've done at least a hundred experiments of at least 50 hours [of sleep deprivation] over the last 12 years, including some as long as seven or eight days. I was getting impatient. The history of new ideas is such that you usually have to wait until you're dead. I thought, "What can I do here to gain some attention for this theory?"
[For most people,] it's going to be difficult: some people get manic depressive, most people say they feel "trippy." Two or three days is as far as most can go. You can feel the change [in hemisphere concentration] cutting in after two days, where you slowly start feeling better—and there's even mild euphoria. Usually the whole process takes at least five days.

GM: You said that after five days or so, you felt completely normal. Do you think you could have kept going? If so, for how long?

TW: Well, it's difficult to say. Obviously 11 days was feasible. It's not really about longevity so much as the fact that the differential in sleep requirement due to damage and normal sleep keeps the damaged side dominant. However, I suspect with further experimentation it would be possible to keep going indefinitely, as the left hemisphere would simply shut down while consciousness switched to the right (a classic nirvana-type experience). It then re-awakens and consciousness returns to near normal. This appears to have happened on a number of occasions but needs further experimentation. Whatever sleep the right genuinely needs (and I do not know what this would be) could well be taken during "normal" left dominance.

GM: Did you talk to Randy Gardner—the previous sleeplessness record-holder—before your attempt?

TW: Yes, I did. He's been very polite during it all. In my initial correspondence, he was a bit fed-up about being known for just [the record]. When I finished, though, he emailed me to congratulate me.

GM: Gardner said exercise was the best thing to keep him awake. What did you do to keep yourself busy?

TW: Staying hydrated is important. During that initial period you are irritable, straining the part of your brain that's normally in charge. People get dysfunctional—I accept that. It's about getting through. Any activity you can do is great—listening to music, dancing, going for walks. Things that are rational like reading are OK for about 24 hours, but then they seem to take you to the most tired part of your brain. The key is just not sitting down and getting too comfortable. You come out the other side and end up less tired.

GM: You talked a lot about how hard it was to look at and use a computer. What made computer use so difficult? Do you have any idea why sleep deprivation has this kind of effect?

TW: I can only guess, really, that when staring at something banal and boring like a computer screen, it takes you to this tired place.

GM: What were your main physical symptoms during those 11 days? Did you experience any of the side effects that doctors traditionally link to sleep deprivation (dizziness, hallucinations, paranoia, mood swings, difficulty communicating or understanding others, etc.?)

TW: From the outset, I never claimed it would be clear sailing. There would be periods where I felt intense tiredness—in those windows I could feel quite irritable (which I expected). There were glimpses of altered states of consciousness. Because it was a PR exercise, I wanted to keep the lid on anything too weird; I didn't want to slip into states that could be perceived as psychosis.
The nearest I got to classic hallucination was on Day 9 or 10, when I noticed that the shape of the pool-ball seemed to be different. Basically my eyes were starting to work independently: I was getting a slight double-image.

GM: You mention mystics as people who have often been fascinated by sleep. Did you do any research on them for your project?

TW: I've certainly read around the subject of mystics. For example, there are living traditions in North and South America where they intentionally use sleep deprivation as a spiritual technique. One of the texts I first came across in my research was The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest surviving text from Babylon. The last challenge in the story is for Gilgamesh to stay awake for seven days and seven nights. There has always been an interest [in sleep deprivation].

"Because it was a PR exercise, I wanted to keep the lid on anything too weird; I didn’t want to slip into states that could be perceived as psychosis."

GM: Do you believe in the legends that mystics could stay awake for years at a time? TW: Possibly the fully functional neo-cortex may have evolved to a point where it could recharge as it operates. A few lucky people who are born with such left [hemisphere] damage that it just cannot dominate would have easier access to the enhanced abilities/experience of the right hemisphere and whatever its real sleep requirement is.

GM: The Guinness Book of World Records no longer recognizes sleeplessness feats because of health dangers. What do you think about that?

TW: I knew about this for 14 or 15 months. I had contacted Guinness, thinking they still would sanction the record. I wasn't too bothered about it—it would have been nice in a way, because I wanted to draw attention to my research—but I understand why.

GM: How do you respond to claims that the true record was not Randy Gardner's 264 hours but Finland's Toimi Soini's 276 hours in 1964 (London Times)?

TW: I'll be honest, I didn't know about all the other [records]. I was drawn to Gardner because of articles in the San Diego Reader, Gelf, and other media.

GM: A few years ago the British journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that drivers who have been awake 17 to 19 hours drive as poorly as legally drunk drivers (CNN). You yourself admitted that you had much difficulty keeping your eyes focused and using computers. After all that, do you still believe that "the brain does not become less effective with tiredness" (as you said in an interview with the Daily Mail)?

TW: I completely accept that there's a wave of dysfunction, but the whole point is getting beyond that. I think generally, it's less about how much sleep we need, and more about are we running on an inefficient neural system.

GM: What do you think of media coverage of your feat?

TW: I certainly didn't expect [coverage] to take off the way it did. Both my mobile and the bar's landline were ringing off the hook. But so much of it was very superficial. I was frustrated that 99 percent of the coverage was "Crazy guy stays awake, blah blah blah." Very few people wanted to know why I actually wanted to do it.

GM: How much did you sleep when you finally went to bed? Have your sleep patterns changed since the record?

TW: There was nothing astounding to report. After the 11-day run, I had about five-and-a-half hours of sleep. I woke up 30 minutes later for an interview. I felt back to normal—which is to say, as if I had been awake a day. I generally feel better and more-relaxed when I am sleep-deprived.

GM: Do you think your efforts generally have led to more awareness of your research?

TW: It's too early to say. I have more interest than I had before. There has been some follow-up stuff going on, but not a lot. To be honest, this is one of the more in-depth interviews I've had.
Last year I approached various sleep-research centers, but they didn't want to get involved and thought it was crazy. They dismissed it but wouldn't test it.

GM: Why do you think your views are controversial?

TW: I think it's a combination of things. People have so many preconceived notions about diet and food, that my diet is easily dismissed. Also, it's quite a radical theory—basically, that humans are currently dysfunctional because our brains don't develop. I view it in a positive light, as something that we can fix. I am driving a bulldozer through people's views. Then again, maybe it's because I look like a born-again hippie or something. I don't know.

21 September 2007

Discovery vs. Creation vs. Reception?

A scientist uses a particle accelerator to smash atoms, revealing a previously unknown subatomic particle.

A musician sits down with his guitar and composes a tune, with accompanying lyrics.

A Vedic rishi sits in a cave, writing in books. He says he received these words from Brahman.

Where do the boundaries between discovery, creation, and reception lie? Is any one greater than the others? Or are they just equal ways of coming to knowledge? In philosphy, this is called epistemology, or the study of knowledge.

I've discovered things, created things, and — I think — received things. They are all different, yet all aspects of direct experience, which is the most powerful, relevant, and important part of experience itself.

20 September 2007

No, No, No - That Can't Be It

A meteorite fell near a small Peruvian village this past weekend. The residents reported headaches, dizziness, nausea, and other physical symptoms, which they blamed on the object. Before a single scientist had been there to research what happened, there were plenty of "scientists" saying that the villagers were wrong, and that the meteorite couldn't have possibly sickened them, no way, no how! Then they called the villagers liars, saying it was psychosomatic sickness, or maybe that it wasn't a meteorite at all but a geyser of some sort which belched sulfurous fumes and that the villagers just think they saw a bright streak in the sky beforehand and heard sonic booms and crackling. And, if it was a meteorite, it had to be metal, and there couldn't be gas in a metal meteorite, no way, no how, the "scientists" belched.

Now, real scientists have been there. It was a rocky meteorite, just like the villagers said. Doctors still see no evidence of sickness, but they took tissue samples to check for contamination of some sort.

Why do people rush to judgement, especially so-called "scientists"? Why does the news report shit like that? And, why can't people get over the idea that it is possible that things fall on the Earth all the time, and they can contain various compounds, and that those compounds can have an effect, from causing a pretty streak in the sky, to sickening plants and animals, to helping create life?

Frankly, when I first read the article, I was hoping for some strange bacteria or virus that sickened the villagers. That would have been proof of extraterrestrial life. But, alas, we get gas instead.

06 September 2007

Work vs. Life

(This post was edited 6 Sept, 11:17MDT, adding the bit about Ray Jenkins and my dad.)

Yesterday, I saw a posting on Lifehacker that pointed to a Wired article that suggested ways for people to "put your vacation behind you and successfully re-enter the workplace". They say that "your mind needs to adjust to a world in which responsibility and discipline are important parts of daily operation". Of all the comments, I was the only person who said anything other than, "Yes! This is helpful!" I wrote:

Instead of "getting back into work mode", why don't people spend a bit of time trying to discover why they need to get back into "work mode"? I've had "vacation hangovers", and they have helped me to question the entire system. Maybe others should do the same. Vacations don't have to be "respite from work". Instead, we can mold our lives into something that is a mix of "work" and "vacation", something pleasant and which is worth waking up every day.

How we as a society are functioning at the moment isn't "the only way". There are other options, and they could very well be "better", more sustainable, and more enjoyable.

There are so many assumptions and misrepresentations of real life in these few words that it's pretty amazing. First, why the dichotomy of "work sucks, vacation is great"? It's not true. Doing what you love and making your livelihood from it is rewarding and fulfilling, and vacations can often be stressful times full of disaster. My suggestion: life as you wish, doing what you love, in concert with the universe, and you won't need "vacation"; your entire life will be wonderful.

Another issue is the idea that responsibility and discipline aren't part of life other that "at work". This is a major societal problem in the United States. Everyone thinks that you bust your ass for work, then fuck off completely in your spare time. There is no balance in that approach, and it only benefits the corporations and those who run them. The people are basically slaves, unfulfilled, worked to death, and with no real purpose. That is a form of existence, but it's not any kind of a life.

One example of not using your "non-work time" in a fulfilling manner is in an article from the Burlington Free Press about Ray Jenkins, the United States' oldest "worker". Ray says, "I can't sit quiet and do nothing. I've got to keep going. Keeps your mind occupied. If you don't keep busy, forget it." My dad was the same way. When he retired from a job of 30+ years, he sat at home, having no clue what to do with himself. He tried a few things, but eventually found another job at a similar company to keep himself occupied. He didn't know how else to spend his time but "to work".

And what disgusted me more than the fact that the article exists (and was referenced) in the first place? It was probably the fact that all of the other comments to the post and article were so deeply embedded into the system that they couldn't see anything wrong. One person wrote, "vaaaycaayshun? Never heard that word before... oh right that's where my owner goes 3-5 times a year..." Another commenter is more blunt: "people have time for vacations?" Or take this simple advice that probably underlies every comment but mine: "like Nike...just do it" No one other than me suggested anything other than "get back to work and forget your vacation".

What a sad state in which our society finds itself, where people think they must do boring and unfulfilling things for 50 weeks out of the year, then take 2 weeks to do nothing important only to return to unfulfilling things and forget the 2 weeks ever happened! We would be better of if we were formally slaves, knowing our part. This giant lie of "freedom" is truly soul-destroying.