Babies Are Magic

I’m on the Plymouth & Brockton bus riding from Hyannis, MA where I visited my Dad, to Boston, MA where I have my first statistics class at 1:30. 

But most of that is irrelevant. When we stopped at Barnstable, a young (in his 30s) father got on the bus with his two daughters, I’m guessing ages 2 and 5. 

The little girl started crying shortly after. And I mean like hysterically crying. I could tell everyone on the bus was getting upset about it. And her dad was panicking doing everything he could to get her to calm down. I got the feeling she just wanted her mom. 

Whenever I got the chance, I would try to grab her attention. I felt like she needed some feminine energy. So when she took a break from squirming and crying and looked in my direction, I made and maintained eye contact. She was hesitant at first but began to like it. And she stopped crying just like that! She didn’t smile too much but I think she was glad a woman was paying attention to her. 

After that she relaxed and laid on her dad’s chest. He’s in the seat in front of me and has been holding her the whole time. She began looking out the window. That’s what I do on the bus. And she quickly fell asleep and has been sleeping since. 

When her Mom got on the bus a couple stops later, she expressed her astonishment to her husband that their baby girl was taking to the bus ride so well. 

Summer Soundtrack: Child’s Eyes by Midnight Snack

Check these guys out! I have yet to see them live but it is actually a life goal of mine. I first heard them playing at Park Street MBTA Station sometime last year and they blew my mind; I sat and watched them play for like half an hour. They had a fake jukebox set up, and were pretending to be mute. The two guys Zack (guitar) and Jack (vocals) and sat one in front of a mic and one on top of a cajon (box drum). They had MBTA passengers request songs from the jukebox and they would light up and sing, and after they would go back to being mute. It was genius! Now, they are touring the country and playing in a band. I believe some band members attended Berklee College of Music.

At any rate, their latest album is below. Clicking it links to Amazon. I promise you won’t regret the purchase, I haven’t!

Concept Album: The Stage

In 2016, Avenged Sevenfold released “The Stage”, a concept album about rapid technological progress, artificial intelligence and arguably metaphysics. The Stage is the band’s first album with Capitol Records after over a decade with Warner Bros., and it is called their “most ambitious” album by Rolling Stone.

In an interview, frontman M. Shadows mentions nanotechnology as the inspiration for the song Paradigm. The title of the song Fermi Paradox is referencing a theory in physics which states that there is a contradiction between the lack of evidence and the high probability that extraterrestrial civilizations exist. But when you directly experience the music — that is, you jam out and let it take control of you for the time being — you realize that there are some serious metaphysical understandings being communicated.

A7X has historically been labeled hard rock or metal, but their new album challenges traditional genre categorizations. In the aforementioned interview, M. Shadows says “No BS this time – we’re just going to do everything that we want to do, from the live show to the merchandising, to how we present this thing and how we release it.”

Die-hard and faithful fan Lee Murray explains that their album Nightmare was considered metal, while Hail to the King took a step back and embodied hard rock. But with The Stage, they wanted to go in a whole new, progressive direction. Through 11 songs lasting over 73 minutes, The Stage explores obscure time signatures and features vocal harmonies that switch between major and minor thirds within the same song, making for unique and unforgettable verses — especially in the song Creating God. In an interview found on YouTube, band members revealed that they wanted to put more dissonance into the new album to the extent that listeners would be asking whether or not it was intentional.

It is also the first album to feature drummer Brooks Wackerman as part of the band, and he brings intricacy and complexity to new levels. Lee argues that Synyster Gates plays like never before: “He clearly has been practicing economy picking and sweeping. To explain for non-musicians, this is a different style of using the pick which produces different sounds and effects. For the sake of explaining the technique, it would be fair to say that Synyster Gates can cram 20 or more notes into just a short bit of music which would normally fit 8 or so notes. It may be less rhythmically accurate but it gives him his own unique sound.”

The lyrics in this album are suggestive of deep philosophical themes to be found in both Eastern and Western schools of thought. The songs touch on life and death, what it means to be human, what we consider the “self”, the consequences of our actions, our perspective, what is and isn’t knowable, consciousness and intention, the future and determinism, subjective versus objective reality, God, and the mind. Even quantum physics is implicated in the song The Stage. Many of these themes aren’t unique to The Stage, but can be found in the lyrics and sound of past albums.

One notable song on the album that is lyrically saturated with philosophical undertones is the song Simulation. The song represents the search for meaning where one finds themselves questioning and trying to understand their place in the world (“total understanding don’t seem to mean a thing, when you can’t see behind the silver screen, a figurine“). The lyrics “You only exist because we allow it” suggests interdependence and how we all rely on one another to survive. “The curtain rises but who dares to pull the strings“; time is happening, but we are simultaneously making decisions that will alter time itself. At the end of the song, there are faint voices shouting in the background: “You had one thing to do! You fucked it up, you piece of shit!” My best guess is that these are supposed to be someone’s thoughts, and someone is finding themselves thinking these thoughts. This hints at themes of self-awareness and what we are “made” of: “I’ve questioned all the voices in my head, are they mine or have I been misled?” And — if one finds that they have been misled: “You’ve been beaten down time and time again… But still, you find yourself at the center of it all”. Who is this “self” that remains?

It is important to consider how much effort and intention went into The Stage. The album is something listeners can respect even if they aren’t fans of heavy metal, just based on how much thought went into it. At this point it is more than just making music for Avenged Sevenfold; they are passionate about humanity and want to communicate those passions through their music. They did this successfully by intending for the whole album to be an experience in itself that inspires and educates their fans. Big questions can be asked when confronted with a piece of art.

All of this music, all of these themes and events are taking place on the same “stage”. Something is being created from nothing. Check out the video in the link above to see what is happening. Click the album cover below to enlighten yourself with good music!

5 Amazing Inventions Scientists Have Made for Our Health

In the 21st century, scientists have come steps further to a flawless understanding of how the human mind and body function. These discoveries have inspired the creation of inventions that operate with goals like assisting the body in day to day activities as well as listening to and providing positive feedback to the mind. These five inventions demonstrate how much we can accomplish when scientific knowledge of the human condition informs medical treatments.

Up first is LEVL, a small machine that non-invasively measures the concentration of acetone in our breath when we exhale. Researchers wrote in a study published in the Global Journal of Obesity, Diabetes, and Metabolic Syndrome that “breath ketone (acetone) is the ketone of choice for detecting early stages of ketosis”. LEVL presents information about our rate of weight loss in real-time using a nanosensor. We no longer have to wonder whether we are losing water, muscle, or fat because LEVL reflects the body’s current state of fat burn. For under fifty dollars a month, users can check their acetone levels throughout the day: while they are exercising, or before and after meals. In this video, scientist Joe Anderson, Ph.D. explains how the metabolic process works.

Equally inventive is RELIEFBAND, a device worn on the wrist that was designed to help relieve nausea and vomiting. A study published in the journal Supportive Care in Cancer tested the product on patients undergoing chemotherapy. The results showed that while wearing the band, occurrences of nausea and vomiting were significantly reduced.The Reliefband can also be used to soothe dizziness caused by using virtual reality technology. It works by sending gentle electrical pulses to the vagus nerve, located at the pressure point on our wrist. This nerve has an intimate connection with the part of the brain that is responsible for nausea relief and participation in our parasympathetic nervous system. Check out ReliefBand’s video describing how it works. RELIEFBAND is currently selling for less than one hundred dollars.

My personal favorite health invention was created by composers and neuroscientists. MELOMIND speaks for itself. Released in 2015, this product was designed for just about anyone to use. However, in a 2015 study conducted by researchers Ramirez, Palencia-Lefler, Giraldo and Vamvakousis, measurements were taken of electrical activity in the brains of elderly participants as they listened to their favorite type of music. Results of the test showed that depression symptoms improved in the majority of participants as they “directed” their emotional state to either speed up or alter the tempo or loudness of the music. So, these are not your average headphones — using electroencephalogram (EEG) technology in the form of detachable electrodes, MELOMIND measures the brain’s electrical reaction to the music, and then delivers a personalized playlist targeted to soothe us when we are stressed. Included with purchase of the product is an app that features step-by-step coaching and software that allows you to track your progress. This video explains more in-depth how MELOMIND works with the body. By supporting the company’s project in the form of a monetary pledge, you can receive a pair of headphones (plus a t-shirt and stress ball!)

Created in Japan this decade, HAL is a robot suit that can conform to and support each individual’s body type. The suit communicates with the brain via bio-electric signals that are measured on the surface of our skin. HAL assists users with bodily movements by first measuring the sort of motion that is intended by the wearer. Then, HAL automatically adjusts in order to support the body in producing the intended movement. The intention to move is communicated to the limb via signals from the brain, while the simultaneous movement of the suit encourages the brain to “learn the feeling of walking”. Over time, the causal relationship between movement and signals to the brain enable people to exercise their limbs in a way they once were unable to. Best “suited” for those in need of hybrid assistive limb(s), HAL was designed for both medical and non-medical uses.

Used in conjunction with an invasive procedure are the Nano Retina eyeglasses. These futuristic shades are made by a company located in Israel and are suited to treat retinal-degenerative diseases. Before the glasses are worn, an implant is inserted above the retina. The procedure takes less than an hour. The Nano Retina glasses use 3DNi technology, which features hundreds of microelectrodes communicating with the other retinal cells around them. After calibrating individual visual preferences, the implant communicated with the glasses via Wi-Fi. The visual field can then be experienced based on fine-tuned light settings that can be modified by the user.

Thanks to modern scientific progress, medical technology is becoming more widespread and user-friendly. Scientists are creating technological products that can treat nausea and vomiting, measure the rate of fat burn, counter stress with music, and give the gift of sight back to those who lost it. Although many products target those with specific medical histories, other products are being geared toward the general public. In the future, more products like these will be easily accessible and found in the home.

Recap of New Scientist’s “Instant Expert” Event

Late October of 2016, I attended a seminar hosted by New Scientist magazine called “Instant Expert: Relativity and Beyond”. It took place at the First Church of Boston and was the first “Instant Expert” event to be held in the U.S.

The seminar featured 6 speakers, listed in order: David Keiser of MIT, Robert Caldwell of Dartmouth College, Priya Natarajan of Yale University, Lisa Barsotti of MIT, James Guillochon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Tanseem Zehra Husain, physicist and writer.

Now, in the next 800 words or so, you are going to become as much of an expert as I have, on topics including: special relativity, dark matter, black holes and string theory. I hope your thinking caps are on.

The seminar began by laying out the basics of the one theory that all following theories relied on: Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Now, unless you’re a physicist, you’re probably unfamiliar with the details of the theory. However, you are likely very familiar with the 3-dimensional world that we live in. Recently, it has been proven that Einstein’s theory is correct: 4-dimensional spacetime is not flat, but curved, relative to the mass of objects within it. Here’s an example: the moon orbits the Earth because it is following the shortest path through space and time, which is dictated by the gravity of the objects around it – like our Earth.

David Keiser – the first featured speaker at the event – illustrated the point using Einstein’s own “twin paradox”. Imagine twin human beings traveling at different speeds throughout the universe: one twin is sitting on a rocket-ship that is orbiting the Earth, while the other is standing still on planet Earth. Finally, the two twins reunite on Earth, only the Earthbound twin appears to have aged quite a significant amount compared to their sibling. This effect is due to the nature of spacetime, in which there is a difference in the elapsed time between events measured by observers.

Following David Kaiser was speaker Robert Caldwell on “the past, present and future” of our universe. He spent an information-saturated forty minutes explaining how the 14-billion year-old universe has been expanding since the big bang, and that expansion itself is accelerating; galaxies are moving away from each other, mutually. Along with many members of the audience, I learned about things like “where light has been”, which is measured by cosmic imprints left behind by the “curves” that light has traveled through in space. I learned that scientists have also found evidence of the origin of the universe by measuring amounts and temperatures of cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, as well as how densities of energy scattered through out the universe change over time. Caldwell concluded with his three predictions for the fate of the universe: a “big rip” in which acceleration never stops, a cold and lonely “big chill” where dark energy dominates, or a “big crunch” where the universe resorts back to a hot and dense state like in the Big Bang.

Next up was Priya Natarajan, who stretched the limitations of our knowledge with the introduction of dark matter and energy. The stuff is apparently the most dominant element in the universe, and a key factor in all structure formation. Dark matter is unseen — like air — and an exotic particle that has hung around since day one — like atoms. Although a single particle has never been found, we have learned that they are lazy and don’t have much of an influence on their own. Dark matter does not emit, absorb or reflect radiation, but it can bend light rays and influence the motion of stars and galaxies. Particles behave like they do in fluid, minus the pressure — they don’t collide, but instead graze past each other. In galaxies, dark matter is needed to explain the stability and formation of the structures within them. I was amazed at how an image of the formation of galaxies by dark matter looked just like neural networks in the brain.

The next two speakers, James Guillochon and Lisa Barsotti, discussed black holes and gravitational waves. In September of 2015, the first gravitational wave was recorded at two different laboratories in the U.S. at the same exact time. The events recorded at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) are hugely valuable for the scientific community. In a black hole, the gravity is so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape. When two black holes are orbiting each other, they eventually merge to create a new, bigger black hole. Because there is no light associated with gravitational waves like there is with black holes, there is no way to measure the waves themselves using light. The “ripple” caused by the merge of two black holes is a gravitational wave that can be measured by its effects on particles of matter that are “free to move”. Other gravitational waves are created from energy that is emitted by the orbit of a star (this too creates a distortion of spacetime). There is an upcoming worldwide network of these advanced detectors.

Lastly, and my personal favorite, was theoretical physicist Tanseem Zehra Husain, the first Pakistani woman to become a string theorist! She brought to our attention that Einstein’s theory does not “play nicely” with the other theories that scientists are using today. This is because different theories are using different frames of reference.

Most of what scientists measure depends on a coordinate system — even something like spacetime. Einstein’s goal was to not have to depend on a coordinate system because of its effects on what is being measured (ever heard of the observer effect?); Einstein formulated his theory in terms of invariants, or common truths that are agreed upon despite reference frames (or quantities that are agreed upon despite their measurement, like the speed of light).

These discoveries led Husain to pursue her chosen field of study, string theory, and inspired her explanations for there being at least 10 dimensions including the 3D world that we live in and 4D spacetime. Did I lose you yet? If not, I’ll have to end on string theory and hope you are interested enough to look into it for yourself. Godspeed!

Memory Reconsolidation: What You Think You Know

Every human being — not just those including army veterans and victims of abuse — struggles to process the information taken in moments of crisis. Under normal circumstances, people don’t choose to put themselves in the way of danger, but those who come face to face with death can face serious repercussions based on their mind’s way of adapting to adversity.

Within the memory system known as “working memory”, we receive new information and encode it so that it can be stored long-term when it does not need to be used. This process is known as “consolidation”, and when it is interrupted, memories do not become stored — but they don’t just “vanish”, either.

In case you weren’t familiar with the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), here are a few:

  • Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares.
  • Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma.
  • Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated and angered. (thanks to the ADAA)

Because the memory is never formed or dealt with and processed, it is forced to come back to haunt you. Neuroscienctists have admitted that memories are not stagnant and isolated from the rest of our consciousness; instead, they are malleable and susceptible to alteration.

When we recollect, we “reconsolidate” our long-term memories: this means that we bring what used to be in our subconscious into conscious awareness, where the memory is (physically, but the cause is otherwise unknown) manipulated. While memories are being remembered they are also being made “unstable”, so the mind has to add or remove something from them in order to stabilize them again for storage and future recollection. Keep in mind that this process is NOT exclusive to any disorder — it is something that happens each and every time we think of the past.

Now, just as it takes time to learn a new skill, it takes time to reconsolidate a memory (as in several hours); but when one recollects a painful memory of a traumatic event, the stored information is so “hot” and emotionally overwhelming that it cannot be processed in the normal way. Instead, the mind avoids the information. The memory does not degrade, but remains fresh and intrusive.

This process can also be interfered with, resulting in a confused mess of information that never got the chance to be worked through. The threat of death is an especially influential interference, and increases one’s risk factor of being diagnosed with PTSD.

The latest treatment for PTSD is called “Exposure Therapy” and consists of the traumatized person coming in repeated contact with the frightening thing. Confrontation with the repressed anxiety causes the person to realize that it is not the anxiety that is dangerous and so it does not need to be avoided by refusing to remember the traumatic event. The protocol, however, is not extremely effective and can sometimes be harmful and traumatic in itself, depending on the way it is carried out.

To conclude — one should not put too much faith in their own memory or avowal of past experience. What happened in the past is done with, and the most important thing is to focus on the present!

WORKS CITED:

Memory Reconsolidation and Treatment for PTSD

Reality-In-Itself

If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it still make a sound?

This thought experiment was posed by philosopher George Berkeley in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. The question brings up metaphysical dilemmas pertaining to our knowledge of reality: is there a difference in the way that objects exist? Are there objects that exist independently of us? If there are, do we have any way of knowing those objects?

I have come to believe — from experience, and then reasoning upon it — that the reality we believe in conventionally (throughout our day to day lives) is conceptually constructed. By this I mean that notions of ourselves, beliefs about other people and the societies we live in, and other ideas of this nature are nothing more than stories we tell ourselves to better navigate our lives. Therefore, “reality” is contextual and exists only in each individual human mind.

Don’t worry, I’ve come prepared to defend my argument (with emotionally charged beliefs)…

We do not come into this world with a “blank slate” psychologically. Our minds are essentially “programmed” by nature to perceive the world in a certain way — that is, relative to us. The human mind has the unique capability of recognizing things like cause and effect, spatiality, and temporality: all of these become the basis for how we experience reality. 

We also each experience life from one specific metaphysical point of view. As conscious beings, we are able to experience life as a subject, and perceive the world as objects: this becomes reality as we know it. I like to call this intermediary point of view our “mental filter”, but it can also be summed up by the word “subjectivity”. It is something that is inherent in perception so that we take immediate sense-information as true without questioning it. As Arthur Schopenhauer points out at the outset of his famous work The World as Will and Representation:

..It becomes clear and certain to [man] that he does not know a sun and an earth, but only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth; that the world around him is there only as representation, in other words, only in reference to another thing, namely that which represents, and this is himself… (3)

I agree with Schopenhauer in that the subject-object distinction lies at the heart of the way man commonly understands reality. The conventional definition of existence seems to be “that which exists, is that which is recognized by the human mind”. Without minds, there would be no questioning existence or non-existence. This brings us back to our question, “If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it still make a sound?” My answer would be no, because there are no ears around to perceive sound, and sound is something that is relative to a perceiver of sensation. However, the tree falling would be some kind of event because ultimately, nothing happens in a vacuum. Perhaps it would cause a ripple in all of existence, or it would land on some insects and prevent another creature from feeding, or it would damage the tree-house built by natives.

This brings me to my next belief: that nothing exists independently of something else. Instead, everything exists interdependently as manifestations of one and the same substance. This substance is unknowable by human means — but we are able to experience it by virtue of being an expression of it. Schopenhauer puts forth a similar proposition in the latter part of The World as Will and Representation:

Therefore [the mistake] lies not in the defectiveness of our acquaintance with things, but in the very nature of knowledge itself. For if our perception, and thus the whole empirical apprehension of the things that present themselves to us, is already determined essentially and principally by our cognitive faculty and by its forms and functions, then it must be that things exhibit themselves in a manner quite different from their own inner nature, and that therefore they appear as through a mask. This mask enables us always merely to assume, never to know, what is hidden beneath it… (195)

This mental filter or “mask” is the reason that we do not normally experience reality as it is, but only how it appears to us based on our experiences and concepts formed. For example, we assume that there are causes in people and objects that serve as catalysts for other events to happen — but if everything is the same substance, how can one thing affect another? Schopenhauer uses his “Principle of Sufficient Reason” to describe why our mind acts in this way. To paraphrase his explanation: we use the concept “cause” as an explanation for the occurrence of an effect, which only exists for the human understanding, instead of percieving events as they are . For us, there is nothing without a reason for why it is that way, and not another way. This way of reasoning transcends any experience. Perceived causes are merely distinguished expressions of the same universe that are participating in the same perceived moment (imagine waves moving on the surface of the ocean while the bottom is still).

You might be wondering at this point about a “true” reality, or something that is capable of experienced as it is, despite our cognitions of it. The philosopher Immanuel Kant called objects of that nature “things-in-themselves” and as his contemporary Schopenhauer uses the term as a springboard to explain his ideas. He posits that things-in-themselves cannot be known AS things-in-themselves, because knowing involves a subject, which means that knowledge can only arrive at a representation of the thing-in-itself, and neglect to “capture” what the object ultimately is. Although there is a reality that we are all a part of that underlies all experience and distinctions, it is only known through acting naturally and knowing the self; this means that one must lose the false idea of themselves  as a subject in order to grasp what this ultimate reality is like. However, this is not an easy task… our minds tend to work unreflectively, and the processes to blame are deeply engrained in our consciousness.

Works Cited

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation