Category: Science

The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

The defining features of the human condition can all be traced to our ability to stand back from the world, from our selves and from the immediacy of experience. This enables us to plan, to think flexibly and inventively, and, in brief, to take control of the world around us rather than simply respond to it passively. This distance, this ability to rise above the world in which we live, has been made possible by the evolution of the frontal lobes.

For centuries we’ve wondered about the left hemisphere and right hemisphere divide.

The “left hemisphere is detail oriented, prefers mechanisms to living things, and is inclined to self-interest, where the right hemisphere has greater breadth, flexibility, and generosity.”

This division, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist explains in The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, “helps explain the origins of music and language, and casts new light on the history of philosophy, as well as on some mental illnesses.”

“My thesis,” McGilchrist writes, “is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities:”

two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognizably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain. It follows that the hemispheres need to co-operate, but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture.

These two hemispheres “coexist together on a daily basis, but have fundamentally different sets of values, and therefore priorities, which means that over the long term they are likely to come into conflict. Although each is crucially important, and delivers valuable aspects of the human condition, and though each needs the other for different purposes, they seem destined to pull apart.”

Both of these hemispheres are “hugely valuable,” but they stand in opposition to one another and “need to be kept apart—hence the bihemispheric structure of the brain.”

McGilchrist explores the differences between our two hemispheres and argues that modern society, and its formal structures, favors the left brain:

An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness, has come about, reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere.

Yet we require both sides of our brain … (much like our Apollonian desire for control and order balances our natural Dionysian wildness).

It might then be that the division of the human brain is also the result of the need to bring to bear two incompatible types of attention on the world at the same time, one narrow, focused, and directed by our needs, and the other broad, open, and directed towards whatever else is going on in the world apart from ourselves.

Below is a fascinating video from RS Animate of McGilchrist explaining how our ‘divided brain’ has profoundly altered human behaviour, culture and society.

Still curious? Read The Master and His Emissary.

Rachel Sussman: The Oldest Living Things in the World


Contemporary artist Rachel Sussman has photographed the world’s oldest continuously living organisms that are 2,000 years old and older. Braving some of the world’s harshest climates spanning from Antarctica to Greenland, the Mojave Desert, and the Australian Outback, she’s compiled her photographs and stories of her epic adventures into the beautiful new book The Oldest Living Things in the World. The book includes 124 photographs and 30 essays.

Here are some of the pictures.

Jōmon Sugi, Japanese Cedar (7,000 years old; Yakushima, Japan)
Jōmon Sugi, Japanese Cedar (7,000 years old; Yakushima, Japan)
Spruce Gran Picea (9550-years-old Fulufjället, Sweden)
Spruce Gran Picea (9550-years-old Fulufjället, Sweden)
Antarctic Moss (5,500 years old; Elephant Island, Antarctica)
Antarctic Moss (5,500 years old; Elephant Island, Antarctica)

Still curious? Sussman gave a 2010 TED talk on the project.

(photos from Colossal)

Leonard Mlodinow: The Three Laws of Probability

"These three laws, simple as they are, form much of the basis of probability theory. Properly applied, they can give us much insight into the workings of nature and the everyday world. "
“These three laws, simple as they are, form much of the basis of probability theory. Properly applied, they can give us much insight into the workings of nature and the everyday world.”


In his book, The Drunkard’s Walk, Leonard Mlodinow outlines the three key “laws” of probability.

The first law of probability is the most basic of all. But before we get to that, let’s look at this question.

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.
Which is more probable?

Linda is a bank teller.
Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

To Kahneman and Tversky’s surprise, 87 percent of the subjects in the study believed that the probability of Linda being a bank teller and active in the feminist movement was a higher probability than the probability that Linda is a bank teller.

1. The probability that two events will both occur can never be greater than the probability that each will occur individually.

This is the conjunction fallacy.

Mlodinow explains:

Why not? Simple arithmetic: the chances that event A will occur = the chances that events A and B will occur + the chance that event A will occur and event B will not occur.

The interesting thing that Kahneman and Tversky discovered was that we don’t tend to make this mistake unless we know something about the subject.

“For example,” Mlodinow muses, “suppose Kahneman and Tversky had asked which of these statements seems most probable:”

Linda owns an International House of Pancakes franchise.
Linda had a sex-change operation and is now known as Larry.
Linda had a sex-change operation, is now known as Larry, and owns an International House of Pancakes franchise.

In this case it’s unlikely you would choose the last option.

Via The Drunkard’s Walk:

If the details we are given fit our mental picture of something, then the more details in a scenario, the more real it seems and hence the more probable we consider it to be—even though any act of adding less-than-certain details to a conjecture makes the conjecture less probable.

Or as Kahneman and Tversky put it, “A good story is often less probable than a less satisfactory… .”

2. If two possible events, A and B, are independent, then the probability that both A and B will occur is equal to the product of their individual probabilities.

Via The Drunkard’s Walk:

Suppose a married person has on average roughly a 1 in 50 chance of getting divorced each year. On the other hand, a police officer has about a 1 in 5,000 chance each year of being killed on the job. What are the chances that a married police officer will be divorced and killed in the same year? According to the above principle, if those events were independent, the chances would be roughly 1⁄50 × 1⁄5,000, which equals 1⁄250,000. Of course the events are not independent; they are linked: once you die, darn it, you can no longer get divorced. And so the chance of that much bad luck is actually a little less than 1 in 250,000.

Why multiply rather than add? Suppose you make a pack of trading cards out of the pictures of those 100 guys you’ve met so far through your Internet dating service, those men who in their Web site photos often look like Tom Cruise but in person more often resemble Danny DeVito. Suppose also that on the back of each card you list certain data about the men, such as honest (yes or no) and attractive (yes or no). Finally, suppose that 1 in 10 of the prospective soul mates rates a yes in each case. How many in your pack of 100 will pass the test on both counts? Let’s take honest as the first trait (we could equally well have taken attractive). Since 1 in 10 cards lists a yes under honest, 10 of the 100 cards will qualify. Of those 10, how many are attractive? Again, 1 in 10, so now you are left with 1 card. The first 1 in 10 cuts the possibilities down by 1⁄10, and so does the next 1 in 10, making the result 1 in 100. That’s why you multiply. And if you have more requirements than just honest and attractive, you have to keep multiplying, so . . . well, good luck.

And there are situations where probabilities should be added. That’s the next law.

“These occur when we want to know the chances of either one event or another occurring, as opposed to the earlier situation, in which we wanted to know the chance of one event and another event happening.”

3. If an event can have a number of different and distinct possible outcomes, A, B, C, and so on, then the probability that either A or B will occur is equal to the sum of the individual probabilities of A and B, and the sum of the probabilities of all the possible outcomes (A, B, C, and so on) is 1 (that is, 100 percent).

Via The Drunkard’s Walk:

When you want to know the chances that two independent events, A and B, will both occur, you multiply; if you want to know the chances that either of two mutually exclusive events, A or B, will occur, you add. Back to our airline: when should the gate attendant add the probabilities instead of multiplying them? Suppose she wants to know the chances that either both passengers or neither passenger will show up. In this case she should add the individual probabilities, which according to what we calculated above, would come to 55 percent.

These three simple laws form the basis of probability. “Properly applied,” Mlodinow writes, “they can give us much insight into the workings of nature and the everyday world.” We use them all the time, we just don’t use them properly.

Richard Feynman: The Universe in a Glass of Wine

A poet once said, “The whole universe is in a glass of wine.” We will probably never know in what sense he meant that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look at a glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe’s age, and the evolution of stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization: all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering, as did Louis Pasteur, the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts—physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on—remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!

From the lecture titled “The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences,” in which Richard Feynman highlights the connectedness of everything to everything else. Feynman’s lectures are collected in The Feynman Lectures on Physics.

Science, Religion, and The Universe

I could listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson talk all day. His argument that persuading with facts is not enough, offers some fantastic insight.

Here he talks to Bill Moyers about our mysterious universe and whether faith and science can be reconciled. This is part two of a three part series. The first part is on the new cosmos and the second on science literacy.

In an interesting moment he touches on why, despite the invention of Google street view and online tours, there is no substitute for the real thing.

If you tour the air and space museum in Washington, which has the history of flight, including space flight … (The) museum people could have made an exact replica of the Apollo 11 command module that went to the moon. And then we’d say, here is an exact replica.. so that’s ok. But if I now say this actual thing went to the moon, intellectually that means something different to you. Your eyes see exactly the same thing. You can make a replica … with all the blemishes and the heat shield damage but if you know it is the real thing the meaning is magnified.

Breakpoint: When Bigger is Not Better

Jeff Stibel’s book Breakpoint: Why the Web will Implode, Search will be Obsolete, and Everything Else you Need to Know about Technology is in Your Brain is an interesting read. The book is about “understanding what happens after a breakpoint. Breakpoints can’t and shouldn’t be avoided, but they can be identified.”

What is missing—what everyone is missing—is that the unit of measure for progress isn’t size, it’s time.

In any system continuous growth is impossible. Everything reaches a breakpoint. The real question is how the system responds to this breakpoint. “A successful network has only a small collapse, out of which a stronger network emerges wherein it reaches equilibrium, oscillating around an ideal size.”

The book opens with an interesting example.

In 1944, the United States Coast Guard brought 29 reindeer to St. Matthew Island, located in the Bering Sea just off the coast of Alaska. Reindeer love eating lichen, and the island was covered with it, so the reindeer gorged, grew large, and reproduced exponentially. By 1963, there were over 6,000 reindeer on the island, most of them fatter than those living in natural reindeer habitats.

There were no human inhabitants on St. Matthew Island, but in May 1965 the United States Navy sent an airplane over the island, hoping to photograph the reindeer. There were no reindeer to be found, and the flight crew attributed this to the fact that the pilot didn’t want to fly very low because of the mountainous landscape. What they didn’t realize was that all of the reindeer, save 42 of them, had died. Instead of lichen, the ground was covered with reindeer skeletons.

The network of St. Matthew Island reindeer had collapsed: the result of a population that grew too large and consumed too much. The reindeer crossed a pivotal point , a breakpoint, when they began consuming more lichen than nature could replenish. Lacking any awareness of what was happening to them, they continued to reproduce and consume. The reindeer destroyed their environment and, with it, their ability to survive. Within a few short years, the remaining 42 reindeer were dead. Their collapse was so extreme that for these reindeer there was no recovery.

Jeff Stibel

In the wild, of course, reindeer can move if they run out of lichen, which allows lichen in the area to be replenished before they return.

Nature rarely allows the environment to be pushed so far that it collapses. Ecosystems generally keep life balanced. Plants create enough oxygen for animals to survive, and the animals, in turn, produce carbon dioxide for the plants. In biological terms, ecosystems create homeostasis.

We evolved to reproduce and consume whatever food is available.

Back when our ancestors started climbing down from the trees, this was a good thing: food was scarce so if we found some, the right thing to do was gorge. As we ate more, our brains were able to grow, becoming larger than those of any other primates. This was a very good thing. But brains consume disproportionately large amounts of energy and, as a result, can only grow so big relative to body size. After that point, increased calories are actually harmful. This presents a problem for humanity, sitting at the top of the food pyramid. How do we know when to stop eating? The answer, of course, is that we don’t. People in developed nations are growing alarmingly obese, morbidly so. Yet we continue to create better food sources, better ways to consume more calories with less bite.

Mother Nature won’t help us because this is not an evolutionary issue: most of the problems that result from eating too much happen after we reproduce, at which point we are no longer evolutionarily important. We are on our own with this problem. But that is where our big brains come in. Unlike reindeer, we have enough brainpower to understand the problem, identify the breakpoint, and prevent a collapse.

We all know that physical things have limits. But so do the things we can’t see or feel. Knowledge is an example. “Our minds can only digest so much. Sure, knowledge is a good thing. But there is a point at which even knowledge is bad.” This is information overload.

We have been conditioned to believe that bigger is better and this is true across virtually every domain. When we try to build artificial intelligence, we start by shoveling as much information into a computer as possible. Then we stare dumbfounded when the machine can’t figure out how to tie its own shoes. When we don’t get the results we want, we just add more data. Who doesn’t believe that the smartest person is the one with the biggest memory and the most degrees, that the strongest person has the largest muscles, that the most creative person has the most ideas?

Growth is great until it goes too far.

[W]e often destroy our greatest innovations by the constant pursuit of growth. An idea emerges, takes hold, crosses the chasm, hits a tipping point, and then starts a meteoric rise with seemingly limitless potential. But more often than not, it implodes, destroying itself in the process.

Growth isn’t bad. It’s just not as good as we think.

Nature has a lesson for us if we care to listen: the fittest species are typically the smallest. The tinest insects often outlive the largest lumbering animals. Ants, bees, and cockroaches all outlived the dinosaurs and will likely outlive our race. … The deadliest creature is the mosquito, not the lion. Bigger is rarely better in the long run. What is missing—what everyone is missing—is that the unit of measure for progress isn’t size, it’s time.

Of course, “The world is a competitive place, and the best way to stomp out potential rivals is to consume all the available resources necessary for survival.”

Otherwise, the risk is that someone else will come along and use those resources to grow and eventually encroach on the ones we need to survive.

Networks rarely approach limits slowly “… they often don’t know the carrying capacity of their environments until they’ve exceeded it. This is a characteristic of limits in general: the only way to recognize a limit is to exceed it. ” This is what happened with MySpace. It grew too quickly. Pages became cluttered and confusing. There was too much information. It “grew too far beyond its breakpoint.”

There is an interesting paradox here though: unless you want to keep small social networks, the best way to keep the site clean is actually to use a filter that prevents you from seeing a lot of information, which creates a filter bubble.

Stibel offers three phases to any successful network.

first, the network grows and grows and grows exponentially; second, the network hits a breakpoint, where it overshoots itself and overgrows to a point where it must decline, either slightly or substantially; finally, the network hits equilibrium and grows only in the cerebral sense, in quality rather than in quantity.

He offers some advice:

Rather than endless growth, the goal should be to grow as quickly as possible—what technologists call hypergrowth—until the breakpoint is reached. Then stop and reap the benefits of scale alongside stability.

Breakpoint goes on to predict the fall of Facebook.