World War Three?

I think people are too quick to invoke World War Three after every diplomatic scuffle, arms race, or rising tensions.

Over the last two centuries, since the advent of the international system, there have been literally hundreds, if not thousands, of potential flash points for global war. Only twice did it result in global conflict, and each of those were interrelated and stemmed from the intersection of factors unique to that time and place. Plus, it is obviously easier to notice the wars that occurred rather than the numerous potential wars that were averted or preempted.

Granted, those two wars killed over 70 million people and unleashed a level of destruction and barbarity that still remain incomprehensible. So, fear of something like that happening again is perfectly justified, and we mustn’t be complacent – war has long been the natural state of humanity, and the last few decades have been unusual in their relative peacefulness.

But we should be measured in our caution and tone down the apocalyptic rhetoric, which all too often feels dangerously fatalistic, if not eager (there is a subset of people, generally religious, who seem to welcome world-ending events).

What are your thoughts?

Reflections on a Global Community

For most of human history, the average person rarely knew, let alone cared, about what happened beyond his or her little community of mostly interrelated people. Now, something can happen halfway across the world, to strangers of a completely foreign culture and society, and we feel emotionally and politically invested. We mourn, express solidarity, debate, and otherwise get involved in matters that by all accounts should not concern us.

It is easy to take for granted that we live in a global community, in which our social, economic, and even personal lives are impacted by the fate of total strangers thousands of miles away. But this is actually a radically new development in our species’s history, after millennia of living in small tribes, bands, and city-states. (Indeed, civilizations only emerged three to four thousand years ago, whereas modern humans have existed for at least a quarter of a million years.)

Doubtless, we are far from forming a truly cohesive and universal identity — too many things still separates us and undermine our ability to empathize, including our biology (e.g., our minds evolved to prioritize genetic kin — those who look and seem more similar — and can develop only a limited number of deep social connections).

But given the novelty of this globalized world, I am confident that with time, such limitations can be transcended. Just as the city or country — now totally common and accepted social units — was once an alien concept for thousands of years, so too can something as crazy as a global community, in the psychological if not political sense, be a reality.

Remember The Unseen Good

For obvious reasons, it is easy to focus upon and lament the tragedies and disasters that happen than the many more that do not; this goes for both our personal lives and the world at large.

For all the horrible things that happen daily — the fatal automobile accidents and plane crashes, the deaths from disease or senseless violence, the banal acts of insensitivity and apathy — there are numerous unseen and underappreciated counterfactuals: the millions of flights and car trips that come and go without incident, the many people who survive or manage to avoid serious illness or violence, and the small but mounting displays of conscientiousness and kindness.

Cherish each and every occurrence of these things. Take note of the absence of tragedy, disaster, and suffering when it could have otherwise occurred. Every time you see something horrible, whether in your personal life or on the news, keep in mind how many more times those things have probably been averted.

Yes, human suffering in any form or degree should be noted and addressed. But so too should the unseen progress and success. If for nothing else, it gives us something to aspire too: the possibility of as few tragedies and incidents as possible.

Mother’s Day Post

How vastly important is it, then, for mothers to have a higher regard for their duties—to feel deeply the immense responsibilities that rest upon them! It is through their ministrations that the world grows worse or better.

–Timothy Shay Arthur

No words can do justice to the immense affection and gratitude I have towards my mother. The best and only thing I can do is live up to the values she lovingly cultivated and instilled in me.

Oscar Wilde once said that a man’s greatest tragedy is that he does not become like his mother. I indeed hope to encompass at least a shred of my mom’s integrity, compassion, ethics, and fortitude (not to mention her culinary mastery and financial acumen!).

I concur with Abraham Lincoln that “all that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”

From The Atlantic comes an interesting video about how geography and culture affect the experience of motherhood. Ten moms living in various countries were asked what it is like to be them and what makes motherhood in their country unique. Their answers reveal how families and communities, on both a local and national level can influence the way we raise our children. Click the following link to view it fullscreen.

Finally, HuffPo explores the origin of Mother’s Day, and how its unlikely creator would feel about it today:

[Anna] Jarvis — a West Virginia woman who didn’t even have children of her own — came up with the idea for a Mother’s Day holiday, organizing the first celebration at a Methodist church in 1908. Annoyed that most American holidays were dedicated to honoring male achievements, Jarvis started a letter-writing campaign to make it a national holiday, involving wearing a white carnation, visiting your mother and maybe going to church.

Her campaign worked, but not in the way she hoped: She never wanted Mother’s Day to be the commercial holiday it quickly came to be. (Although maybe she should have thought twice about getting financing for the first celebration from the owner of Wanamaker’s, a major department store at the time.)

“Commercialization of Mother’s Day is growing every year,” she said “Since the movement has spread to all parts of the world, many things have tried to attach themselves because of its success.”

Well, whatever you think about the holiday, take the time to appreciate the positive role played by your mother — or any analogous figure — this day and everyday.

It’s An Exciting Time To Be A Foodie

It is easy to take for granted just how rich, diverse, and flavorful our diets can now be. With all the (understandable focus) on new technologies and scientific paradigms, it is easy to forget all the progress achieved in both food production and the culinary arts.

For the overwhelming majority of history, humans were limited to only the relatively small variety of foodstuff they could find or grow in their immediate area. (Although this obviously varied depending on the climate or environment.) Even the greatly connected empires of pre-modern history could only access a fraction of the world’s diverse quantity of food.

Now, thanks to advancements in trade, agriculture, and the culinary arts — all amplified by globalization — we enjoy a tremendous selection of produce, dishes, spices, cooking methods, and more that would otherwise be unavailable to us. Many of the cuisines we know and love are a product of decades or even centuries of cross-cultural intermingling, with creative fusions continuing to emerge.

In short, it has never been a better time to be a gourmet — although who knows what more culinary surprises the future holds?

(Now of course, I am well aware that this applies only to those fortunate enough to have secure, regular access to basic food, much less all these exotic  cuisines; needless to say I am grateful for that.)

Walking and Thinking

For as long as I can remember, I have always enjoyed walks. From brief strolls through my neighborhood, to long forays across several blocks, my mind and mood noticeably improves thereafter. Indeed, whether it is sadness, stress, or writer’s block, there seems to be nothing that a walk can’t alleviate (I am forever grateful that my writing job allows me to step out and walk periodically to recharge my brain).

As it turns out, I am hardly alone in this experience. A recent piece in The New Yorker by Ferris Jabr notes that all sorts of people throughout history — including prominent writers, thinkers, and other creatives — have attested to the positive benefits of moving one’s feet:

Since at least the time of peripatetic Greek philosophers, many other writers have discovered a deep, intuitive connection between walking, thinking, and writing. (In fact, Adam Gopnik wrote about walking in The New Yorker just two weeks ago.) “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!” Henry David Thoreau penned in his journal. “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” Thomas DeQuincey has calculated that William Wordsworth—whose poetry is filled with tramps up mountains, through forests, and along public roads—walked as many as a hundred and eighty thousand miles in his lifetime, which comes to an average of six and a half miles a day starting from age five.

Funny enough, as I write this, I happen to be listening to Johannes Brahms, another accomplished figure known for his love of walks. Of course, one does not have to be an especially ingenious character to know the joys and advantages of walks. Humans in general benefit from physical activity of all manner and degree, especially amid the prevalent sedentary and insular lifestyles of the modern world. There is quite a lot of research to back it up, as the following article excerpt explores:

When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.

The way we move our bodies further changes the nature of our thoughts, and vice versa. Psychologists who specialize in exercise music have quantified what many of us already know: listening to songs with high tempos motivates us to run faster, and the swifter we move, the quicker we prefer our music. Likewise, when drivers hear loud, fast music, they unconsciously step a bit harder on the gas pedal. Walking at our own pace creates an unadulterated feedback loop between the rhythm of our bodies and our mental state that we cannot experience as easily when we’re jogging at the gym, steering a car, biking, or during any other kind of locomotion. When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down.

Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.

The piece goes on to cite what may be the first set of studies to more closely measure how walking immediately influences creativity. The four experiments, which altogether involved 76 Stanford students, yielded some interesting results:

In a series of four experiments, Oppezzo and Schwartz asked a hundred and seventy-six college students to complete different tests of creative thinking while either sitting, walking on a treadmill, or sauntering through Stanford’s campus. In one test, for example, volunteers had to come up with atypical uses for everyday objects, such as a button or a tire. On average, the students thought of between four and six more novel uses for the objects while they were walking than when they were seated. Another experiment required volunteers to contemplate a metaphor, such as “a budding cocoon,” and generate a unique but equivalent metaphor, such as “an egg hatching.” Ninety-five per cent of students who went for a walk were able to do so, compared to only fifty per cent of those who never stood up. But walking actually worsened people’s performance on a different type of test, in which students had to find the one word that united a set of three, like “cheese” for “cottage, cream, and cake.” Oppezzo speculates that, by setting the mind adrift on a frothing sea of thought, walking is counterproductive to such laser-focussed thinking: “If you’re looking for a single correct answer to a question, you probably don’t want all of these different ideas bubbling up.”

In short, walking helps with certain kinds of thought, the kind we’d consider to be more “out of the box”. A further study discovered that where one walks has an impact as well: generally, spending time in green spaces like parks and forests is more effective than doing so in urban settings, which are often rowdier and more distracting. Nevertheless, walking in one’s neighborhood or city can still offer some form of relief, especially if you’re looking for greater sensory stimulation (the article suggests that a bit of both is ideal depending on the circumstances).

What is most interesting to me is just how complementary these two seemingly distinct activities (walking and thinking) are:

Perhaps the most profound relationship between walking, thinking, and writing reveals itself at the end of a stroll, back at the desk. There, it becomes apparent that writing and walking are extremely similar feats, equal parts physical and mental. When we choose a path through a city or forest, our brain must survey the surrounding environment, construct a mental map of the world, settle on a way forward, and translate that plan into a series of footsteps. Likewise, writing forces the brain to review its own landscape, plot a course through that mental terrain, and transcribe the resulting trail of thoughts by guiding the hands. Walking organizes the world around us; writing organizes our thoughts.

All I can say is that walks have been keeping me sane for as long as I can remember, and I cannot imagine how much more severe and frequent my bouts of anxiety and depression would be without those brief forwards outside and into my own mind.

Reflections Upon Mild Sadness

I fell asleep sorrowful, filled with a vague foreboding of coming trouble…That precaution of love against death, even in the presence of abounding life, caused my thoughts to wander all night about those scenes where I had passed, without knowing it, the happiest hours of my life.

— Jorge Isaacs, Maria

It has been a while since I have written a personal post, so I know it must be strange to see these sad musings amid sociopolitical topics. But as the tagline says, this blog is about wherever my mind takes me, and right now it is a sad place.

I have been feeling quite a bit of melancholy lately, a sort of mild, back-of-the-mind type of sadness that keep resurfacing throughout the day and especially at night. I have no idea what has triggered — there is almost never a clear reason for it — but I know that a lot of nostalgia is emerging as well; I miss the simpler and more naive times; old hangouts, friends, first-experiences. 

And while I indulgently reflect upon the past, I start to dwell on the “what ifs” and “what could have beens” — a futile endeavor, I know, but I cannot help myself. I know I was younger and stupider back then (as we all our), I know that I am looking back with the benefit of hindsight, with information I could not have possible known at the time of my dumb, regrettable decisions. But I nonetheless still go down all these hypothetical paths that I will never truly know.

Ultimately (and graciously), these feelings pass quickly; as I said, it is all very mild and subdued. But it still lingers to some degree, and I worry if this is simply the way I am. For as long as I can remember, I have always been nagged by some sort of worry or melancholy even when I am otherwise happy. Maybe it can be attributed to the intrusive thoughts characteristic of OCD, or maybe it is the clinical depression or dysthymia that I suspect I have. I do not know, but I suspect I am going to have to get used to it.

Thankfully, I find myself handling these things better than I once did. Life goes on, and I continue to find little ways to cheer up and move forward — from the simple joys of green tea, good music, and a walk through the park, to deeper focus on goals, fitness regimens, and planned trips. I am mercifully surrounded by potential and opportunity. I just need to find the courage to take action and overcome the fear of what if; I just need to embrace the adventure of the unknown rather than dwell on ephemeral and pointless nostalgia. 

Writing these like this certainly helps bring clarity and organization to my disjointed and intangible thoughts. Thanks for reading my friends. I hope you are all well.

Human Nature and Apathy

Many people, myself included, lament the fact that our species is so apathetic to the widespread suffering that is plentifully around us. However tragic, such indifference is both natural and expected. Our minds were not evolved for absorbing the sheer amount of stimulus that exists in the world.

Only very recently have most humans become regularly exposed to the overwhelming amount of people, events, and information that exists and multiplies all around us. There is a limit to how much we can think about or emotionally react to, and that’s why our immediate suffering — our trivial “first world problems” — is felt far more strongly that the more horrible but distant misery that exists out there. Telling someone that others have it worse is admirable but futile because our brains feel the personal circumstances more substantively and intimately than abstract ones.

It’s for this reason that society will obsess more about individual negative events highlighted in news versus the bigger but nameless and faceless statistics of human poverty. In fact, this is the same reason you’re more likely to donate to an individual suffering person than to broader charitable in general — look up Paul Slovik’s “psychic numbing” phenomenon. In some sense, this may even be a merciful defense mechanism — imagine if all the tremendous suffering in the world was equally impactful. We’d likely succumb to severe depression and misanthropy, or become very withdrawn.

Of course, I’m not saying this excuses callousness or apathy. We can still love and care for one another beyond our closest loved ones. We don’t need to be deeply affected by all the human suffering in the world in order to be troubled by it and seek to alleviate it. Empathy and social responsibility are intrinsic to our species. We must simply adapt to the existence of this new global community and expand our circle of compassion and consideration to be far wider. It’s difficult but not impossible, in my opinion.

What are your thoughts?

Beauty and Brains

I find it interesting that whenever a very attractive person — particularly a woman — demonstrates above-average intelligence or skill, it genuinely surprises most people. Similarly, I’ve seen people marvel at how a “nerdy” person can be athletic or charismatic. Needless to say, those peers who are both attractive and intelligent feel endless frustration at being reflexively labeled based solely on their looks and initial impression.

But this is nothing new, as humans were evolved to make quick judgements based little data — it’s a survival mechanism that has remained, often misapplied, in the modern world. In this instance, we seem to unconsciously associate good looks with stupidity or, at most, average intelligence (admittedly, I think even I have been guilty of this visceral stereotyping).

I’ve read a hypothesis suggesting that this correlation reflects a form of evolutionary compensation:  if one isn’t attractive, they make up for it by making themselves desirable in other ways; similarly, an unskilled or unintelligent person may harness whatever charisma or physical attractiveness they have to influence others or burnish their image. We see this pattern and therefore apply it in how we judge and analyze people.

In any case, it is interesting to note that traditionally (and for the most part to this day), heroic and virtuous characters in various media have almost always been portrayed as good looking, and intelligence is rarely shown to be mutually exclusive with physical attractiveness. Of course, this too likely reflects our evolutionarily-induced preference for well-rounded, attractive people.

Anyway, has anyone else noticed this? Is there a reason for these correlations? What are you thoughts on this?

Can You Change Your Mind?

We all have beliefs and opinions that will likely remain unchanged no matter what counter-evidence is brought to our attention. This is actually typical of all humans, since our politics, faith, values, and views are shaped by psychological and social conditions that are largely outside of our control (and usually unnoticed in their influence).

Yet every one of us will claim that our beliefs are based on sound reasoning and facts — in contrast to our opponents, of course. In that case, we should ask ourselves the following: what would it take for me to accept my opponent’s beliefs? What sort of proof would I need to discard my deeply held views?

If you can’t find any reason why you should think differently, then in essence you’re admitting that your views are purely visceral rather than evidence-based. Either change the basis of what you believe — i.e. try to find evidence for it, and discard it in the absence of said evidence — or admit that your beliefs have nothing to do with reality or rationality, but are instead the result of unthinking emotional or psychological attachment.

If we’re going to take up a belief or opinion based on “gut instinct,” faith, or whatever else you want to call it, then we might as well be honest, recognize it, and not hold it against others if they don’t see eye to eye with our views (after all, if said belief is based on personal feelings, rather than something objectively measurable, then you can’t expect everyone else to agree).

Also, there’s no harm in saying “I don’t know” or “I believe this based only on what I know.” It’s honest and it represents a fact of life: not everything is knowable to everyone.

To the best of my ability I try to hold myself to these standards. Otherwise, I leave it to others to call me out.