A Scientific Look At What It Means To Be Human

Everyone, who can think rationally, will agree that we are here because of evolution. We are the culmination of a nearly imperceptible but unrelenting force of genetic micro mutation for 85 Million earth years. We are the most diversely smart creature to walk this planet yet and we are still evolving. Although all living things can be considered the same at certain level – the least common divisor being Carbon atoms – humans are different in that humans know ‘I’. That which is self and the self knows that it is inside one’s own organic definition of self. We tell other people what our personality is, sometimes to impress and other times to defend, and when no one is looking we let out our other personality. There are a few more of those inside us, some are righteous, some are devious and they are all visible under the universal eye – commonly referred as the mind’s eye which apparently does not judge. It assumes whatever personality we choose and see outside and inside of one’s organic vessel with the ‘eye’. More and more, psychologists and behavioral scientists are finding out that our choice of personality is not totally under our control, that a massive amount of external factors and internal states of one’s being have an incredible amount of control over our minds, that the personality we assume is not so much a conscious choice but a subconscious shoo-in. What you think you know is actually what your subconscious mind decided to let you know and, here is the scary part, what you don’t know is beyond human comprehension.

The brain is an exquisitely sophisticated organ that can perceive and analyze information better than any computer. You could blind fold someone to zero visibility and stick their hand out the window and they will instantly sense the sunlight on their arms. But the brain is also primitive compared to things that have existed in nature before it came along. A human brain perceives only a mathematically negligible fraction of the total stimuli that are available for it and that is why when you are out and about driving on the road, you see the tail light of the car in front of you but not the dog in the side-walk well within your visual range. When you turn to look at the dog, you see the dog and its caretaker but you don’t see the shape of the bolt in the bright red fire hydrant right in front of the dog. You brain ignores these information, because they are irrelevant to your conscious choice of the subject to focus. But when you try to remember the hydrant, after coming home, the brain makes up for the missing information with any sensible data that it can plug-in so suddenly you think you saw a hexagonal bolt on the fire hydrant. Our brain devours facts with passion, but when necessary it chooses conceit. For all its sophistication, the brain’s true genius lies in its ability to make sense of our surroundings and make us feel safe in the face of missing information.

If you consider this contradicting behavior of the brain, you may question the idea of reality all together. So much of our actions and decisions and manifestation of ‘self’ is dependent on the perceived reality and if we cannot be certain of the reality of our surroundings then all this might as well be a dream. One’s intuition can only lead us so far, and not any further, because one’s brain does not have the knowledge to realize or the strength to face the false reality, which is not a choice, and its ramifications on the perceived and often fiercely guarded ‘self’. Time to bring in the scientists.

Neuroscientists and researchers Richard J. Davidson,R. Beau Lotto, V.S. Ramachandran will show you how the brain works, how it learns new things, how it adapts to changing stimulus and how it can even feel and react to amputated limbs in this program, titled ‘Being Human’ which gives you an astonishing look at the power and the vulnerabilities of our brain. The link I have provided focuses specifically on sensations and perceptions and through various simple experiments, on stage, backed with several research studies, Davidson, Lotto and Ramachandran will show you why you are not really who you think you are and more importantly what you think is real is not really real.

Being Human: Perception & Sensations

[Post: 269 of 365] [Days Missed: 75]
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A Fictional Map Day – The Close

‘Talk the talk and walk the walk’ is a common phrase in the American language, which, by the way, is a warmer and delightful version of British English, which in turn is regarded by many scholars as one of the most depressing languages to have ever been devised by humans. This also reveals the common, albeit mistaken, notion that British people are actually humans. They are not.

The people in our conference room were all humans and they, at this moment, looked very tired and a bit uneasy. They have been inside this conference room for more than 6 hours now and their almost ergonomic chairs were delivering low but consistent doses of sharp pain to their spines which made them alter their postures slightly and frequently and this only caused the pain to shift to other areas like the neck and the butt. The time on the large old-style wall clock showed that it was ten minutes to four in the evening and whoever that looked up to see the time let out an audible sigh. There were numerous audible sighs throughout the room. That is when the lady said, ‘Let’s Walk The Wall’.

If you hadn’t noticed, we just joined the seemingly unconnected threads from the last two paragraphs into a single context that we can work with for the rest of the article. The first thread is the common American phrase ‘Talk the talk and walk the walk’ and the second thread is that lady announcing ‘Let’s walk the wall’. Two very similar phrases and one of them is a poorly amusing play on the other. Thought you should know.

The phrase ‘Walk the wall’, involves, more or less precisely, the following events:
One member from one of the groups mentioned, in some detail, in the last article, gets up to the giant weekly calendars covering the walls with Sprint Task Slips stuck to them on a weekly timeline. The member, lets call him/her, a person, walks to one end of the wall where the first ‘Sprint Task Slip’ for that person’s group is present. Then the person explains the task that is scribbled on the slip and then how long it might take to finish that task. For instance, one person could say – ‘The task is to route instrumentation events through service bus in JSON format. It will take one and a half weeks’. And then the person scans the room to see if any one asks any questions about whatever it was that the person just said. If someone raised a question, the person has to answer it satisfactorily. If after more than three attempts the person could not convince the concerned questioner, that task is ‘parked’ – which is basically ripping out that Sprint Task Slip from the calendar and sticking it to a large and brightly pink chart on which someone with good calligraphy skills had already written ‘PARK’ with a sharpie. Then the person, seething with rage directed at whoever asked that damned question, somehow masks it and proceeds to explain the next Sprint Task Slip under his group’s name and then bravely confronts further questions and so on. He does so from the first slip to the last one, starting at one end of the wall eventually reaching the other end. This encompasses the serious process called ‘Walk the Wall’. And every group in the room has to participate in it.

Again, these are serious people doing serious stuff and are getting paid for it.

By the time all the Sprint Task Slips were spoken for and all the related questions were fielded heroically, about ten percent of the Sprint Task Slips end up in the ‘Park’. Remember the ‘park’ here refers to the large pink colored chart that says ‘Park’ on it, not the public facility used for recreation and, in some cities, procreation. The groups that walked the wall early were probed more thoroughly than the groups that came later and it is yet to be confirmed by behavioral scientists whether that was because of the mysterious phenomenon called ‘getting tired of this sh*t’ syndrome. It is known to cause restlessness, frustration and pronounced boredom in serious professionals after being kept in a conference room for a full eight hours. Interesting side note – the same condition can be induced in small children in under 5 minutes, especially in classroom settings.

There are many ways in which this series of events can be brought to a close. There are many more ways in which the author can choose to end it. But nothing can really explain the swiftness and precision with which our hard-working professionals left the conference room. The lady did not announce ‘Go through the open door’ or they did not have to fill out an Exit Action Slip and stick it to the wall chronologically. It was twilight outside and people did what people do best.

They simply exited the building.

[yep. done. no more.]

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Bad Mood Makes You Work Better

I am not making this up, I promise. A research done at the University Of New South Wales show that people with bad mood process information more critically leading to better (read:safer) decisions. Again, I am being serious here. This is from a completely serious study from a University in Australia (a common wealth country).
Don’t believe me? Here is a direct quote from the Telegraph of UK (the country that had all the common wealth)

“Whereas positive mood seems to promote creativity, flexibility, cooperation, and reliance on mental shortcuts, negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking paying greater attention to the external world,”

Consider this for a minute. One one hand you have ‘creativity, flexibility, cooperation” and on the other hand there is ‘attentive, careful thinking paying greater attention'(notice that attention comes in twice). If you were a CEO of a company, who would you hire? a person who is happy and creative or someone who is grumpy and attentive? I am going to go out on a limb and say that unless you are running General Motors or a fast food joint or the Postal Service you would want the happy person.
For the study, the researchers made participants get into sad or happy moods by making them watch movies and recall events from their lives that invoke sad or happy emotions. Then they were asked to judge the truth of urban myths and rumors. Those in a negative mood were less likely to believe these statements. Here is another memorable quote.

“Positive mood is not universally desirable: people in negative mood are less prone to judgmental errors, are more resistant to eyewitness distortions and are better at producing high-quality, effective persuasive messages”

Apparently, positive mood is not desirable in certain parts of the universe, especially in the ‘Australia’ part of the universe. I am not a science person – in that I am not made of science – but there is no way being sad can make you productive. I can understand fear – fear of failure is one of the leading, albeit bad, motivator for many people.

Even seeing past the fact that this study was done at a country which was a designated prison for the most uncivilized offenders of Her Majesty The Queen’s England, how does it make sense that an annoyed, grumpy and all around terrible person would do a better job compared to a happy and creative person? Even the bouncer dudes outside night clubs look pleasant; frightening but pleasant – for their size.
So, in an unprecedented move for our blog, I am calling this study bullshit!!

Oh, sorry. I mean ‘Bullshit, mate! crocky’.

[Post: 194 of 365] [Days Missed: 62]
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Obstacles Make You Creative

Did you know that setting constraints for yourself will make your work even better ? I always thought that if there are no restrictions then your creative juices flow like a the mighty amazon and you can create incredible pieces of work. But, turns out, by placing constraints, we are forcing our brain to solve problems to get over the constraints and there by making it even more alert to new ways of thinking and processing information.

Hey, don’t take my word for it. Wired magazine is world famous. According to a new article in Wired.com researchers at Amsterdam University have done studies that reveal this mildly surprising phenomenon. In their experiments, the researchers forced test subjects to perform a manual task while trying to come up with as many anagrams as possible. One needs to be able to think in multiple ways to form anagrams. In all cases the participants who were forced to do the tedious task came up with more anagrams than the control group that did not do the tedious task. There were other experiments conducted by the scientists and all of them yielded similar results. Whenever the subjects had something restricting their creative work, their brains over compensated, resulting in increased creativity. Results from these experiments have been published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

This explanation makes sense because we often seem to produce surprisingly good results whenever we face something impossible, whether it’s an inescapable project deadline or just coming up with brilliant excuses for your boss. From my personal experience, the excuses tend to be much more interesting and believable if I don’t have enough time to think about them. Evidently, the restraint which is lack of time in this case, increases my creative powers to come up with exemplary lies, err, I mean excuses.

Have you experienced this in your personal or professional life ?

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