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Gardens Need Walls: On Boundaries, Ritual, and Beauty

This essay attempts to place ritual in the context of evolving complex systems, and to offer an explanation for why everything is so ugly and nobody seems to be able to do anything about it

Jana Bou Reslan shared a link.

March 4, 2015 By

On Boundaries and Their Permeability

Boundaries are an inherent, universal feature of complex systems. Boundaries arise at all scales, defining the entities that they surround and protecting them from some kinds of outside intrusion.

To be functional, boundaries must be permeable, allowing the entities to take energy and information from outside themselves. If we are looking at complex systems, we will find boundaries everywhere.

Boundaries are structures that protect what is within them and allow their contents to solve smaller, more manageable design problems than would be possible in a perfectly interconnected system.

Islands are surrounded by natural boundaries. Strange varieties of life arise on islands that are not seen anywhere else, precisely because they are cut off from the densely interconnected systems present in the ocean and on large land masses.

Islands, small systems surrounded by a natural ocean boundary, give life the opportunity to try amazing stunts that would be impossible on a large landmass.

Drifting daisies evolve into trees; drifting iguanas learn to swim; fruit flies evolve into fantastic, showy varieties; crabs grow a meter long and figure out how to open coconuts.

Tree kangaroos, ground parrots, and giant tree skinks are niches only available on islands.

And when the boundary opens (often because of that great destroyer of natural boundaries, humans), the unique species on islands are often out-competed by species that evolved in the diversity-flattening zones of great land masses.

Boundaries drive diversity.

Note that the moon, despite being separated from the continents of Earth by a significant boundary, is not teeming with unusual life. This boundary is too great, too harsh, and not permeable enough to allow life to adapt to it in the first place.

Life itself has discovered a number of effective boundaries that allow it to diversify and flourish.

The cell membrane is the most basic boundary.

Trivially, there are no multicellular creatures without cell membranes;

less trivially, there are no complex creatures whatsoever without this protecting, organizing, problem-space-limiting innovation.

And in evolving a cell membrane, the most important problem to solve was how to get things through it: how to make it permeable enough to be useful.

The diversity explosion of the Cambrian era was aided by the discovery of a different kind of boundary: the exoskeleton.

Exoskeletons provided a boundary protecting individual trilobites, which differentiated into many different forms and niches. Cell walls, evolving independently in multiple taxa, protect and shape the forms of plants.

Another kind of boundary that limits the space of problem solving and promotes diversity is Pattern 13 of Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein’s A Pattern Language: the Subcultural Boundary that occurs between neighborhoods in cities:

The mosaic of subcultures requires that hundreds of different cultures live, in their own way, at full intensity, next door to one another.

But subcultures have their own ecology. They can only live at full intensity, unhampered by their neighbors, if they are physically separated by physical boundaries.

Distinct neighborhoods and distinct ways of life can only evolve within permeable boundaries of some kind, so that they can have communication with the outside world, but not be simply absorbed, flattened, and made uniform by forces outside them.

When natural boundaries between human groups are lacking, there has been intense pressure in human history to create effective boundaries of other kinds; military arms races across poorly-defined boundaries may be seen as building a new kind of boundary.

This is one interpretation of “good fences make good neighbors;” only good boundaries are capable of organizing people well. (It is important that G. K. Chesterton chooses fences for his famous analogy about reformers.)

Kevin Simler considers the functions of boundaries, from cell walls to national borders (amusingly I had written most of this essay, including the cell wall analogy, before I read Kevin’s excellent take).

If we think of agency as “the ability to take action,” boundaries are essential for an entity to have any kind of agency.

In the present essay I am mostly interested in boundaries around groups much smaller than a nation state. (Like City-States?)

I suggest that these small group entities – overlapping entities of multiple sizes, from Dunbar-sized “tribes” to neighborhoods of 7,000 or so – have increasingly had their boundaries undermined, and have largely ceased to exist and function.

I suggest that ritual, my subject for the past two posts in this series, both functions to draw boundaries and to energize and coordinate human groups within the boundary so defined.

I suggest that the loss of these small groups, in favor of nation-level organization of atomized individuals, has had serious consequences for human welfare and human agency. We are missing a layer of organization essential for our happiness.

Individual Imagination, Groups, and Flourishing

Perhaps the most important question of our time is how human beings can flourish and enjoy satisfying, meaningful lives under conditions of material abundance and extreme cultural interconnectedness.

In A Dent in the Universe, Venkat proposes that “imagination” is a crucial survival skill at higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Here, I propose that individual “imagination” – even at its best – is woefully underpowered to solve problems of human flourishing by itself.

The lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid reflect material well-being.

But material abundance is not itself the cause of anomie and angst. Rather, ancestral, evolved solutions to lower-level problems also tended to contain solutions to higher-level problems as well.

As these ancestral solutions are made obsolete by solutions that are more efficient on the material level, the more ineffable, higher-level problems they solved present themselves anew. Simple abundance of food is not the cause of obesity, but rather the loss of carefully evolved ancestral diets.

Our ancestors found it easy to get to sleep because they were tired from intense physical activity; we often find it a challenge to get to sleep because modern solutions to material problems do not include physical activity.

We are lonely and bored not because of material abundance simpliciter, but because the specific cultural patterns that have reproduced themselves to produce material abundance have whittled away the social and psychological solutions that were built into old solutions to material problems.

Some challenges encountered at supposedly high levels of Maslow's hierarchy

Some challenges encountered at supposedly high levels of Maslow’s hierarchy

I hope to motivate a humility toward carefully evolved ancestral patterns, and, especially, to the conditions and forces that allowed such patterns to evolve in the first place.

The old patterns, exactly as they existed in the past, simply will not work to solve modern problems. But new, effective patterns do not come in a “flash of insight” to individuals; individuals have relatively little agency and power in shaping the way things are. Individual imagination is weak; evolution is strong.

Boundaries as Constraints on Design Complexity

Evolution, like human designers, faces constraints. Design problems that are too large, complex, and densely interconnected are unlikely to be solved by either process.

(The individual can mentally process about 6 interactions, or the combinations of 3 variables, and the more complex the system the more varied expertise is demanded from the community)

Christopher Alexander opens his 1964 book Notes on the Synthesis of Form with a quotation from Plato’s Phaedrus:

First, the taking in of scattered particulars under one Idea, so that everyone understands what is being talked about . . Second, the separation of the Idea into parts, by dividing it at the joints, as nature directs, not breaking any limb in half as a bad carver might.

What does it mean to carve reality at the joints?

Alexander provides an explication with an analogy to a hypothetical design problem. He introduces the concept of “fit”, the absence of misfit, which is to say, a design that solves its problem.

“Fit” is a song that is beautiful, a chair that is comfortable, a kettle that is not too heavy or expensive and that heats water quickly. “Misfit” is ugliness, discomfort, uselessness, or other failures to solve design problems.

Now imagine an abstraction, a grid of one hundred lightbulbs connected to each other, ten by ten, representing a design problem with many variables. If a light is on, it corresponds to misfit; if a light is off, it corresponds to fit. Each light (variable) is connected to some number of other variables, just as, for instance, the variable of teakettle material is connected to expense and to its capacity to heat quickly.

If all variables are uniformly connected to all other variables, the system has little chance of reaching an equilibrium of “fit” by trial and error; the problem is too complex.

However, if there are zones of dense interconnectivity that are not densely connected to each other, then reality may indeed be capable of being “carved at the joints,” and less difficult design problems exist that have a chance of being solved independently of each other, whether by evolution or by human agency:

An interpretation of Alexander's design space metaphor

An interpretation of Alexander’s design space metaphor

The existence of these zones of dense interconnectedness, that are not densely interconnected to each other, is a prerequisite for solvability. They are surrounded by a kind of permeable boundary, as pictured.

This is analogous to “information hiding” in object-oriented programming; just as a living cell controls what enters it and acts on it, an electronic “object” limits access to its internal processes, accepting and returning only certain types of information.

More ominously, a “black box” with limited interaction that solves a problem effectively is often so useful that it backfires: it becomes a new, required “solution” that limits the space of future design, often ironically resulting in poor fit. (More on this in the later section entitled “Tiling Structures and Monstrosities.”)

Another relevant analogy is the concept of life and death in the game of Go. The game of Go is a game of drawing boundaries. Within a boundary of stones, a structure is “alive” if any action on it can be met with a reply that preserves it, even when surrounded by enemy stones.

A kind of programming is occurring here, a complex tree of if-then statements abstracted into shape. Only a bounded structure can “live,” but within its bounds, it cannot be vulnerable to dangerous inputs.

A perfectly impermeable boundary – a solid group of stones, with no holes or “eyes” – is dead, captured when the opponent encircles it. But a structure with enough “eyes” (holes where enemy stones may be placed) lives, and is held as territory.

To summarize, boundaries function to protect their contents from harmful intrusion, to allow for the solution of smaller design problems, and to preserve and encourage diversity.

On the other hand, solutions developed at small scales are of limited utility if they cannot be adapted for use on larger scales.

There must be communication and connection in order for bounded entities to live. Perfectly impermeable boundaries result in stasis and death, in social and biological life as in the game of Go.

(Without the sea, England would have been a dead entity long time ago?)

Networks allow bounded entities to communicate and coordinate, and allow solutions developed at small scales to be used more widely. However, densely interconnected systems carry inherent risks not seen on the lower levels of organization.

As we have seen, good design solutions cannot emerge from systems that are too densely interconnected. Beyond that, complex networks are vulnerable to (often inscrutable) risk of large-scale collapse.

And black box “solutions” often seem to reproduce themselves like a plague, limiting design space and preventing new refactorings. The next section introduces some analogies to help think about networks and the balance between boundaries and interconnectedness.

Networks and Complex Interconnected Systems

On May 30, 2002, three ice climbers died in a fall on Mt. Hood.

The incident, described in Laurence Gonzales’ excellent Deep Survival (Chapters 6 and 7), involved several of the most common factors in mountaineering accidents: the climbers were roped together, without fixed protection. That means that they did not anchor themselves to the ice, but attached themselves to each other, so that if one fell, all fell.

They chose to form a tightly-coupled system (via the rope), without anchoring that system physically to the ice they clung to. “When a system is tightly coupled,” Gonzales says, “the effects spread. When a system is loosely coupled, effects do not spread to other parts of the system.”

Like falling dominos, the mistake of one ice climber spreads to the others he is roped to – especially in the absence of adequate protection. The hope of one or more climbers executing a “self-arrest” – stabbing an ice axe into the ice before it is too late – is hampered by the fact that the force of a free-falling human (or two) is enough to dislocate the shoulders of a human strong enough to hold onto his axe.

There are two important points to this analogy.

First, in tightly-coupled (densely interconnected) complex systems, one entity can send force into the system that destabilizes the entire structure.

Second, humans are not good at noticing the dangers inherent in such systems.

The type of accident reported in Gonzales’ 2003 book continues to occur with clockwork regularity. Gonzales quotes a climber who characterizes climbing roped together without fixed protection as “a suicide pact” – but climbers are apparently not good at noticing when they have entered such an unreasonable pact.

There are many problems with this analogy. In the case of climbers roped together without fixed protection, all the risk comes from individual accident or mistake. In reality, the risks inherent in complex systems often come from the system itself – though individual inputs are often dangerously propagated as well, as with parasite infestation in agriculture.

Another problem with the climbing analogy is that, in complex systems, there are many levels of “falling” other than death. Certainly, the extremely interconnected system humans have built risks complete collapse and extinction. But being “roped together” in a sufficiently interconnected system may also mean that we become stuck at low levels of well-being, unable to evolve better solutions at small scales to problems not quite as dire as death and extinction.

Consider healthcare and education systems that require all citizens to participate in them and prevent smaller, better solutions from evolving.

Obesity, boredom, and loneliness may not be quite as bad as death, but are levels of “falling” that sufficiently connected and tightly-coupled systems impose on their member human beings, limiting their freedom to attempt smaller-scale solutions.

Consider this substitute analogy, for contrast: instead of being suspended on ice, the people are suspended in air on a commercial airplane. Here, people are not roped together, but entirely dependent on a complex system, any aspect of which may fail.

Who “chooses” when to become part of a complex system, and which of its components to accept or reject?

Where is the agency located? Often, poorly-fitting pieces of complex systems seem to be thrust upon us without our consent, with no practical way to refuse it. Network effects can frustrate human agency instead of magnifying it; I call these “tiling structures.”

Tiling Structures and Monstrosities

I use the personal jargon “tiling structure” or “tiling system” to describe a system that causes itself to be replicated, tiling the world with copies of itself. Some tiling structures are biological; humans are a tiling structure, tiling all continents with copies of the same kind of naked primate.

Some are technological; agriculture tiled the world with itself not by making humans healthier, taller, or less prone to famine, but by producing sheer numbers and densities of miserable people for thousands of years so effectively (despite all the famines) that other options for subsistence were tiled out of existence.

Tiling structures are one explanation for why urban design looks so uniform (and so soul-crushingly ugly) throughout the United States.

Certain forms are ubiquitous because they solve certain delineated problems effectively enough to become effectively mandatory: power lines, big box retail, strip malls, freeways, parking lots, and billboards are such powerful patterns that few locales can refuse them, despite their ugliness and the constraints they impose.

Education has tiled the world with itself; it is taken for granted that children are to be locked up in adult-controlled cages for most of the day. Together with the other tiling systems, education has obliterated unique children’s cultures. The democratic government that requires this kind of education (what I call the “free child caging service,” although it is certainly not free) may be regarded as a tiling structure: it tends toward more control and intrusion into the boundaries of smaller entities, constraining what they can do.

Some tiling structures are “top down,” like government education: imposed on sub-entities against their will. Others are “bottom up” – a design problem is solved in such a way that all later actors adopt it, and it gradually becomes just as mandatory and constraining as a top-down imposed pattern.

The blogger Viznut examines this latter dynamic with respect to software development; instead of attempting to solve problems by refactoring from scratch and “cutting reality at the joints,” pre-existing chunks are adopted and glued together to form a monstrosity that just barely works and is riddled with misfit:

Tell a bunch of average software developers to design a sailship. They will do a web search for available modules. They will pick a wind power module and an electric engine module, which will be attached to some kind of a floating module.

When someone mentions aero- or hydrodynamics, the group will respond by saying that elementary physics is a far too specialized area, and it is cheaper and more straight-forward to just combine pre-existing modules and pray that the combination will work sufficiently well.

Viznut, The Resource Leak Bug of Our Civilization

Whether or not this is a fair description of software developers, I think it is an accurate description of how people build their lives. We select from the available chunks and try to fit them together into a coherent whole – an education here, a job there, a box to live in, entertainment to pass the time. These available “life parts” tend to be black boxes in whose design we have little say.

They may not fit together into a satisfying whole at all – the boat they make may not float. Perfectly adequate material solutions fail to provide essential “nutrients” – sometimes literally (as with obesity), sometimes figuratively (sunshine, eye contact, exercise).

It is tempting to accuse a person who cannot make a coherent life out of the available parts of having too little imagination; however, I do not think this kind of problem is one that individual imagination is powerful enough to solve. Even the most imaginative among us will tend to build a “monstrosity” instead of a life.

We may ask a very practical question: where lies the agency that accepts or rejects certain “black box” structures or tiling systems? An important myth of our time is that voting is an effective way for individuals to have agency in a democracy.

The idea that the aggregate will of millions of people is adequately expressed by voting in elections is a rather outlandish claim, and clearly one with much evidence against it, but the “plausibility structure” of democracy causes us to believe this fiction on faith.

Why democracy seems to work

Why democracy seems to work

One pathological boundary that has been imposed top-down by our democratic system is drug prohibition. Total prohibition, in the form of the drug war, drew a boundary that created a very lucrative niche that only the most ruthless, violent actors could fill.

The drug war prevented small-scale, non-totalitarian solutions to drug problems from ever being attempted, including the kind of small group rituals that allow people to use drugs in healthy, prosocial ways.

The drug war hampers small group agency even more than individual agency; individuals may use drugs underground, supplied by those violent niche-fillers, in isolation or among the dispossessed, but if groups attempt to use drugs in healthy ways, a raid is almost guaranteed.

“Prescription power,” limiting the power to prescribe drugs to doctors, is part of the drug war; I do not hold much hope for medicalized drug rituals administered by doctors. Despite wide agreement that the drug war is a failure, humans do not seem to have the agency to end it.

The idea that individual “consumers” express their will effectively by choosing among the options provided in the market is a myth that is related to democratic agency through voting. There is agency in market choice, but it is limited to the options provided, which are in turn limited by what other people are willing to buy. Much of what humans want and need is not possible to supply in markets, and the chunks that are supplied are often not good materials for composing a human life.

I think that only small human groups are capable of supplying these benefits that are difficult for the market to capture. Both producers and government find it easiest to tile the world when humans are atomized into individuals, rather than in small groups with appropriate, permeable boundaries; but a nation of individuals makes it difficult for anyone to experience belonging.

Only a small group, and not “the nation” or, even worse, “Mankind,” can supply social belonging and even multiply agency. A small group has its own agency, in the sense that a group of 200 or 7,000 is capable of more, when coordinated together with boundaries, than the same number of individuals operating completely independently.

(This is why the ideal firm size is not one; transaction costs turn out to be significant.)

Firms are efficient at producing material goods and services for the market, but they are not good at providing belonging and happiness for people.

These small-group levels of organization are increasingly missing. Church membership decreases, and no new cults spring up to take their place. Work, education, legal, and residential design patterns make it difficult for local groups to form and express themselves. Rituals increasingly tend toward the spectacle rather than small group participation. And without rituals to set their boundaries and energize them, small groups cannot thrive.

Boundaries, Agency, and Beauty

A story I have heard about the Langley Schools Music Project is that one of the music teacher’s strategies was to supply the children with instruments that were tuned such that they could not make “off” notes; rather than overwhelm children with a piano full of notes, they were given gamelan or other instruments that only made harmonious notes. The children could immediately pick them up and make music, rather than having to wade through years of inharmonious noise.

“Toy instruments” (the thumb piano is a beautiful and very functional example) reduce the problem solving space: there are fewer options, but they all sound good and can be combined together to make music that exhibits “fit.”

Maynard Owen Williams, writing in National Geographic in 1921, writes about what happens to folk aesthetics when unfamiliar elements are introduced:

In Merv I saw the havoc modern commerce has wrought with lovely Oriental rugs. The same thing is taking place in the peasant costumes of Czechoslovakia, with the same aniline dyes being substituted for vegetable colors, which were not only much softer when new, but which fade into mellow tones no chemical dye can duplicate.

Factories are calling the women from the farms, where they utilized the winter months in working out the designs traced by the village designer or in evolving their own. Thus, gradually the arts of the past are being lost.

Good solutions to design problems – beauty in all its forms – evolve into being as least as much as it they are created by individual human agency. The solution to design problems in the human realm have had a long time to evolve in ancestral cultures, in which they evolved under more bounded, less interconnected conditions than we experience today.

When new variables are added, the old aesthetic cannot instantly absorb them, but must work through many iterations of misfit before good fit is discovered. Individual humans continue to change, elaborate, and shape their aesthetics, but the more elements (choices) are added to the problem space, the smaller the chance of hitting on a good solution.

Christopher Alexander seizes on the same example as Williams in a bit more detail in his 1964 book Notes on the Synthesis of Form to elucidate a model of cultural evolution, which I quote at length:

The Slovakian peasants used to be famous for the shawls they made. These shawls were wonderfully colored and patterned, woven of yarns which had been dipped in homemade dyes. Early in the twentieth century aniline dyes were made available to them.

And at once the glory of the shawls was spoiled; they were now no longer delicate and subtle, but crude. This change cannot have come about because the new dyes were somehow inferior. They were as brilliant, and the variety of colors was much greater than fefore. Yet somehow the new shawls turned out vulgar and uninteresting.

Now if, as it is so pleasant to suppose, the shawlmakers had had some innate artistry, had been so gifted that they were simply “able” to make beautiful shawls, it would be almost impossible to explain their later clumsiness. But if we look at the situation differently, it is very easy to explain. The shawlmakers were simply able, as many of us are, to recognize bad shawls, and their own mistakes.

Over the generations, the shawls had doubtless often been made extremely badly. But whenever a bad one was made, it was recognized as such, and therefore not repeated. And though nothing is to say that the change made would be for the better, it would still be a change. When the results of such changes were still bad, further changes would be made. The changes would go on until the shawls were good. And only at this point would the incentive to go on changing the patterns disappear.

So we do not need to pretend that these craftsman had special ability. They made beautiful shawls by standing in a long tradition, and by making minor changes whenever something seemed to need improvement. But once presented with more complicated choices, their apparent mastery and judgement disappeared. Faced with the complex unfamiliar task of actually inventing such forms from scratch, they were unsuccessful.

It is frequently observed that constraints and obstructions are precisely where great art comes from; far from limiting art, they allow it to happen and feed it – the more demanding the constraints, the better. This paradoxical relationship between constraint and expression is the subject of the movie The Five Obstructions (which I highly recommend).

An aesthetic is one form of a constraint, and aesthetics tend to be developed, elaborated, and enjoyed in small groups. Certain aspects of reality are excluded in order to focus on the ones within the aesthetic. An aesthetic also provides a context in which forms can exist, fit, and be beautiful (or fail to be).

The work of elaborating an aesthetic together, as a small group, providing context for each other’s selves, is some of the fundamental work of being human, a way for humans to be valuable to each other that markets cannot supply.

It is perhaps a hipster universal, and one I share, to declare that modern fashion is ugly compared to almost every “folk costume” ever devised. Clothing is cheaper and more plentiful than it has ever been in human history, and yet we all look terrible. The “chunks” that individuals may select from the market are difficult to fit together into a coherent aesthetic; most retreat into a nondescript uniform (jeans, printed t-shirts, hoodies) that is more of an apology for existing than an outfit.

If people are not good at solving even so simple a problem as fashion, with the help of all those factories, how are they supposed to design excellent lives for themselves? I am not blaming anyone for bad fashion here; I am remarking that we are all deprived of a possible source of beauty and enjoyment by the lack of coherent community aesthetics. We are deprived of both context and excuse for beauty, and individuals are seldom up to the effort and social risk. It is not a problem we are well-designed to solve individually, for it is not an individual problem at all, but one of groups.

The more that economically efficient tiling systems intrusively organize us and our environments, the more beauty is crowded out and eradicated. There is a tendency to imagine that the world is fair and that there must be a trade-off – longer lives and more clothes in exchange for less beauty, perhaps. But it is not clear what entity’s agency is authorizing such a trade. Ugliness is an easy externality to impose because it is difficult for individuals to coordinate against.

Consider the leaf blower.

Millions of people are subjected to loud, unpleasant noise every day so that the removal of leaves from certain areas may be performed more efficiently; this is possible because there is no mechanism for the suffering of those affected by blasts of noise to be internalized by the actors who benefit by making it a bit cheaper to blow leaves around.

Are we better off because gas-powered leaf blowers exist? I submit that we are much worse off, and we have been “tiled” by the leaf blower tiling structure because there was no coherent agency to refuse this intrusion.

Individuals do not have much power to stop the noise; small groups are sometimes successful in excluding them from their environment, but the continued prevalence of leaf blowers indicates the absence of widespread, powerful small-group agency capable of protecting its members’ aesthetic interests.

Noise pollution is rampant and very damaging, but a more subtle form of pollution, equally unremedied, is legible word pollution. Here is Johan Christian Dahl’s 1839 painting View of Dresden by Moonlight:

Words are processed differently than non-words, and literate people are forced to process words if they are in their visual field. Words on top of beautiful things ruin their beauty. But beauty is a difficult interest to protect in our world, and ugliness externalities flourish.

The advertising tiling structure fills the landscape with signs and billboards that create more ugliness than value in the aggregate, but whose damage cannot be recouped on the market.

Increasingly, fashion itself is tiled with words and legible symbols – words express social meanings more cheaply and legibly than clothing without words. The result is that everyone’s eyes are constantly being assaulted with unwanted meanings that ruin visual fields that might otherwise be beautiful.

Individuals alone can only retreat from all the noise and ugliness into a walled, private world (if they’re lucky, and tolerate loneliness well). The most sensitive people are the worst off, and of course people vary in sensitivity. Small groups of humans, however, might provide real respite from the tiling structures of the world. The next section considers these entities that have become semi-mythical, described in nostalgic, archaic words like “tribe,” “neighborhood,” or “community”: small groups of humans.

Small Groups of Humans

Small groups, and not masses of disconnected individuals, are the contexts in which most ancestral solutions to human design problems evolved. There is much romanticism these days for “tribes,” a form of organization that has not been economically effective for many centuries. We still instinctively long for this kind of belonging, as our sacrifices to sports teams, fraternities, or churches demonstrate.

Vernor Vinge’s novel A Fire Upon the Deep portrays an alien species of dog-like animals, with each conscious individual made up of multiple animals, forming a group self. In military combat, after most members of a pack are killed, singleton “fragments” wander the countryside, asking other packs, “Where am I? May I be part of you…please?”

I find this depiction to be a poignant analogy for our present state as humans – except that the small group entities mostly do not exist for us to join. They have been tiled out of existence, merged into a mass of individuals who can no longer supply each other what they need. We don’t really know how to make tribes.

Pattern 12 of A Pattern Language, Community of 7,000, declares that “individuals have no effective voice in any community of more than 5,000-10,000 persons.” This is the neighborhood layer of small groups. Small groups ideally (and traditionally) exist in multiple overlapping layers, mirroring the nature of the human self.

Internet communities are becoming more valuable as sources of belonging and meaning, but their geographic boundlessness is a limitation as well as a benefit. Only local groups can protect their members’ interests in local physical space; quiet internet communities of intense connoisseurship cannot protect us from noise or ugliness in the meat world.

Internet communities have less power than local communities to give us eye contact, sunshine, and exercise, or even to allow us to wear beautiful clothing in public. While I have much hope for the internet as a ritual domain, the groups that will be most powerful in solving the problems set out at the beginning of this essay will be local, on-the-ground, “colocated” groups.

It is difficult to say how to bring these groups into existence, but I think that doing rituals together is an unavoidable component. Rituals function as permeable boundaries, network people together, smooth conflict, provide beneficial mental states, and allow the group to practice the expression of its agency as a corporate entity.

Whether the rituals exist for the benefit of the group, or the group exists as an excuse to do the rituals, is a matter of perspective.

(Groups are formed because the individual needs an anchor, materialized in rituals?)

Can and should technology replace the physical exam?

A call for a return to the traditional one-on-one physical exam? Did this method already disappeared in the USA?

Modern medicine is in danger of losing a powerful, old-fashioned tool: human touch.

This new world where patients are merely data points

Abraham Verghese. Physician and author. Full bio

Filmed Jul. 2011

A few months ago, a 40 year-old woman came to an emergency room in a hospital close to where I live, and she was brought in confused.

Her blood pressure was an alarming 230 over 170. Within a few minutes, she went into cardiac collapse. She was resuscitated, stabilized, whisked over to a CAT scan suite right next to the emergency room, because they were concerned about blood clots in the lung.

And the CAT scan revealed no blood clots in the lung, but it showed bilateral, visible, palpable breast masses, breast tumors, that had metastasized widely all over the body.

And the real tragedy was, if you look through her records, she had been seen in four or five other health care institutions in the preceding two years. Four or five opportunities to see the breast masses, touch the breast mass, intervene at a much earlier stage than when we saw her.

1:11 Ladies and gentlemen, that is not an unusual story. Unfortunately, it happens all the time.

I joke, but I only half joke, that if you come to one of our hospitals missing a limb, no one will believe you till they get a CAT scan, MRI or orthopedic consult. I am not a Luddite.

I teach at Stanford. I’m a physician practicing with cutting-edge technology. But I’d like to make the case to you in the next 17 minutes that when we shortcut the physical exam, when we lean towards ordering tests instead of talking to and examining the patient, we not only overlook simple diagnoses that can be diagnosed at a treatable, early stage, but we’re losing much more than that. We’re losing a ritual.

We’re losing a ritual that I believe is transformative, transcendent, and is at the heart of the patient-physician relationship.

This may actually be heresy to say this at TED, but I’d like to introduce you to the most important innovation, I think, in medicine to come in the next 10 years, and that is the power of the human hand — to touch, to comfort, to diagnose and to bring about treatment|By Abraham Verghese

I’d like to introduce you first to this person whose image you may or may not recognize. This is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Since we’re in Edinburgh, I’m a big fan of Conan Doyle.

You might not know that Conan Doyle went to medical school here in Edinburgh, and his character, Sherlock Holmes, was inspired by Sir Joseph Bell.

Joseph Bell was an extraordinary teacher by all accounts. And Conan Doyle, writing about Bell, described the following exchange between Bell and his students.

picture Bell sitting in the outpatient department, students all around him, patients signing up in the emergency room and being registered and being brought in.

And a woman comes in with a child, and Conan Doyle describes the following exchange. The woman says, “Good Morning.” Bell says, “What sort of crossing did you have on the ferry from Burntisland?” She says, “It was good.” And he says, “What did you do with the other child?” She says, “I left him with my sister at Leith.” And he says, “And did you take the shortcut down Inverleith Row to get here to the infirmary?” She says, “I did.” And he says, “Would you still be working at the linoleum factory?” And she says, “I am.”

Bell then goes on to explain to the students. He says, “You see, when she said, ‘Good morning,’ I picked up her Fife accent. And the nearest ferry crossing from Fife is from Burntisland. And so she must have taken the ferry over. You notice that the coat she’s carrying is too small for the child who is with her, and therefore, she started out the journey with two children, but dropped one off along the way. You notice the clay on the soles of her feet. Such red clay is not found within a hundred miles of Edinburgh, except in the botanical gardens.

And therefore, she took a short cut down Inverleith Row to arrive here. And finally, she has a dermatitis on the fingers of her right hand, a dermatitis that is unique to the linoleum factory workers in Burntisland.” And when Bell actually strips the patient, begins to examine the patient, you can only imagine how much more he would discern. And as a teacher of medicine, as a student myself, I was so inspired by that story.

you might not realize that our ability to look into the body in this simple way, using our senses, is quite recent. The picture I’m showing you is of Leopold Auenbrugger who, in the late 1700s, discovered percussion.

And the story is that Leopold Auenbrugger was the son of an innkeeper. And his father used to go down into the basement to tap on the sides of casks of wine to determine how much wine was left and whether to reorder.

when Auenbrugger became a physician, he began to do the same thing. He began to tap on the chests of his patients, on their abdomens. And basically everything we know about percussion, which you can think of as an ultrasound of its day — organ enlargement, fluid around the heart, fluid in the lungs, abdominal changes — all of this he described in this wonderful manuscript Inventum Novum,” “New Invention,” which would have disappeared into obscurity, except for the fact that this physician, Corvisart, a famous French physician — famous only because he was physician to this gentleman — Corvisart repopularized and reintroduced the work.

 it was followed a year or two later by Laennec discovering the stethoscope. Laennec, it is said, was walking in the streets of Paris and saw two children playing with a stick. One was scratching at the end of the stick, another child listened at the other end.

And Laennec thought this would be a wonderful way to listen to the chest or listen to the abdomen using what he called “the cylinder.” Later he renamed it the stethoscope. And that is how stethoscope and auscultation was born.

So within a few years, in the late 1800s, early 1900s, all of a sudden, the barber surgeon had given way to the physician who was trying to make a diagnosis.

If you’ll recall, prior to that time, no matter what ailed you, you went to see the barber surgeon who wound up cupping you, bleeding you, purging you. And, oh yes, if you wanted, he would give you a haircut — short on the sides, long in the back — and pull your tooth while he was at it.

He made no attempt at diagnosis. In fact, some of you might well know that the barber pole, the red and white stripes, represents the blood bandages of the barber surgeon, and the receptacles on either end represent the pots in which the blood was collected. But the arrival of auscultation and percussion represented a sea change, a moment when physicians were beginning to look inside the body.

this particular painting, I think, represents the pinnacle, the peak, of that clinical era. This is a very famous painting: “The Doctor” by Luke Fildes.

Luke Fildes was commissioned to paint this by Tate, who then established the Tate Gallery. And Tate asked Fildes to paint a painting of social importance. And it’s interesting that Fildes picked this topic. Fildes’ oldest son, Philip, died at the age of nine on Christmas Eve after a brief illness.

And Fildes was so taken by the physician who held vigil at the bedside for two, three nights, that he decided that he would try and depict the physician in our time — almost a tribute to this physician. And hence the painting “The Doctor,” a very famous painting. It’s been on calendars, postage stamps in many different countries.

I’ve often wondered, what would Fildes have done had he been asked to paint this painting in the modern era, in the year 2011? Would he have substituted a computer screen for where he had the patient?

I’ve gotten into some trouble in Silicon Valley for saying that the patient in the bed has almost become an icon for the real patient who’s in the computer.

I’ve actually coined a term for that entity in the computer. I call it the iPatient. The iPatient is getting wonderful care all across America. The real patient often wonders, where is everyone? When are they going to come by and explain things to me? Who’s in charge? There’s a real disjunction between the patient’s perception and our own perceptions as physicians of the best medical care.

I want to show you a picture of what rounds looked like when I was in training. The focus was around the patient. We went from bed to bed. The attending physician was in charge. Too often these days, rounds look very much like this, where the discussion is taking place in a room far away from the patient. The discussion is all about images on the computer, data. And the one critical piece missing is that of the patient.

I’ve been influenced in this thinking by two anecdotes that I want to share with you.

One had to do with a friend of mine who had a breast cancer, had a small breast cancer detected — had her lumpectomy in the town in which I lived. This is when I was in Texas. And she then spent a lot of time researching to find the best cancer center in the world to get her subsequent care. And she found the place and decided to go there, went there. Which is why I was surprised a few months later to see her back in our own town, getting her subsequent care with her private oncologist.

And I pressed her, and I asked her, “Why did you come back and get your care here?” And she was reluctant to tell me. She said, “The cancer center was wonderful. It had a beautiful facility, giant atrium, valet parking, a piano that played itself, a concierge that took you around from here to there. But,” she said, but they did not touch my breasts.”

Now you and I could argue that they probably did not need to touch her breasts. They had her scanned inside out. They understood her breast cancer at the molecular level; they had no need to touch her breasts.

But to her, it mattered deeply. It was enough for her to make the decision to get her subsequent care with her private oncologist who, every time she went, examined both breasts including the axillary tail, examined her axilla carefully, examined her cervical region, her inguinal region, did a thorough exam.

And to her, that spoke of a kind of attentiveness that she needed. I was very influenced by that anecdote.

I was also influenced by another experience that I had, again, when I was in Texas, before I moved to Stanford. I had a reputation as being interested in patients with chronic fatigue.

This is not a reputation you would wish on your worst enemy. I say that because these are difficult patients. They have often been rejected by their families, have had bad experiences with medical care and they come to you fully prepared for you to join the long list of people who’s about to disappoint them.

And I learned very early on with my first patient that I could not do justice to this very complicated patient with all the records they were bringing in a new patient visit of 45 minutes. There was just no way. And if I tried, I’d disappoint them.

so I hit on this method where I invited the patient to tell me the story for their entire first visit, and I tried not to interrupt them. We know the average American physician interrupts their patient in 14 seconds. And if I ever get to heaven, it will be because I held my piece for 45 minutes and did not interrupt my patient.

I then scheduled the physical exam for two weeks hence, and when the patient came for the physical, I was able to do a thorough physical, because I had nothing else to do. I like to think that I do a thorough physical exam, but because the whole visit was now about the physical, I could do an extraordinarily thorough exam.

I remember my very first patient in that series continued to tell me more history during what was meant to be the physical exam visit. And I began my ritual. I always begin with the pulse, then I examine the hands, then I look at the nail beds, then I slide my hand up to the epitrochlear node, and I was into my ritual.

And when my ritual began, this very voluble patient began to quiet down. And I remember having a very eerie sense that the patient and I had slipped back into a primitive ritual in which I had a role and the patient had a role.

And when I was done, the patient said to me with some awe, “I have never been examined like this before.” Now if that were true, it’s a true condemnation of our health care system, because they had been seen in other places.

I then proceeded to tell the patient, once the patient was dressed, the standard things that the person must have heard in other institutions, which is, “This is not in your head. This is real. The good news, it’s not cancer, it’s not tuberculosis, it’s not coccidioidomycosis or some obscure fungal infection. The bad news is we don’t know exactly what’s causing this, but here’s what you should do, here’s what we should do.” And I would lay out all the standard treatment options that the patient had heard elsewhere.

I always felt that if my patient gave up the quest for the magic doctor, the magic treatment and began with me on a course towards wellness, it was because I had earned the right to tell them these things by virtue of the examination.

Something of importance had transpired in the exchange. I took this to my colleagues at Stanford in anthropology and told them the same story. And they immediately said to me, “Well you are describing a classic ritual.” And they helped me understand that rituals are all about transformation.

We marry, for example, with great pomp and ceremony and expense to signal our departure from a life of solitude and misery and loneliness to one of eternal bliss. I’m not sure why you’re laughing. That was the original intent, was it not?

We signal transitions of power with rituals. We signal the passage of a life with rituals. Rituals are terribly important. They’re all about transformation.

Well I would submit to you that the ritual of one individual coming to another and telling them things that they would not tell their preacher or rabbi, and then, incredibly on top of that, disrobing and allowing touch — I would submit to you that that is a ritual of exceeding importance.

And if you shortchange that ritual by not undressing the patient, by listening with your stethoscope on top of the nightgown, by not doing a complete exam, you have bypassed on the opportunity to seal the patient-physician relationship.

I am a writer, and I want to close by reading you a short passage that I wrote that has to do very much with this scene.

I’m an infectious disease physician, and in the early days of HIV, before we had our medications, I presided over so many scenes like this. I remember, every time I went to a patient’s deathbed, whether in the hospital or at home, I remember my sense of failure — the feeling of I don’t know what I have to say;

I don’t know what I can say;

I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.

And out of that sense of failure, I remember, I would always examine the patient. I would pull down the eyelids. I would look at the tongue. I would percuss the chest. I would listen to the heart. I would feel the abdomen. I remember so many patients, their names still vivid on my tongue, their faces still so clear.

I remember so many huge, hollowed out, haunted eyes staring up at me as I performed this ritual. And then the next day, I would come, and I would do it again.

I wanted to read you this one closing passage about one patient. “I recall one patient who was at that point no more than a skeleton encased in shrinking skin, unable to speak, his mouth crusted with candida that was resistant to the usual medications. When he saw me on what turned out to be his last hours on this earth, his hands moved as if in slow motion. And as I wondered what he was up to, his stick fingers made their way up to his pajama shirt, fumbling with his buttons. I realized that he was wanting to expose his wicker-basket chest to me. It was an offering, an invitation. I did not decline.

 I percussed. I palpated. I listened to the chest. I think he surely must have known by then that it was vital for me just as it was necessary for him. Neither of us could skip this ritual, which had nothing to do with detecting rales in the lung, or finding the gallop rhythm of heart failure.

No, this ritual was about the one message that physicians have needed to convey to their patients. Although, God knows, of late, in our hubris, we seem to have drifted away. We seem to have forgotten — as though, with the explosion of knowledge, the whole human genome mapped out at our feet, we are lulled into inattention, forgetting that the ritual is cathartic to the physician, necessary for the patient — forgetting that the ritual has meaning and a singular message to convey to the patient.

17:51 And the message, which I didn’t fully understand then, even as I delivered it, and which I understand better now is this: I will always, always, always be there. I will see you through this. I will never abandon you. I will be with you through the end.”

A neuroscience researcher reveals 4 rituals that will make you happier

You get all kinds of happiness advice on the internet from people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Don’t trust them.

Actually, don’t trust me either. Trust neuroscientists. They study that grey blob in your head all day and have learned a lot about what truly will make you happy. And here are the rituals:

  • Ask “What am I grateful for?” No answers? Doesn’t matter. Just searching will do the job.
  • Label those negative emotions. Give it a name and your brain isn’t so bothered by it.
  • Decide. Go for “good enough” instead of ‘best decision ever made on Earth.”
  • Hugs, hugs, hugs. Don’t text — touch.


Eric Barker, Barking Up The Wrong Tree. Sep. 26, 2015

UCLA neuroscience researcher Alex Korb has some insights that can create an upward spiral of happiness in your life.

Here’s what you and I can learn from the people who really have answers:

1. The most important question to ask when you feel down

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like your brain wants you to be happy. You may feel guilty or shameful. Why?

Believe it or not, guilt and shame activate the brain’s reward center.

Via The Upward Spiral:

Despite their differences, pride, shame, and guilt all activate similar neural circuits, including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, insula, and the nucleus accumbens.

Interestingly, pride is the most powerful of these emotions at triggering activity in these regions — except in the nucleus accumbens, where guilt and shame win out. This explains why it can be so appealing to heap guilt and shame on ourselves — they’re activating the brain’s reward center.

And you worry a lot, too. Why? In the short term, worrying makes your brain feel a little better — at least you’re doing something about your problems.

In fact, worrying can help calm the limbic system by increasing activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and decreasing activity in the amygdala.

That might seem counterintuitive, but it just goes to show that if you’re feeling anxiety, doing something about it — even worrying — is better than doing nothing.

But guilt, shame, and worry are horrible, long-term solutions.

So what do neuroscientists say you should do? Ask yourself this question:

What am I grateful for?

Yeah, gratitude is awesome … but does it really affect your brain at the biological level? Yup.

You know what the antidepressant Wellbutrin does? Boosts the neurotransmitter. So does gratitude.

The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable …

Know what Prozac does? Boosts the neurotransmitter serotonin. So does gratitude.

One powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin.

Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.

I know, sometimes life lands a really mean punch in the gut and it feels like there’s nothing to be grateful for. Guess what?

Doesn’t matter. You don’t have to find anything. It’s the searching that counts.

It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place.

Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence.

One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.

And gratitude doesn’t just make your brain happy — it can also create a positive feedback loop in your relationships. So express that gratitude to the people you care about.

For more on how gratitude can make you happier and more successful, click here.

But what happens when bad feelings completely overtake you? When you’re really in the dumps and don’t even know how to deal with it? There’s an easy answer …

2. Label negative feelings

You feel awful. OK, give that awfulness a name. Sad? Anxious? Angry?

Boom. It’s that simple. Sound stupid? Your noggin disagrees.

In one fMRI study, appropriately titled “Putting Feelings into Words” participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Predictably, each participant’s amygdala activated to the emotions in the picture.

But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.

Suppressing emotions doesn’t work and can backfire on you.

Via Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long:

Gross found that people who tried to suppress a negative emotional experience failed to do so.

While they thought they looked fine outwardly, inwardly their limbic system was just as aroused as without suppression, and in some cases, even more aroused.

Kevin Ochsner, at Columbia, repeated these findings using an fMRI. Trying not to feel something doesn’t work, and in some cases even backfires.

But labeling, on the other hand, makes a big difference.

To reduce arousal, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language, which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience. This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system. Here’s the bottom line: describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion.

Ancient methods were way ahead of us on this one. Meditation has employed this for centuries. Labeling is a fundamental tool of mindfulness.

In fact, labeling affects the brain so powerfully it works with other people, too. Labeling emotions is one of the primary tools used by FBI hostage negotiators.

To learn more of the secrets of FBI hostage negotiators, click here.

Okay, hopefully you’re not reading this and labeling your current emotional state as bored. Maybe you’re not feeling awful but you probably have things going on in your life that are causing you some stress. Here’s a simple way to beat them.

3. Make that decision

Ever make a decision and then your brain finally feels at rest? That’s no random occurrence.

Brain science shows that making decisions reduces worry and anxiety — as well as helping you solve problems.

Via The Upward Spiral:

Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals — all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety.

Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines.

Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world — finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.

But deciding can be hard. I agree. So what kind of decisions should you make?

Neuroscience has an answer.

Make a “good enough” decision. Don’t sweat making the absolute 100% best decision. We all know being a perfectionist can be stressful. And brain studies back this up.

Trying to be perfect overwhelms your brain with emotions and makes you feel out of control.

Via The Upward Spiral:

Trying for the best, instead of good enough, brings too much emotional ventromedial prefrontal activity into the decision-making process. In contrast, recognizing that good enough is good enough activates more dorsolateral prefrontal areas, which helps you feel more in control …

As Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz said in my interview with him: “Good enough is almost always good enough.”

So when you make a decision, your brain feels you have control. And, as I’ve talked about before, a feeling of control reduces stress. But here’s what’s really fascinating: Deciding also boosts pleasure.

Via The Upward Spiral:

Actively choosing caused changes in attention circuits and in how the participants felt about the action, and it increased rewarding dopamine activity.

Want proof? No problem. Let’s talk about cocaine.

You give two rats injections of cocaine. Rat A had to pull a lever first. Rat B didn’t have to do anything. Any difference? Yup: Rat A gets a bigger boost of dopamine.

Via The Upward Spiral:

So they both got the same injections of cocaine at the same time, but rat A had to actively press the lever, and rat B didn’t have to do anything. And you guessed it — rat A released more dopamine in its nucleus accumbens.

So what’s the lesson here? Next time you buy cocaine … whoops, wrong lesson. Point is, when you make a decision on a goal and then achieve it, you feel better than when good stuff just happens by chance.

And this answers the eternal mystery of why dragging your butt to the gym can be so hard.

If you go because you feel you have to or you should, well, it’s not really a voluntary decision. Your brain doesn’t get the pleasure boost. It just feels stress. And that’s no way to build a good exercise habit.

Via The Upward Spiral:

Interestingly, if they are forced to exercise, they don’t get the same benefits, because without choice, the exercise itself is a source of stress.

So make more decisions. Neuroscience researcher Alex Korb sums it up nicely:

We don’t just choose the things we like; we also like the things we choose.

To learn what neuroscientists say is the best way to use caffeine, click here.

OK, you’re being grateful, labeling negative emotions and making more decisions. Great, but this is feeling kinda lonely for a happiness prescription. Let’s get some other people in here.

What’s something you can do with others that neuroscience says is a path to mucho happiness? And something that’s stupidly simple so you don’t get lazy and skip it? Brain docs have an answer for you.

4. Touch people

No, not indiscriminately; that can get you in a lot of trouble.

But we need to feel love and acceptance from others. When we don’t it’s painful. And I don’t mean “awkward” or “disappointing.” I mean actually painful.

Neuroscientists did a study where people played a ball-tossing video game. The other players tossed the ball to you and you tossed it back to them. Actually, there were no other players; that was all done by the computer program.

But the subjects were told the characters were controlled by real people. So what happened when the “other players” stopped playing nice and didn’t share the ball?

Subjects’ brains responded the same way as if they experienced physical pain. Rejection doesn’t just hurt like a broken heart; your brain feels it like a broken leg.

Via The Upward Spiral:

In fact, as demonstrated in an fMRI experiment, social exclusion activates the same circuitry as physical pain … at one point they stopped sharing, only throwing back and forth to each other, ignoring the participant. This small change was enough to elicit feelings of social exclusion, and it activated the anterior cingulate and insula, just like physical pain would.

Relationships are important to your brain’s feeling of happiness. Want to take that to the next level? Touch people.

Via The Upward Spiral:

One of the primary ways to release oxytocin is through touching.

Obviously, it’s not always appropriate to touch most people, but small touches like handshakes and pats on the back are usually okay. For people you’re close with, make more of an effort to touch more often.

Touching is incredibly powerful. We just don’t give it enough credit. It makes you more persuasive, increases team performance, improves your flirting … heck, it even boosts math skills.

Touching someone you love actually reduces pain. In fact, when studies were done on married couples, the stronger the marriage, the more powerful the effect.

Via The Upward Spiral:

In addition, holding hands with someone can help comfort you and your brain through painful situations. One fMRI study scanned married women as they were warned that they were about to get a small electric shock.

While anticipating the painful shocks, the brain showed a predictable pattern of response in pain and worrying circuits, with activation in the insula, anterior cingulate, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

During a separate scan, the women either held their husbands’ hands or the hand of the experimenter. When a subject held her husband’s hand, the threat of shock had a smaller effect.

The brain showed reduced activation in both the anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — that is, less activity in the pain and worrying circuits. In addition, the stronger the marriage, the lower the discomfort-related insula activity.

So hug someone today. And do not accept little, quick hugs. No, no, no. Tell them your neuroscientist recommended long hugs.

Via The Upward Spiral:

A hug, especially a long one, releases a neurotransmitter and hormone oxytocin, which reduces the reactivity of the amygdala.

Research shows getting five hugs a day for four weeks increases happiness big time.

Don’t have anyone to hug right now? No? (I’m sorry to hear that. I would give you a hug right now if I could.) But there’s an answer: Neuroscience says you should go get a massage.

Via The Upward Spiral:

The results are fairly clear that massage boosts your serotonin by as much as 30% . Massage also decreases stress hormones and raises dopamine levels, which helps you create new good habits.

Massage reduces pain because the oxytocin system activates painkilling endorphins. Massage also improves sleep and reduces fatigue by increasing serotonin and dopamine and decreasing the stress hormone cortisol.

So spend time with other people and give some hugs. Sorry, texting is not enough.

When you put people in a stressful situation and then let them visit loved ones or talk to them on the phone, they felt better. What about when they just texted? Their bodies responded the same as if they had no support at all.

Via The Upward Spiral:

[T]he text-message group had cortisol and oxytocin levels similar to the no-contact group.

Author’s note: I totally approve of texting if you make a hug appointment.

To learn what neuroscience says is the best way to get smarter and happier, click here.

OK, I don’t want to strain your brain with too much info. Let’s round it up and learn the quickest and easiest way to start that upward spiral of neuroscience-inspired happiness.

Sum up

Here’s what brain research says will make you happy:

  • Ask “What am I grateful for?” No answers? Doesn’t matter. Just searching helps.
  • Label those negative emotions. Give it a name and your brain isn’t so bothered by it.
  • Decide. Go for “good enough” instead of ‘best decision ever made on Earth.”
  • Hugs, hugs, hugs. Don’t text — touch.

So what’s the simple way to start that upward spiral of happiness?

Just send someone a thank-you email. If you feel awkward about it, you can send them this post to tell them why.

This really can start an upward spiral of happiness in your life. UCLA neuroscience researcher Alex Korb explains:

Everything is interconnected. Gratitude improves sleep. Sleep reduces pain. Reduced pain improves your mood. Improved mood reduces anxiety, which improves focus and planning.

Focus and planning help with decision making. Decision making further reduces anxiety and improves enjoyment.

Enjoyment gives you more to be grateful for, which keeps that loop of the upward spiral going. Enjoyment also makes it more likely you’ll exercise and be social, which, in turn, will make you happier.

Rituals of Human Sacrifices, (March 10, 2009)

One of my lately recurring dreams is that a secret association (cultist sect), constituted of elites and former leaders of the superpower Nations, is planning to stage a yearly “ritual of human sacrifices“.

The sacrificial humans are selected from samples in the 6 continents in order to stave off the forecasted calamities.

The very few Primitive tribes, even now, and every year, launched their warriors to cut off heads of their enemies as sacrifice for better harvest. (I wish one of the conditions was that the bodies of the enemies were to be eaten so that the sick, elderly, disgusting looking, and dying enemies would be saved)

Rituals of human sacrifices are as old as history.

These rituals were practiced in almost all ancient civilizations, before man settled in towns and managed to plan ahead of time for basic necessities. 

Most of these rituals were of the slow-death kinds of sacrifices, meant to generate profits, like during carnivals. 

The sacerdotal castes, in every religion, instituted religious sex trades and enticed little virgins, by myths and by pressure, to sell their services in temples. 

Most of these victims were to die prematurely, mostly of sexually transmitted diseases, after their youth had no value. 

During the early Babylonian Empire, sexual diseases were diagnosed as transacted by “concubine priestesses“.  I am not hot in theology or for the study of theology.  I still have this distinct impression that among all prophets, or messiahs, or messengers, or predicators, Jesus is the unique one who fought the good fight against sacrifices in all shapes and forms, including animal sacrifices,  that were practiced by the Jews.

Jesus’ disciples were well rooted in the Judaic customs and traditions and could not accept the new religion dissociated from the Judaic laws. They tried hard to force circumcision among the ‘gentiles” Christians, which is fundamentally a sacrificial ceremony of part of our body to “our creator” before a complementary health excuse was attached to it. 

Only Saint Paul comprehended Jesus’ message and the need to remove the heavy burdens of daily laws, which govern and enslave the life of believers and rob them of happiness and hope.

Unfortunately, the Prophet Muhammad was very impressed by the customs and traditions of the early Christian-Jews sects, practiced around Damascus and he adopted the sacrificial ceremonies of animals. 

Even today, there is this custom among most religious sects that, when even a third level leader visits a town or a village, for no important reason, the municipalities feel that it is appropriate to slaughter sheep in public and on the path of the “personality” coming to town.  A totally disgusting and depressing custom that makes me believe that Jesus is already dead in the East.

Timorlank, the Turkish Central Asian conqueror from 1350 to1405, ransacked the prosperous city of Isfahan in Iran.  This brutal commander divided his armies into sections of the city, with a quota of heads chopped off allocated to each soldier.

Since Timorlank and his army were recent converted Moslems, many soldiers were not into personally killing their coreligionists.  Instead, they bought heads from other non scrupulous soldiers for 20 dinars the head in order to come up with the daily quota.

Soon, the men vanished from the city, but the soldiers were not instructed to kill women or children.  Consequently, women were made to be shaved and then decapitated.  The price per head dropped to only one dinar and the business was no longer worth pursuing and the city of Isfahan was salvaged after 70,000 of its citizens perished and the heads mounted on 45 minarets of human sculls.

The multinationals are performing live sacrifices on billion of people every day in slave shops and slave exploitation of all kinds, with the blessing of their superpower government… Those million of people dying of hunger and of curable diseases are the modern-day sacrificial entities on the alter of the less than 1% richest elite in every nation…




January 2023

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