Toward the Edge: how our perceptions of reality lack external validity

Toward the Edge: how our perceptions of reality lack external validity

While coursing through a series of old tabs that I had saved on my internet browser history, I came across an interesting science website that my physics professor recommended taking a look at four years ago. This website, called the The Scale of the Universe, allows you to zoom in to the smallest bits of matter that theoretical physicists believe to be possible (a Planck length), and zoom out all the way to view the entire visible universe as observed from Earth. Truly a magical sight, but even more magical (and confusing) when we delve a little bit deeper.

When we move toward the very very small and the astronomically large, we are left with theoretical explanations of the universe that seem to contradict what we ‘know’ about space and time. However, we humans are not perfect, and we tend to get confused when talking about really small and really large numbers. Here are some examples, followed by why I believe we are skeptical when reading about these things.

The Very Small

A Planck length, is found to be the smallest possible unit of length, with a value of 10^(-35)m, or 0.00000000000000000000000000000000001m. The idea of a smallest unit of length is puzzling (can’t we cut a Planck length in half?), and the reasoning behind this value comes of quantum physics and includes the theory governing the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, that maximum speed of light (2.998×10^8 meters per second), and the laws of gravitation.

We can only be certain of a measurement to a certain degree. In particle physics, this roughly translates to particles existing in space within a probability distribution, whereby it’s location is more likely to be in one area rather than another. It is consistent with experimental observations to think of a particle as existing as a ‘smear’ across a few measurements (or it’s position existing within a range of locations). At some point, the smearing makes it impossible to determine the actual location or size or velocity of an object in space.

So let’s say we have a test particle shooting toward a stationary measuring particle of unknown location (this is theoretical). We want to know the location of the measuring particle. When they get close to each other, the particles interact, and so by assessing the change in the test particle (velocity, position) we can deduce its location. The laws of gravitation state that any object with mass will interact with other objects of mass, and so this interaction slightly accelerates the measuring particle, and thus it’s position changes slightly. Therefore, we can never know the exact location of the measuring particle due to the distortion that occurs by the two particles interacting. The smallest possible distortion that would occur would involve the briefest interaction possible, which would occur if the particle was traveling at the speed of light, c. When you calculate this distance distortion, you get the smallest meaningful unit of length, the Planck length. Beyond this, even the theoretically briefest exposure to the slightest possible mass will not lead to a movement smaller than a Planck length. Also, any measuring device would necessarily involve larger disturbances resulting in distortions greater than this unit, so matter really does not make any sense when moving smaller than a Planck length.

Imagining such phenomena is complex and confusing! Our concept of the smallest portions of the universe govern physical laws that seem to challenge our experiences with reality- an electron can be a particle or a wave, objects can move through each other. A really interesting example is that when you theoretically cut a Planck length in half, you get a larger length – this concept makes no sense in our larger worlds, but is verifiable and testable fact in particle physics.

We observe that rocks are solid objects, and anyone who has ever been hit by a flying rock, or who has fallen onto a rock can attest to this. However, it is an absolute fact that rocks are made of matter, which is composed of atoms, and atoms are mostly empty space. If we were to examine the inside of an atom, the nucleus would be a single pea in the center of a massive football stadium, with electrons of negligible size (even on this scale) are orbiting around the edges of the nosebleed sections. So rocks, even though they seem solid, are more than 99.9999999% empty space. If we were very very small, we might be able to understand intuitively that rocks are mostly empty, but as humans we live in a different reality with a very different experience of rocks.

It is the experiences we have in our own physical worlds that govern our perceptions of objects like rocks as being solid, but reality contradicts this experience. If atoms were solid (not empty space), the entire universe could fit into a single grain of salt. With this knowledge, the theory of the Big Bang where the matter of the universe is initially contained within a space the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen is a little more appealing conceptually. Without this knowledge, a universe contained in such a small space sounds rightly absurd.

The Very Large

Similarly, we cannot comprehend incredibly large numbers. If we took an average globe at about one foot in diameter, the international space station would be approximately half of an inch above the surface of the model. The moon would be 30 feet away, and mars would be a mile away. The observable universe is about 14,000,000,000 light-years in diameter, because the universe is this many years old and light has been traveling outward at a speed of 2.998×10^8 m/s (299,800 kilometers per second) ever since its beginning. When we look at distant stars, we are usually looking at the ghosts of stars that have long disappeared, but who’s light is still being received by our telescopic instruments on Earth, perhaps for millions of years.

Our ability to understand our universe is severely limited by the brains and sensory organs that we are given with. We can observe an incredibly unimpressive range of electromagnetic radiation (a.k.a light), limited within the visible spectrum (between 400 and 700 nanometers in wavelength). We cannot see radio waves, microwaves (with waves in the centimeter range, not micrometers – a misnomer), infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma rays. We can only see the smallest fraction of the universe with our human eyes.

Why do we get into trouble?

These findings raise skepticism in many people, some of which gain distrust in science or its findings. I think that we, as humans, have evolved to explore and make conclusions about the world in a way that is relevant to our survival. A part of this is assuming that we are intuitively objective, and that our perception is the correct one. We have not evolved to understand the incredibly small portions of our universe, because we naturally would not interact with it using our senses; we need testable theories, experimental observation, and special instruments to examine this. Similarly, understanding the massively large universe is not relevant to our experience of the medium-sized world in which we interact.

When we consider this, the notion of intuitive impossibility becomes almost irrelevant. We should not ignore our perception of impossible, but rather be skeptical of it. Our inability to comprehend some of these abstract concepts – the meaning of infinity, for example – come from our perceptions of physical space, and our experiences with the laws governing them. Science is constantly changing its views, modifying them through experimentation and demonstrating facts, and thus science is the process by which we get closer and closer to understanding the reality of our universe, beyond our fallible and biased human experience.

“The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”

-Christopher McCandless

And what a marvelous universe there is, hidden just beyond the horizon of our knowledge, with science taking us closer and closer to what lies at its edge.

The Mathematics of the Supermoon

The Mathematics of the Supermoon

In light of the recent supermoon that has generated much intrigue through various social media outlets – including those of opinion-sharing, such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as those of apparent scientific prowess, alike ScienceDaily and other acclaimed empirical hubs – many like-minded naturalists starred in awe at the reported irregularly large image of the moon this past evening of November 14th. I too enjoyed gazing to the skies at this event. My awe is not, however, a testament to the abnormal magnificence of this moon, but rather a more general appreciation for the exceptional appearance of the persistently falling rock rotating about in Earth’s orbit.

This supermoon is hardly appreciably different from any other moon I have seen, the event simply gave me an acute awareness of the moon (an excuse, even), allowing me to appreciate its beauty. It is for this appreciation – and the hope that you, too, have indulged – that I have waited until after the moon was to be at its peak to publish this post, explaining why this moon is no more brilliant than any other. Naturally, science and math must spoil the fun in the effort of objectivity!

How do we perceive size?

In terms of visual space, the light reflected from the moon creates an image on the fovea of the retina, and the size of this image allows us to perceive [or estimate] it’s actual physical size. The size of the image on our retinas can be changed by modifying our distance from the object, with closer objects creating a larger image, and further objects creating a smaller image. Usually, our brains correct for the distance from the object, making the actual size of the image relevant to our perception of that object’s actual size. We can even use cues in the external environment to inform us of what regions are space are closer and which are further away. This is what drives the illusion that makes the silhouette on the right appear to be larger in size than the silhouette on the left in the image below. If you have not seen this illusion before, note that the three silhouettes are actually the exact same size.

Screen Shot 2016-11-16 at 11.28.36 AM.png

In terms of the moon, it is very difficult for us to make a judgment of distance in this way because there is minimal relevant background when looking at it (we see stars, but they are so large and so distant that our brains cannot make sense of this comparison). Therefore, our perception of the size of the moon is strictly based on the image placed on our retina without correction, as our brains cannot make adjustments on this astronomically large [pun(?) intended] distance.

The significance of the supermoon

So how much larger does this moon appear compared to, let’s say, an average moon? For that we must run through a bit of mathematics (fear not, grade 8 math will suffice):

If we imagine the moon as an object a distant ‘D’ from our fovea (of negligible area), we get a triangle encompassing light traveling across the diameter of the moon converging onto our retina:screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-6-28-31-pm

The distance, D, separating the Earth and the moon is not constant. According to NASA, the largest distance separating these bodies is 405,696 km, and the smallest distance is approximately 363,105 km, averaging at about 384,400km. The diameter of the moon, however, is constant at 3,474 km, and is roughly circular. Bisecting the diagram above, we can create two equal right-angle triangles with an angle, θ. Solving for θ will give us the visual angle spanning half of the image of the moon, and multiplying this by 2 will give the total visual angle that the image of the moon occupies on our retina when looking directly at it (both halves of the right triangle). I have solved for the average moon, furthest moon, and closest moon.

Note that the Opposite side of the right triangle is the radius (half of 3474km = 1737km), and the Adjacent side is the distance from the viewer to the moon.screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-6-33-34-pm

So we see that as the moon gets closer to Earth, the visual angle that the image of the moon makes on our retina increases by a factor related to the ration of the Opposite and Adjacent sides of the created right-triangle. If we are to compare the sizes of these images, we get the following differences.


That is, a bit more than six-hundredths of the degree visual angle increase when comparing the smallest appearing moon to the largest moon!

To help your visualization of this, grab a sheet of paper and attempt the following demonstration:

  1. Make a circle with a radius of ~0.43cm (as accurately as possible) and shade it in, careful not to go outside of the lines (recall the techniques implemented in grade 3 art class);
  2. Make a second circle on another piece of paper that is 0.48cm in diameter using the same method and procedure as in Step 1;
  3. Now, have a friend hold the pieces of paper 1 meter (100cm) away from you.

This experiment demonstrates size differences (roughly) equivalent to the change in size of the image of the moon on your retina from the smallest apparent size of the moon to the largest. In fact, this experiment depicts a slight exaggeration of this size, as the largest radius is rounded up and the smallest rounded down. Stating that one could tell the difference in size in even the most extreme depictions of changes in the apparent size of the moon would likely be an exaggeration of the acuity of human eyesight.

Distance change

But, for fun, why don’t we determine what a reasonably detectable difference in image size would be. Using the procedure as above, I can begin to reliably (above the expected frequency of chance) detect differences in size of the two circles when the radius is increased to 0.55cm. That is, at a meter separating my eyes from the objects, a difference in radius of 0.12cm is moderately detectable. What does this correspond to in terms of visual angle?

Screen Shot 2016-11-16 at 6.38.21 PM.png

To interpret the meaning of this number, I propose the following question: How close would the moon need to be to achieve this noticeable difference in size?screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-6-39-13-pm

The moon would need to be 315,942km away from the Earth for us to experience a notable visual difference in size when compared to the furthest moon. The supermoon is about 21,295km closer than the average moon, and in order to see a noticeable difference in size of the moon it would need to be 68,458km closer than average. This means that the change in position would have to be about 3.2 times what was observed during the supermoon.

Velocity change

To calculate (approximately) the difference in velocity of the moon, we use the formulae for the Universal Law of Gravitation, and centripetal force on a rotating object on a string. In this example, the moon’s orbit is estimated as roughly circular and the gravitational effects of the sun are neglected. A more detailed calculation would involve multivariable calculus and a lot of work. I think this is more fun. The formulae of interest for gravitational force and centripetal force are (in their respective order):

Screen Shot 2016-11-16 at 6.56.20 PM.png

For the moon to remain in Earth’s orbit and not collide with it, the centripetal force pushing the moon away and the gravitational force holding it in orbit must be in equilibrium:

Screen Shot 2016-11-16 at 6.57.08 PM.png

If we want to calculate the difference in velocity, v, between a moon of average distance from the Earth to that of the supermoon, we use the following:

Screen Shot 2016-11-16 at 6.58.48 PM.png

Therefore, a supermoon giving rise to a noticeable difference in size would need to be traveling about 10.3% faster than an average moon. Given that this most recent supermoon is suspected to have caused  an aberrant  increase in tidal force leading to flooding in Fort Lauderdale and Miami (as an example), the prospect of a noticeably larger moon could have serious consequences if it were made a reality.

For this reason, I am glad that the supermoon was not noticeably larger in image, as the repercussions of such a physical phenomenon would likely be devastating! Regardless, I hope that you took this notification as an opportunity to look up at Earth’s moon and marvel at it’s beauty and brilliance.

Let the Music Make You Move

Let the Music Make You Move

Music might be regarded as one of humanity’s fundamental obsessions; something in which we all (with remarkably few exceptions) engage in and enjoy. True, it is difficult – perhaps as some have suggested, impossible – to identify a culture throughout human history that has not utilized some form of rhythmic or melodic medium to create a sense of community, involvement, and/or spiritual purpose. Great literary artists and thinkers of present and past times have questioned why music has demonstrated such a pervasive and undoubted presence throughout human history. As Oliver Sacks, popular Neurologist and writer for the New York Times so gracefully – and simply – puts it in his book Musicophilia:

“It really is a very odd business that all of us, to varying degrees, have music in our heads… Music is part of being human.”
– Oliver Sacks

But the amazing experience of music does not end with the melody that we hear (whether it be in our environment or in our heads). With music comes intense emotional responses, and an urge to move (or, if you are more confident if your abilities than I am in mine, an urge to dance). Music can make us feel triumphant, excited, relaxed, or upset; it can bring us up when we are feeling down; it can express what words cannot; it can demonstrate strength, or give us strength.

The overwhelming experience of music extends even further beyond our enjoyment, as music produces distinct and consistent responses in our brains. This is experimentally demonstrated in many studies by neuroscientists who study the effects of music on the brain. One such dramatic example of these effects are playfully shown in YouTube videos of Parkinsonian patients increasing mobility, in part, by experiencing music [1]. Additionally, many people have heard of the benefit of children listening to Mozart for their intellectual development, and similar studies have looked at the therapeutic effect of Mozart in reducing the incidence and severity of seizures in those with epilepsy – why Mozart is so frequently used as a musical ‘prototype’ is unclear, but it would be an interesting extension of this research to view the effects of more contemporary and less consonant repertoire; Shostakovich, for instance. While the latter of these claims seems to have more support than the former (there are many confounds associated with much of intelligence research), it is well within our knowledge that music is important for our well-being, and can be an aid[e] when facing the many challenges of everyday life.

Music is enjoyable, therapeutic, and, as research would show, an important neurological stimulus. As I read more about music, it further resembles an ultimate Dr. Oz ‘miracle’ cure; the ‘But wait, there’s more!’ of scientific sales[person]ship. However, the real reason to encourage you to engage in music with others is because music is fundamentally a social activity, increasing bonding when experienced with others. It is truly amazing how simple and effective musical interaction can be.

When we hum along a tune with someone else, or synchronously beat a drum to a rhythm, a few things happen.

First, we must listen to each other. We are, at the point of engagement in this activity, aware of each others presence and intention. Some research has shown that engaging in music with others has the capacity to increase our awareness of others, a phenomenon identified as ‘theory of the mind’. In one study, school-aged children were given the task of engaging with others in a music-related activity for one hour per week for a full academic year, while other children did either an activity involving drama and not music, or no activity. At the end of the year, the children randomly assigned to the music group showed greater scores on empathy measures and better performance on theory of mind tasks when compared to the non-music groups. Music increases social bonding by increasing our awareness of others.

Next, we must cooperate and coordinate with each other. Musical expression being so fundamental to humanity possesses an intrinsic motivation to have structure. This means that when people engage in musical activities with each other, the end product is a reflection of cooperation, and the common goal of this is to create something that sounds pleasant. Some research shows that when synchronizing beats, sounds, or melodies with others, we tend to gain positive social feelings for the people we are engaging with (and this is true even when we can’t see the person!). Music increases social bonding by encouraging cooperation and accomplishing a goal.

Finally (or perhaps not), our brains respond to this engagement by increasing the release of oxytocin from the posterior pituitary gland, a neurohormone that some research has linked to social bonding and intimacy in many mammals, including humans. The mechanisms underlying oxytocin’s role in social bonding are still under investigation, but elevated concentrations of this compound in the blood (either achieved by endogenous release or exogenous dosing) have been related to increased trust, eye contact, face memory, generosity, empathy, and the ability to infer the mental state of others. Music increase social bonding through affective neurochemistry.

It is truly amazing to think about all that can be accomplished with rhythmically organized frequencies of sound. The power of music in social bonding is profound, and can be experienced with ease every time that we put an old record on, or listen to melodies blooming from a radio. Music is social, and in sharing music (with each other, or with the artist as when listening to music alone) we experience one of the most intriguing and mysterious ways in which we bond with one another.

So whether you prefer the orchestrations of Beethoven, the harmonies of The Beach Boys, or the vocal melodies of Rhianna, share and experience your music with others and let the rhythm make you move… your brain is telling you to!

“Music is a world within itself; it’s a language we all understand.”

-Stevie Wonder


[1] If you are interested in how this is possible, there is a wealth of research concerning how regions of the brain involved in planning and performing limb movements are activated when one listens to music, more so than when listening to other sounds. For more information look into the wonderful work that Dr. Jessica Grahn is conducting by checking out her profile or her TedXWesternU talk.

Blindsight: do you believe your eyes?

Blindsight: do you believe your eyes?

From very early in life, we are told that we see with our eyes. This seems intuitive; when we close our eyes we don’t see anything, and when change where our eyes are facing we then change the location of our visual field. Moreover, we rely on the sense of sight [arguably] more than any other sense. It is seen as infallible (i.e. “I know what I saw”). So we see with our eyes, right?

Surprisingly, this is actually wrong.

Although we use our eyes as visual sensory organs, they aren’t really appropriately attributed with the function of sight. The truth is, we see with our brains.

Sight is not simply defined, but essentially involves the perception of objects and figures in space. Sight is what allows us to navigate our environment when we cannot use other senses, such as audition or tactile exploration. It turns out that eyes are not necessary for object perception, nor are they sufficient.

Thinking about the perception of objects and figures, it is easy to find examples of ‘sight’ without the input of visual information. When we dream, we are not observing objects in the true surrounding environment, but rather they are being presented to us from activation in the visual centers of the brain (parts of the occipital lobe). We have the perception here, without the use of our eyes.

In some cases, we can even see that blind individuals (or those with significant visual impairment) report having perception of space that cannot be attributed to actual sensation. In a condition called Charles Bonnett syndrome, individuals with severe visual impairment can experience incredibly vivid visual hallucinations that mimic actual sight so accurately that they mistake their ability to see as returned.

There are other types of visual hallucinations that can occur, generally stemming from the activation of visual areas of the brain in the absence of visual sensation from the eyes. In many cases, these visual perceptions are difficult to distinguish from a genuine perception of the environment.

Additionally, eyes on their own are not sufficient for perception of the environment. In a rare condition called blindsight (a.k.a. cortical blindness), individuals who suffer brain damage due to injury or stroke have impaired function of their visual cortices. In this case, their eyes function perfectly fine; they respond to light in the environment and can regulate a normal circadian (night-day) rhythm, and transmit sensory information to the brain. However, due to the damage to the areas of the brain responsible for interpreting this information, the patient will report not being able to see anything. Even more interesting is that these individuals can respond to objects in their environment using sight!

How is this possible? Well it turns out that not everything we view with our eyes is consciously available to us. Neural projections from the eyes go to both the visual cortex (the later developed and more modern ‘conscious’ areas of our brains) and a subcortical (beneath the cortex; beneath ‘conscious’ awareness) pathway in the brain. In the case of blindsight, the conscious visual pathways are disrupted due to damage to the cortex, but the subcortical pathway is left in tact. This more ‘primitive’ subcortical pathway is responsible for reflexive movements, which is why individuals with blindsight will not be able to perceive anything in their environments, but will also use their hands to reflexively block an object flying toward them so as to prevent harm.

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 1.49.23 PM

As you can see in the above image, projections from the eyes take two paths. In the more explicit visual pathway, projections head to the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus, and from there go to the visual cortecies where this information can be processed and used to construct our perception of the visual environment. In the subcortical pathway, the eyes project to the superior colliculi, which then project to the pulvinar nucleus of the thalamus. This allows for reflexive response to visual stimuli, without conscious perception. In blindsight, the damage is in the cortex.

So what we know as sight is likely our interpretation of visual perception. Moreover, this perception is easily fallible. As elegantly explained by Steven Novella:

“When someone looks at me and earnestly says, “I know what I saw,” I am fond of replying, “No you don’t.” You have a distorted and constructed memory of a distorted and constructed perception, both of which are subservient to whatever narrative your brain is operating under.””

So really, the things that we see might not actually be as reliable, coherent, or as accurate as we believe. In fact, it is even biased, as Dr. Daniel Gilbert describes in his book Stumbling on Happiness, the brain is in a sort of contractual agreement with the eyes, as “…our brain accepts what the eyes see and our eye looks for whatever our brain wants.”

Science has elucidated how fallible this system can be (and how certain we can feel in it’s accurate portrayal of the world), with the clinical presentation of blindsight and hallucinations, as well as the thorough examination of false memories (memories believed to have occurred to an individual with confidence, when in reality they are fabricated). So we do not see with our eyes, we see with our brains.

What should we take from this? Well, there are two perspectives that we could adopt, either exclusively or in tandem.

  1. We could establish that we cannot trust our senses. Indeed, this was one of the major philosophical arguments established by Descartes, and drives an existential view of reductionist philosophy.
  2. We can acknowledge that there are things beyond our conscious perception that likely have the capacity to influence us in profound ways in which we are unaware.

I prefer to take these points in tandem. I regret that I do not trust the stories of individuals who have claimed to see theologically significant figures, or have had the experience of being abducted by aliens. This is not to say that I don’t trust these individuals, but rather, I would not trust my own senses if found in such circumstances.

However, at the same time I like to think that there are aspects of sensation beyond our conscious awareness that have yet to be elucidated. The discovery of blindsight is intriguing because if we were to assume that we see with out eyes, then we would not have an explanation for how someone without sight can respond to visual information. Moreover, if we were to assume conventional ideas of gravity, then the discoveries concerning the Higgs boson would never have been elucidated.

The truth is that there is much that we don’t know. There are many things which science cannot explain… yet. This is by no means a theological argument; it is a challenge of such. Just because we admit to not understanding a phenomenon due to our conventional model of how things work (i.e. science) does not mean that there is no explanation, just that we haven’t established one yet. Theological arguments actually do the opposite, in my opinion; they assume that the explanation has been long known (i.e. in Biblical text), even though many of them are inconsistent with scientific knowledge.

So the moral here then becomes a motif that is ubiquitous in the life of intellect; ponder that which has no explanation, but never assert the nonaffirmable aspect of experience. Embrace the uncertain mystery that is the world which appears around you.

Although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating. – Carl von Clausewitz

Unproductively Anguished: from Epictitus to modern life

Unproductively Anguished: from Epictitus to modern life

Conflicts are a central part of human life, as how these conflicts or ‘problems’ are resolved tends to shape our perceptions of the world, our selves, and our futures. Unfortunately, not all conflicts have quick and easy solutions, and some might actually have no desirable solution.

I would argue that negative events in which we are not in control of are the most devastating, simply because we tend to unproductively exhaust ourselves as the situation fails to get better. We might even be predisposed as animals to be the most affected by these scenarios, as is evident in reports of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is essentially a way of describing the eventual withdrawal or depression associated with an animal learning that there is a negative event that they have no control over (i.e. a mouse learns that they cannot escape a painful shock). In terms of humans, we might not need repeated negative stimuli to engage in helplessness, because we tend to live in our heads and can anticipate negative events without them actually occurring very frequently.

In cases such as these, it is common for us to turn to our friends and/or family members, who would likely respond with some derivative of the following quote:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” – Reinhold Niebuhr

The first part of this quote suggests that we shouldn’t exhaust ourselves with things that we don’t have control over. An interesting example of this comes from Epictitus, which I will briefly describe.

Epictitus was born a slave in the Greek-speaking Roman province of Phrygia. One day when he was working in the field, his master proposed the idea of tightening his leg brace to lower the possibility that Epictitus would run away. Epictitus protested this, stating that tightening the shackles would break his leg. Ignoring his plea, the slave master tightened the shackle, and broke Epictitus’ leg in the process. Though in pain, he was not upset with his leg being broken, and instead carried on working. The slave master was puzzled by this (as many would be), and asked Epictitus why he was not upset that his leg was now irreversibly broken. Epictitus responded, stating that since there was no possibility of his leg healing, there was no real purpose to getting upset about it. The slave master eventually let him go (a sick irony), and he went on to be a great philosopher.

So how does this story relate to our everyday lives? Well, for starters, Epictitus represents a hyper-rational being, of which logic is central. He utilized anguish and anger as tools to solve problems. Therefore, when the option was either to be upset and have a broken leg, or be indifferent and have a broken leg, Epictitus was able to see that the only difference between these two options was the addition of negative feelings if he were to be upset. Thus, the most rational and productive thing to do would be to accept that his leg was broken, and move forward with his life.

I feel like this is something that we strive toward (or rather, we should strive toward). When a family member dies, it is universal for other members of the family and friends of the deceased to be sad, maybe even angry. However, I believe that feelings of helplessness are amongst the most exhausting. You can’t bring them back to life, and this bothers you. In Epictitus’ hyper-rationality, the best thing to do would be to instantaneously move forward with your life and accept that which you cannot change. I feel as though eventually people get to this point. But this normally takes quite a bit of time, and is exhausting for many. The implications of religious faith might help or hinder this process, depending on one’s interpretation or beliefs.

I confess that I have been described as an idealist, but I think that Epictitus’ logical withdrawal from that which we cannot control is wise. Anyone who has gone through bereavement, been rejected from their dream school, or has had some other negative event occur to them knows how difficult and how helpless it can make you feel. As such, it might be best for us to take a step back, look at our lives in the third person if possible, as ask: “what is my anguish accomplishing?”

In most cases, the stress and negative feelings affect you the most. Productive emotions serve some purpose, but these negative feelings are not immediately productive. However, learned helplessness seems to be ubiquitous in nature. Other instincts, such as ‘cheater detection’ (the ability to single out people who are not fair, or who take more than their fair share of resources), seem to have adaptive significance – we should not want to be share resources with someone who might steal, rob, or kill one of our primitive social peers. However, learned helplessness seems to be a less adaptive by-product of something we call ‘hope.’ We always want to be optimistic, to hope that things will be better. This can lead us to dead ends, to psychopathology, and to immense distress in some cases.

Paradoxically, sometimes things will only get better when we accept that which we cannot change them. Acceptance is the final stage of the Kübler-Ross model for dealing with grief, after which we can continue our lives. However, I feel like the stages which precede this acceptance are various emotional consequences of psychological reactance.

Some forms of psychotherapy, including Cognitive therapy, emphasize this reactance as a quirk of human nature; a consistently demonstrated presentation of irrationality in response to stress. It is only after making this irrationality aware to the affected individual that that are able to gain peace in their life, and so reflection may offer a great amount to the anguish that we experience on a daily basis. We mustn’t exhaust ourselves.

Grief is natural; anger is natural. But, remember to take a step back, breathe, and not to let yourself become exhausted with that which you cannot change.

Science and Instinct Blindness: ignorance of ignorance

Science and Instinct Blindness: ignorance of ignorance

About four years ago, I began to develop an intense interest in fundamental science concepts. Before that point, I understood basic concepts in science (like what atoms are, the parts of cells, etc.) but hadn’t really put everything together into a coherent picture of reality yet.

It was after my first full year of undergraduate studies, when I really began merging my knowledge of science with the reality that I was observing around me. I was working a factory job to help pay for my tuition, and needed to keep my mind occupied somehow so as to not drift into a hypomental insanity. I alternated between practicing the lyrics to One Week by the Barenaked Ladies (might have done more harm than good, but I can now sing the whole song), and thinking about the big picture of everything that I had learned in my undergrad so far.

The conclusions that I came to were intriguing to me. During the school year I had enjoyed learning about thermochemistry, genetics, and classical mechanics (to name a few… it was a busy year!) on individual levels, but never had the opportunity to take a step back and look at the ‘big picture.’ Fortunately, I had the opportunity to start tutoring other students during this employment, and found refuge in the intellectual challenges that would follow.

You see, as a tutor you begin your work with a student in the middle of their knowledge base. The student has (hopefully) already been introduced to the topic that they need help with by their teacher, been taught a specific way of solving problems, and has maybe even done some practice problems using this method. As the tutor, you are then required to assess their knowledge and strategies and find out where these strategies fall short. I knew this much about tutoring. What I didn’t know was that the students I would be helping would change my perspective of the world in a very short amount of time.

In psych 101 (yes, I am referencing psych 101; a faux pas, perhaps) we learned about instinct blindness. This concept explains our tendency to ignore fundamental interesting things about ourselves and the world around us that we overlook because they seem obvious. An interesting article describes an evolutionary reason for instinct blindness, suggesting that we tend to ponder (and do we ever!) issues of social importance more than those which are interesting, but less relevant to survival. This might explain a bit about why more people tend to get boggled down into why their crush is talking to them more (“like, OMG. Are they into me, or something?”) than thinking about things that don’t tend to cross our minds, like why we need to breathe as organisms, for example. Questions alike the later are among those that I was asked while tutoring students in science.

It is really easy to take in information and accept it. However, this is not science. Science is not facts (a common misconception), but rather it is a process of discovery; a composite of methods used to determine unknowns and find meaning in the chaos that surrounds us. Therefore, when I was asked such fundamental questions, I was engaging in science with the students. Moreover, I saw it as an opportunity to engage them in science as well.

It turns out that the reason as to why we need to breathe brings together concepts concerning physiology, cell biology, general and biochemistry (and no, ‘because we need oxygen’ is not an acceptable answer, because the truth involves much, much more). But at some point between a plethora of multiple-choice examinations and short-answer questions from my undergrad, I had mistaken facts as science rather than the the true science of the challenges that students were bringing to me. I had inadvertently neglected to take the knowledge I had learned for what it was; puzzle pieces to the elaborate multidimensional jigsaw that surrounds us; snapshots of what’s really going on in nature. Moreover, it was the students who actually ended up being more scientific than I in their free ability to question fundamental concepts that I had simply accepted as fact.

Why does this matter? Well, these students are the future of science. To be honest, many of the ‘smartest’ individuals I have ever met are extremely (and admirably) competent in restating an enormous amount of information. They know the facts! However, I have learned the most from those who have little ‘science knowledge’ and a LOT of questions, some of which my highest achieving peers neglected due to their own instinct blindness.

The moral of this story is to challenge your own naivety. We all fail to question the fundamental drives of our everyday behavior. Why are we so upset with that person? What really drives us to get up in the morning? And why are those flowers that just bloomed so beautiful?

Don’t get boggled down into the cryptic stagnating world of passive knowledge acquisition. This leads to a passive life, and a lack of experiencing the majesty of the world around us. I used science as an example, because I believe that we are all scientists. We all try to discover new things, have new experiences, theorize how the world works, and make predictions as a way of benefiting our understanding of ourselves and others. When scientists become too absorbed in solving one equation, they can loose sight of the amazingly complex ways in which that science interacts with the entire world all the time (you know that the physics governing your laptop or smart phone continue to govern the universe beyond a physics exam, right?). Equivalently, I feel as though many people tend to micromanage their lives; always working toward goals, holding grudges, focusing on money to buy things. Stop for a minute, listen to the sound of the wind rustling through the trees, listen to your own thoughts, be introspective…

So, question everything! Be philosophical if that’s productive for you. Science is a process not limited to concepts in chemistry and physics, it surrounds us and envelops our decision making in everyday life, and fuels our curiosity of how the world works. Go fourth as a scientist of your own life, and challenge your instinct blindness.

Cogito ergo sum.

Autism and MMR: Tracing the Fuse

Autism and MMR: Tracing the Fuse

Recently, an epidemic of mass hysteria has been developing in many regions throughout North America regarding the safety of vaccinations. Many individuals in favor of the movement known, as ‘anti-vaxers,’ promote the idea that vaccinations are not safe in their scheduled administration. More extreme believers have even opted to have their children expect from being vaccinated due to concerns with potential health risks.

Note: This post is difficult to write, mainly because people have such polarized views on the matter. For information on how vaccinations work (as this will not be discussed here), check out this link. This post will concern why I think this movement has gotten out of hand. Also, since this is an issue of opinion versus science, I am going to cite a lot of other peer-reviewed sources to substantiate my claims. Anti-vaxers, I encourage you to follow this example in any responses you have here or anywhere else.

Specifically, individuals in support of this movement have expressed significant concern as to the risk of children developing Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) – a developmental disorder primarily categorized by social and communication deficits (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) – as a result of being administered vaccinations. This concern has been denoted in the scientific community as the Autism Vaccination Controversy (AVC) (e.g. Poland & Jacobsen, 2011). Health researchers have extensively studied this subject of public concern and have reported null effects for many of the proposed links between vaccinations and these proposed health concerns (Taylor et al. 1999; Dales et al. 2001; Fombonne & Chakrabarti, 2001; Kaye et al. 2001; Madsen et al. 2002). In spite of this evidence, anti-vaxers still insist on the validity of their concerns and continue to protest the use of vaccinations in infants, a decision that potentiates numerous negative repercussions for public health. From the evidence available in the field, it is clear that the anti-vaxer movement has been grounded in unsubstantiated research claims, and continues to thrive due to a confirmation bias that plagues the very system of healthcare in which we are supposed to thrive.

Pertinent to the understanding of the vaccine hysteria concerning the etiology of Autism, is the disgracing study written by (former) physician Andrew Wakefield. In 1998, Wakefield wrote the infamous ‘Lancet study,’ which seems to represent the origin of this irrational and misguided fear of vaccinations. It is easily comprehensible why this study caused an initial surge of such panic and public concern. Wakefield et al. (1998) suggested a link between enterocollitis (a bowel pathology) and the onset of neuropsychiatric disorders in children. He supposedly found an association between bowel disease and developmental regression. Several other studies have found that humans diagnosed with ASD are more likely to develop gastrointestinal diseases, suggesting that the two problems may be linked (e.g. Kawashima et al., 2000; Kohane et al., 2012; Uhlmann et al., 2002).

However, Wakefield also suggested multiple times throughout his paper that there might be a connection of these pathologies with the administration of the MMR vaccination. The MMR (Mumps, Measles, and Rubella) vaccination is given to inoculate an individual with protein coats found on these viruses (NOT the virus itself), so that their immune system can recognize them when they come in contact with an active form of the virus, thus preventing illness. Wakefield is very careful not to explicitly say that there is a relationship between MMR and ASDs, but there are enough references in the text to lead the reader to the assumption that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that there is a likely link. This publication was removed from the journal in which it was originally published, and Wakefield was later stripped of his medical license in 2008 due to ethical conflicts with his practice as a physician and researcher. This research claim, although flawed and publicly degraded by the scientific community, planted the seed by which the anti vaccination movement would grow.

One published scientific paper in itself is not normally sufficient to elicit such a dramatic public response. As such, following the publication of the Lancet Study, the media took off with reporting the unsubstantiated findings of this paper as fact. Most profound of all is the heavy reliance of these findings on anecdotal evidence from the parents of those with ASDs (see McCarthy, 2011).

But why are people persuaded by such claims? Psychological evidence suggests that anecdotal reports, though not empirically valid or reliable, are considered to have the largest influence on the general public’s willingness to accept data. For example, eyewitness testimonies – though usually biased, readily malleable, and inconsistent – are considered by most to be the most believable form of evidence in courtroom settings (McLeod, 2009). This concept may help to elucidate another reason why the Wakefield study was rejected by the scientific community but accepted by the general public. The only relationship between ASD and MMR vaccinations was anecdotal evidence from the parents of the children with ASD. According to the paper, the parents reported noticing the onset of symptoms shortly following their child’s inoculation with the vaccine. Suspiciously, no information in the paper was given as to how the parents were asked about the onset of symptoms, and a large body of evidence suggests that the way in which a question is asked can dramatically influence the answer (Loftus and Palmer, 1974).

Finally, the concept of confirmation bias becomes incredibly relevant when considering the maintenance of the anti-vaxer movement. The anecdotal evidence previously mentioned is extremely effective at gaining the initial interest of the public, because it provides an explanation for the increased incidence of Autism – a topic of concern to many. However, once people have taken a perspective that fits their cognitive biases, they typically seek out confirmatory evidence; a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. This desire to confirm ones current mindset manifests itself in the overemphasizing of confirmatory evidence and the degradation of (and formation of alternative explanations for) evidence against one’s hypothesis. In terms of the anti-vax movement, this cognitive bias causes people to readily accept confirmatory evidence that supports the risk of vaccinations while ignoring or refuting evidence against the movement. The anti-vaxers’ persuasion tactics, the misjudgment of data, and the cognitive confirmation biases associated with the AVC have developed and sustain this movement.

In summary, the anti-vax movement appears to be based on the misreprentation of scientific data, and the skewed perceptions of those who have succumb to their own cognitive biases. This has resulted in the sustainability of anti-vaccination culture in spite of compelling evidence showing that the connection between ASD and MMR inoculation is weak and unreplicated in the literature (and in fact, was never actually shown!). This creates a significant issue in the maintenance of public health throughout North America.

In spite of repeated attempts from clinicians and health care professionals to spread the word, the impacts of such a culture remain evident. A rising number of concerned parents are opting their children out of routine vaccinations due to this scare (Taylor et al., 1999; Fombonne et al., 2006). This raises significant concern for the prevalence of these diseases – which can be deadly – as fewer people being vaccinated increases the risk for epidemiological outbreaks of severe illness. The benefit of vaccinations is well documented and their link is ASDs are skewed and unsubstantiated.

In order to limit the negative impacts of the anti-vaxer movement, and to correct the misconceptions of the research supporting their claims, it is essential that the psychological forces that drive the movement be elucidated. It is only by understanding the people who support anti-vaccination movements that they may be reached and realize the implications of their actions.