It’s that time of year again. No, not just the holidays, but the time where it seems that everyone is becoming sick. Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones that’s not [yet] been afflicted. So you’re avoiding making contact with people with symptoms – telling that coughing coworker to stay at home to spare the rest of your team. And you’re not touching those infested subway poles. And you wash your hands all the time, just to be safe. I call this mindset the contagion model, where a person becomes sick if they’re exposed to agents that contain infectious bacteria or viruses – people and objects included. While there’s a lot of truth to this way of thinking, I feel we rely too much on it. The contagion model is rendered moot by the resilience model, where one can avoid illness altogether by strengthening and conditioning their bodies in various means. This seemingly impossible feat results from developing a strong immune system and a stress buffer. Thus, even if a resilient individual is exposed to infectious pathogens, her body is able to resist and ward off the potential illness.
Although I’m not a doctor, I’ve mixed together a slew of information, from microbiology to stress research, with self-experimentation and introspection to develop this model. Here’s the kicker – as of this writing, I haven’t been sick since December 2005. That’s 6 years! At worst, I’d feel like I have something coming down which slightly bothers me for a day, and then it’s gone. Now, because I only have a single data point – myself – it’s not entirely clear what factors are more prominent to building resilience. Still, I have a bunch of ideas that I consider to be significant factors.
The body is more likely to succumb to illness when it is placed under stress. So it’s important to keep oneself in tip-top shape by eating well, being very physically active, and getting plenty of sleep. I should note two important things I had done in 2005, when my illness-free streak began: I stopped drinking soda and I began serious martial arts training. My body has felt amazingly better since. Likewise, pursuing meaningful or enjoyable activities (in both work and play) and being social go a long way keep us unstressed and consequently stave off illness. If this perspective sounds familiar, it’s because this is core and time-tested health advice, not to mention a central point of this blog. I believe the way we live on a day-to-day basis most profoundly prevents sickness.
Shocks to the body are bad – like going from the toasty indoors to the freezing winter outside – so it’s helpful to acclimate oneself to the new season. Every Fall the past few years, I’ve gradually exposed myself to the colder outside temperatures. I tend to keep the indoor temperature on the low side, like in the 60s. And participating in outdoor physical activities, like roller blading, means putting up with moderately unpleasant cold temperatures as the season carries on. By the time the days get nastily cold, my body has a new set point and tolerance – I never have to feel the intense blast of cold in the dead of winter because my body is already used to the moderate cold. Reducing the cold imbalances in the season means reducing the chance of a cold in your system.
We should embrace germs instead of fearing them. I’m vehemently against the common use of antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers. Here’s why: not all bacteria are bad and we humans have evolved to coexist with many bacteria in mutually beneficial ways. There’s a trillion bacteria on our skin surface and most of them are either beneficial or don’t cause harm. The actual benefit is very interesting, because these typical skin bacteria often prevent the pathogenic bacteria from taking hold on the skin surface. Let this sink in – the bacteria that normally reside on our skin surface essentially give us a force field that protects us from infectious pathogens. Now what happens when we use antibacterial soap or hand sanitizers that kill off everything? The skin becomes a clean slate and an open invitation to all bacteria – good and bad. Think about this the next time you go for the antibacterial product.
The immune system is like a muscle. It requires a consistent workout to maintain its strength. Like an atrophied bicep that can barely lift a thing, a coddled immune system offers little protection when it’s called to action. Our bodies are designed to be exposed to the elements. A minor infection here or there gives the immune system practice and information. It helps us develop immunity and preps our bodies for the big game when flu season comes around. Hence, we shouldn’t be afraid to get a little dirty sometimes.
As I mentioned, these are a few ideas that have come from a lot of experimenting and consideration of the way the human body works. I understand that it may be a bit unconventional, or perhaps blasphemous. But at the very least, I know that something is working. It’d be nice to have some more data points. Have a healthy and resilient winter!
In biology class, I learned about genes – that they serve as tools to help us reproduce. This idea seems simple enough, except that it’s backwards. It turns out that we’re the tools that our genes use to help themselves reproduce. Let this sink in for a moment. We are programmed by our genetic information, very much like the software of our computers, to have complex behavior that ultimately helps these genes reproduce. For one thing, this means we are much less in control of our actions than we’d like to think. This also means that we often exhibit quirky behavior that only makes sense in light of the evolutionary context that the behavior developed in.
While we are conscious creatures, there’s an arsenal of unconscious mechanisms at work, and they color our behavior in profound ways. I have a few posts forthcoming that explore this topic in detail. Each will cover an aspect of our behavior. Although the discussion will generalize explanations of behavior to everyone, please note that I refer to the evolved mechanisms contained in all of our genetic information and potentially exhibited in our behavior. Some of what I’ll discuss will offend our ethical sense (which in itself is one of the topics) so please bear in mind that the discussion is about the the programming from our selfish genes and not a reflection of any individual’s conscious sense.
Being aware of our programming allows us to do something about it. We don’t have to be slaves to our genes.
It’s rare to come across something that touches the very fabric of our existence in such profound ways – it’s mesmerizing. So it is the case with What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly. In one of the most insightful books I’ve ever read, Kevin Kelly weaves together thoughts on the journey of technology (which as a whole, he calls the technium) and ties it in with all other parts of life, the universe, and everything (quite literally). This is of course through a broad interpretation of the definition of technology, going beyond just gizmos – to inventions and knowledge. It’s quite similar to the a crucial perspective I take on this blog and hence I welcome this understanding. With this, Kelly connects technology with the very birth of the universe and the increasing complexity that has emerged from the universe itself – from simple hydrogen atoms to energy-dense microprocessors. He likens technology to a sort of unstoppable force and considers it another kingdom of life. As strange as that seems, it’s very plausible in my eyes. His incredible comparisons between technology and evolution fit well in presenting such arguments – these comparisons are so thoughtful that I felt my deep background in evolution was strengthened with his discussion (and there is no question that he blew away my understanding of technology).
Kelly reconciles two opposing concepts – ordained-ness and free will – in an a strangely convincing manner. He states that technology, to elaborate that it’s an unstoppable force, builds upon itself and that its agents (we humans) inevitably bring it to greater life. This is the basis for his explanation of why similar ideas and invention seem to appear simultaneously from different areas of our globe. He shows that such convergent “evolution” is very much the regular case in the technium as it is in the [other] kingdoms of life. At the same time, he assesses the free will of technology and goes down to the very level of the seeming free will that appears in the random noise of subatomic particles.
There is a practical element to Kelly’s discussion as well. Kelly provides a framework by which to consider technology – new and old – providing guidance as the world around us is increasingly transformed by technology. For example, because he believes that the emergence of any technology cannot be indefinitely thwarted, he presents some rules on how to approach any technology in a manner that beneficial for the global human community. He discusses such rules in the seemingly extreme case of the Amish. Interestingly, many groups of Amish are not quite the luddites we typically perceive them to be. Rather, they’re extremely mindful of the technology they use: they take care to consider the potential community problems arising from inventions and often experiment and observe with a small adoption – one can’t help but respect such mindfulness. (In fact, this discussion is so striking that I suggest that you check out Kevin Kelly’s blog post on it.)
There are a couple of points where Kelly is off. Well, not quite off, but rather he’s missing a level. For example, he states that advances in human communication – such as the inventions of language and writing – were the cause of our uniquely human power. Based on the research of folks I work with, these communication technologies were instead a consequence of a more precise cause of our rise to dominating the planet – solving the conflict of interest problem on larger scales thus facilitating greater level of human cooperation. This Human Uniqueness Theory that I work with does well to explain the Behavioral Modern Revolution of 40,000 years ago and the Neolithic revolution of 10,000 years ago, among our other technological revolutions that Kelly mentions. It’s understandable why one would assume that communication tools were the catalyst for human advancement, especially given how closely they relate to our uniquely human trick of cooperating on large scales to do incredible things. Still despite these minor details, Kelly’s insights are very telling and completely appropriate.
As someone entrenched in technological and humanistic disciplines, I’ve had a real pleasure reading this book. Some of Kelly’s thoughts are sure to raise a few eyebrows, but it seems he accomplishes his goal to get us to step back and think over the technology our lives are intertwined with. At the very least, you’ll see how thoroughly he has put together his thoughts, and so eloquently too. I recommend this engaging book deeply to anyone with an interest in technology and to anyone that wishes to learn more about the world around them. I especially encourage those in technological fields to consider Kelly’s points.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Vibram Five Fingers (VFFs), shoes that emulate being barefoot. They’re actually selling so well that they’re hard to find. Even celebrities are wearing them, garnering more attention. Yes, I wear them too. Actually, I’ve been wearing them for over two years. Before the popularity and trendiness. I jumped on these weird pieces of footwear because I sensed that there was something humanly important about being barefoot. For example, in martial arts training, we were always barefoot (and in the very rare instances we weren’t, things were just very off). Still, I didn’t understand what the real significance of this was.
That is, until I read this article about 16 months ago. It discussed how increasingly “advanced” running shoes were doing nothing to help runners prevent injuries; that humans have evolved incredible foot mechanics and are better off barefoot. The author’s book on the subject, Born to Run, (released soon after and which later became a best seller) shared inspiring real-life stories of amazing runners, many of them running in a barefoot manner, as well as the research and history behind running barefoot (and not running barefoot). I share a few very important points mentioned along with my own experiences:
First, that our feet have undergone a great deal of improvement through over four million years of evolution. They contain a large number of muscles and ligaments (I believe the number is somewhere around thirty, if not more). Our feet also contain a large number of nerve endings – as many as our hands – so they provide a great deal of sensory feedback to deal with balance and mobility. Wearing padded shoes, like most sneakers, undoes much of the evolutionary benefits. Shoes are too cushioned to give feet the beating they like and hence the muscles and ligaments in the feet atrophy. Likewise, the thick sole of a sneaker deprives us of all the nerve feedback that tell us so much about what we’re walking on.
Second, shoes actually negate the most important of the evolutionary features – the arch of the foot. Any person with a hint of engineering knowledge knows that an arch is fantastic at bearing load. So it makes a great deal of sense for humans to evolve a load bearing mechanism on their feet to support all the force from walking, running, jumping, and whatnot. The scary part is that many shoes “support” the arch; an arch does not need support and giving it “support” causes it to cease function. This means that since it’s no longer dissipating the load, some other body parts must step up. Force from the foot hitting the ground, no longer absorbed by the arch, travels up to the knee and the lower back. Enter injuries to these regions.
So what if you have flat feet? Does all this still apply? Yes, because flat feet are often caused my atrophied muscles. I myself have flat feet from decades of wearing sneakers on a daily basis. However, I’ve made noticeable improvement to my arches by regularly wearing non-padded footwear, including VFFs and flip flops, to slowly build up the muscles in my feet. Another interesting argument lies at the crux of the sneaker industry: shouldn’t the padding provided by shoes be adequate? It seems not – more padding means more sensory deprivation which means the foot must strike the ground harder to know what’s going on. Any benefit is cancelled out, if not making things worse.
Third, there seems to be discrepancy about form and it often centers around heel-striking – that is, landing on the heel of the foot when running. Sneaker companies have a huge hand in this mess. Forty years ago, they came up with the idea to pad the heel of the shoe. They claimed that this would improve runner performance by allowing longer strides from heel striking, made possible by the padding. One consequence was an unnatural running form, which exacerbated the problem of shock traveling to the knees and back. With heel striking, there’s no possibility of the arch absorbing shock. This makes it a very dangerous practice. It’s pretty frightening since this is the way most people walk and run, as afforded by their shoes. It seems the proper way to land is to do so on the mid-foot, maybe even landing on outside and rotating it in as so to compress the arch. I’ve found this to work best from my own experiences. I’ve also noticed that this is the natural way people run barefoot, by secretly observing my karate students, kids and adults alike, run. Note that for walking, you pretty much have to land on your heel, but you can do so gently and then let the mid-foot take over (and hence make use of the arch).
The problem of heel striking may come as a surprise to many people; it certainly did for me. In fact, when I first had my VFFs, I was heel striking on them when merely walking, simply because I had a habit from wearing sneakers my whole life. Needless to say it was a very painful experience to walk on pavement with VFFs and I avoided doing so for nearly a year. It was after I’d read Born to Run that I understood that the problem was in technique. After correcting for this (as in, I stopped heel striking when walking) the VFF barefoot experience became very enjoyable, even on concrete sidewalks. I should note that I had to “break in” my feet and have them get used to walking “barefoot”. The muscles in my feet needed to be rebuilt and the process took at least several months.
It’s interesting that running has gotten such a bad rap – how it’s hard on the knees. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that when you undo four million years of evolution, there’ll be problems. We have an incredible amount of technology built into our very bodies. Be mindful of it. Watch the way you walk and run and jump. Note what you’re putting around your feet. Feel all the sensations from beneath your feet and what it means to be connected to the world.
Is fluorescent lighting messing up your sleep cycle? The bright white glow, not unlike daylight may cause our bodies to interpret that night has not fallen. Think about it: for nearly all of human history, access to light at night has been limited. For the most part it’s been moonlight and fire. The former isn’t particularly bright and latter produces a gentle hue of colors (often called a warm color temperature). Both contrast starkly with bright, harsh fluorescent lighting. Even lighting directly prior to fluorescents, including incandescent bulbs, was generally warm in color.
Our evolutionary history clearly suggests that our bodies are adapted to gentle, warm colored light at night. So does exposure to fluorescent lights at night cause our internal clocks to become screwy as our circadian rhythms are unable to tell day and light apart? I’m very inclined to say it does and I received some news recently that further supports this: a friend of mine had informed me that upon running into sleep problems, his sleep doctor suggested that he wear glasses, at nighttime, that filter out blue colors (a.k.a cool color temperature light). Clearly the purpose of this was to keep the body exposed to more natural nighttime lighting.
As the ongoing green trend progresses, people are pretty much forced to switch to fluorescent bulbs. This has me concerned and I’m not the only one. Many people simply don’t like the light “quality” from fluorescent bulbs (it’s quite probable that the unnatural effect plays a role in this). Others are sensitive to the flickering nature of fluorescents. Most people simply don’t know why they don’t like them, they just don’t (I was in this category for a long time). In the U.K., there’s actually a thriving black market for incandescent bulbs since they were banned.
So are we at a total loss? I wouldn’t say so. I’ve noticed that many of the newer fluorescent bulbs are not white in color, but rather have a warmer color temperature. It seems manufacturers are aware that many people prefer warmer tones for home lighting. I’m sure the technology will mature over time as well. Color spectrums will improve. And eventually fluorescents will be phased out by something else. There’s already one candidate: LED lighting. While LEDs are very pricey, the cost will drop as companies invest more in the technology. I’ve already made my own investment by purchasing a powerful LED flashlight with a special coating that gives warm colored light output. Combined with a light diffuser, it makes for a great reading light (on low mode, nonetheless).
But until technology catches up, just be aware of the tradeoffs in switching to fluorescent lights. I’m all for being more environmentally friendly, but damage to sleep cycles can be more costly overall.
We often think that having a [proportionally] large brain is something very central to being human. While this is certainly an attribute unique to humans, it’s not the cause of our uniqueness. Think about it. If having a large brain is so advantageous, then how come other animals haven’t evolved to have it? As you’ve probably guessed, there are tradeoffs to having a large brain.
Consider the human brain. Although it’s proportionally humongous compared to the brain of other animals, it takes about 2-3% percent of our body mass. But look at the energy usage. Our large brains use about 20% of the calories we consume. That’s pretty darn expensive. At that price, we better be getting a lot out of it. We do, as humans, because we have culture. Through culture, we’re exposed to a staggering amount of information from others. Consider everything you’ve learned from friends, teachers, and extended family. That large brain is put to use because we have so much useful and trustworthy information to put in it.
Now consider the case of non-human animals. They don’t have anything close to the vast culture that we humans do. Their culture is limited to immediate family members because non-human animals have no way to control conflicts of interest between non-kin. This statement reveals a couple of interesting things. First, that it’s actually disadvantageous for non-human animals to have expensive, large brains because they have very little to put in them. Second, that the ability to control conflicts of interest between non-kin is essential to our humanity. While I discuss its importance in our uniquely large brains, managing conflicts of interest is central to our unique language abilities.
So in a nutshell: Large brains require culture.
Culture requires trust in information from others.
Trust requires controlling conflicts of interest.
On a side note, while culture is a requirement for large brains, it is not sufficient. As hinted above, large brains require a consistent source of rich food to meet energy needs. Also, large brains take a longer time to develop and thus require that individuals have access to protection during this development time. These needs are afforded by the human village, another consequence of solving the conflict of interest problem.
We like to think that we have free will – that we’re not like other animals which are governed by their biology. But if you think this, you’re gravely mistaken. We humans, as biological creatures, are under its rules. Our decisions are fueled by dopamine on rules built through evolution. You have two choices: refuse to acknowledge this and be a slave to your desires, or accept your underlying biology and learn to become wary of its unconscious influence. If you choose the latter, continue reading below.
There are uniquely human unconscious forces as well. As social creatures, we feel all sorts of social forces, such as morality (we know when things are right and wrong) or in-group/out-group forces (the need to fit in somewhere, or to despise outsiders). We literally feel these forces and they, without a doubt, affect and sometimes dominate our behaviors. Love (often characterized as a mental disease) and its less potent variants (such as lust) certainly affect our behavior beyond normal conscious will.
Our brains are incredible pieces of technology shaped by evolution. But are we using our built-in technology as it was optimized for? The world today is very different than what many mechanisms evolved for. Also, we have access to ways to abuse our technologies, such as drugs. Cigarettes work on the level of brain chemistry, as do most other drugs, including alcohol. Processed food is chock full of sugar and fat targeting evolved mechanisms to help us in times of starvation.
We should be mindful in how we use any technology, especially that which is built into us. Do you understand why you desire something? Are you responding in positive ways to unconscious mechanisms? Or are you merely pressing evolutionary buttons (or letting others do so for their gain)?
We’ve all known those people: the very intelligent and creative but otherwise either not-very-social or socially awkward, sometimes understood as geeks. You might even be one of these people! I surmised that there was some sort of inverse correlation between the social skills and other technical abilities. After all, there’s a large amount of brain resources required by social tasks. Hence the potential tradeoff between social ability and other “thinking” ability.
At a recent TED talk (video above), Temple Grandin confirms this relationship by discussing the autism spectrum (which by her definition, and mine, extends beyond Asperger’s, to the not-so-social geeky types). A very striking note is that, for the most part, those on the spectrum don’t have a disorder, but rather a different way of understanding and interpreting the world. (However autistic spectrum individuals that do not speak or cannot function in our society do need treatment.)
This TED talk actually blew me away (and I’ve watched it several more times since). It really explains much of what we see in the world (or may experience ourselves) regarding the different ways people solve problems, and how they also handle themselves in social environments. In essence, there is a limited amount of brain processing power available. Humans, as social creatures, would be an advantage to have specialized social wiring. But at the same time, the complex human world requires solving some very involved problems. An individual with this ability would also be at an advantage. The limit of brain power presents a dilemma. So we see “all kinds of minds” where some individuals are very good at dealing with people while others are good at handling other sorts of complex tasks, and of course people falling along all levels of the scale. (It’s unclear whether individuals are more born this way or turn out this way.)
This has a lot to say about how people interpret the world and how they learn. It seems that the geeky types may be more visually oriented or perhaps more hands-on oriented. They’re the types that might be good at some kinds of math, or music, or recognizing patterns. Some can run virtual simulations in their heads. Many appear to be more bottom up learners, where they need to put together all the details before understanding the bigger picture. Temple has even said that some of the above belong in Silicon Valley, since they make great programmers.
There’s so much more to say on this entire subject. Temple’s talk has really opened up a new world to the way I look at people and their abilities. It all comes down to tradeoffs. Especially considering the great depth of the human world, different kinds of minds are needed to make the incredible human progress. Check out the talk and it’ll really get your mind thinking about this. You’ll surely see it all over the real world, and perhaps even in yourself.
Have you noticed how deceptive advertising is? Breakfast cereal companies make health claims on their products – very misleading. Website ads purport weight-loss miracles – complete scams. Trickery appears to be all over our communication mediums. It’s so commonplace that we might accept it as a normal part of society. We seem to tune it out often enough. But there’s just so much manipulation, bringing us closer to non-human animals and turning back the the clock on our evolutionary progress.
Think, in all of the animal kingdom, humans are the only species to have an incredibly extensive communication system. Language (a technology built into us that we often take for granted) in humans greatly surpasses that of any other creature. There’s a simple answer as to why no other creature engages in this: manipulation. If any information can be spread, then false information can be spread. In non-human animals, spreading false information is a good strategy as there is always competition with others. This is why non-human animals don’t evolve strong communication (except in the case of closely related individuals where we do see some level of communication). Humans are unique in their ability to suppress these conflicts of interest and because of this, they assured that information communicated wasn’t malicious information, at the time elite communication evolved. (For a full detailing our our language history, see Chapter 9, Voices from the past: The evolution of ‘language’, in Death from a Distance)
Back to contemporary society, we see that manipulation is everywhere. The ancient condition that allowed elite communication to sprout is terribly disrespected. Today, we’re constantly exposed to deceptive information. A big problem is that much our mental mechanisms are too trusting and leave us open to manipulation. Another is that companies can get away with misleading people, and they’ll do it because it’s in their interest to do so. In the ancient condition, there were enforcement mechanisms to prevent the dissemination of bad information. We don’t have a very good system in place for that now. We need better enforcement on misleading advertising. We, as a whole, would be living much better lives with the absence of manipulative information.
We’re blessed with the incredible technology of elite communication. If it isn’t used mindfully, it will go to waste. It will be ignored. It has already happened to some degree. And where it hasn’t, often lie the victims of manipulation.
An article on CNET today discusses how concerns for privacy are diminishing, especially in our ever-growing information age. In the work I do on human uniqueness, I’ve explored the evolutionary relationship of morality and transparency. It appears that this growing transparency (and thus decline of privacy) is a very good thing for our populations as a whole. A look at the human ethical sense shows why.
Shaped by natural selection, the human ethical sense is finely tuned to work in our especially social environment. Generally, the best self-serving strategy (and one that is indirect) is to contribute to your social coalition; directly selfish behavior is usually a bad strategy because of the strong coercive threat imposed by the rest of the group. The exception is when directly self-serving actions can go by unnoticed (privately). This would net a benefit for you but it wouldn’t be good for the others. Simply put, the greater the transparency (and the less the privacy), the better off a group is as a whole because this causes each individual to avoid the then inferior directly self-interested strategy.
A quote by federal judge Richard Posner in the CNET article illustrates this entire concept really well: “As a social good, I think privacy is greatly overrated because privacy basically means concealment. People conceal things in order to fool other people about them. They want to appear healthier than they are, smarter, more honest and so forth.” Issues regarding privacy are very evocative because of this; they involve an individual’s direct self-interest.
Our technology allows us to change the social norms of privacy. Individually it appears we’re getting comfortable with the decline of privacy. Between generations, there is no uncertainty since newer generations are better at adopting technology. There has certainly been friction (we’ve all heard of people getting busted by posting stuff to Facebook) but people will adapt to the growing transparency of their lives. The big question that remains: how so? Will our norms change to deem currently inappropriate behavior appropriate? Or will people commit less such inappropriate behavior? My best guess is that it’ll lean towards the former when there’s no social harm and towards the latter when it’s our collective interest that people change.
In the meantime, enjoy the ride. With the emergence of computers and internet in our pockets along with facial recognition technology, we’ll soon be able to learn all about a person by just looking at him. MIT is already on this. Perhaps we all better clean up our acts sooner rather than later. And who knows, the world may very well quickly become a much better place.