Foreword to The Complete Works of Boris Sidis

The Complete Works of Boris Sids (1)


Available on Amazon and Smashwords.


“They wouldn’t do this for me…If they call me a genius, what superlative have they reserved for your husband?”

-William James to Sara Sidis after Harvard’s waiver of multiple PhD requirements, including an oral exam, for Boris.

Boris Sidis, one of William James’s personal friends and favorite pupils, is a pivotal but, for reasons that will be enumerated here, forgotten figure. A touching tribute to the  doctor (Bruce, 1910) was published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology:

“Sidis was one of the first to undertake a really scientific exploration of the subconscious region of the mind, and his findings therein were both varied and of practical importance. His formulation of the law of reserve energy and of the principal factors in suggestion, his demonstration of the value of the hypnoidal method as a means of gaining access to the subconscious, his exposition of the part played by the self-regarding instinct and by over-development of the fear instinct in the causation of psychopathic maladies, would alone suffice to give him a conspicuous place in the history both of psychology and of scientific psychotherapy.

For defying the Tsarist decree against teaching peasants Boris was sentenced to two years in a cell that could not accommodate the length of an ordinary man’s body. Instead of breaking his spirit, it only fueled his hatred for tyranny and his determination to combat it whenever it reared its head. Later he credited this period of solitary confinement with his immense capacity for concentration. After fleeing to America, Boris went through a series of menial jobs to support his independent reading at the Boston library, the first sight of which he likened to  “the gates of heaven” (Wallace, 1989). During this time he met a young woman whose family had fled the Russian pogroms. Sara, who aspired to become a medical doctor, needed to pass her entrance exam. Boris tutored her. She would eventually become his wife. In line with other accounts, one colleague described him as a man who “had a very active and forceful mentality…and possessed a genial and kindly nature, but was apt to express his opposition to what he considered fraudulent or dishonest with abruptness and vigor. He was of a retiring disposition, and did not seek a following of pupils. He made few contacts with his colleagues, but the few friends he did make, among them Morton Prince [q.v.], were his loyal admirers” (Linenthal, 1923).

The four works selected for this volume cover the breadth of his thought while remaining accessible to the layperson. The Psychology of Suggestion is as engaging and provocative as any modern work on hypnosis, from its detailed investigations into the  subconscious to  its closing chapters about the historical, sociological, and economic consequences of our “subwaking selves.” It is important to note that Sidis was not just writing as a theorist, but as an esteemed clinician who had treated droves of patients, some quite disturbed, with stunning success (Bruce, 1910). Compared to the permissive, varied, and occasionally bizarre techniques employed by Ericksonians (Battino and South, 2005) some hypnotists may find his inductions – which involved asking patients to follow a monotonous sound like a metronome or letting them guide themselves into trance by narrating their thoughts –  boring or primitive. They nevertheless served his purposes. 

Nervous Ills: Their Causes and Cure is a stirring counterpoint to the prevailing psychoanalytic prescriptions for anxiety, depression, and related maladies. Although it was published long before the first DSM, the sorts of neurotic ailments described in it should be immediately recognizable (he was, like any good medical professional, an astute observer). Near the outset Sidis calls psychoanalysis “a sort of Astrology, full of superstitious symbolizations, dream vagaries, and idle interpretations, foisted on the credulous, on those obsessed by sexual inclinations, and on those suffering from sexual perversions…psychoanalysts care for nothing else but the fulfillment of sexual wishes. It is useless to argue with psychoanalysts, who as a rule possess no more critical sense than Mormon saints.” Earlier in an academic journal he’d written “some of Freud’s admirers, with a metaphysical proclivity, are delighted over the theory of repressed wishes. The wish is fundamental and prior to all mental states. This piece of metaphysical psychologism is supposed to be based on clinical experience. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. The Freudist manages to ride such horses” (Sidis, 1911).

An enraged Ernest Jones promptly sent a letter to James Putnam: “Sidis’ remark is of course unpardonable, and Prince should not have allowed it to be printed; one will be bound to ignore him in the future.” Psychiatry was not the only area where Boris confronted implacable dogmas and unapologetic dogmatists. At this time Philistine and Genius is his most widely read book, perhaps because it is brief and requires no specialized knowledge to understand. Its popularity may also attributable to its continued relevance as a critique of American culture and its connection to the controversial child-rearing methods he and Sara famously applied to their own son. Its excoriation of public schools, the American obsession with athletics, and the then accepted forms of parenting struck several nerves at once. Its tone, which occasionally veers into indignation, did not resonate with most readers. The overriding belief in the tremendous potential of every person the piece extolled was ignored; he’d condemned himself to being forever pilfered as an elitist for attacking the baser (and, in his opinion, perfectly remediable) parts of commonness.

His accomplishments were not limited to pedagogy or psychiatry. Dr. Bruce did not recognize (being without a crystal ball, how could he?) the significance of The Theory of Moment Consciousness. While James’s influence is undeniable, the piece contains its share of original insights. Moreover its contentions, particularly those about hierarchical processing, seem to (at least superficially) mirror those made decades later by Newell, Baars, DeHaene, and other proponents of Global Workspace Theory (Baars and Alonzi, 2018) as well as  “dynamic core” models (Damasio, 1999). His work was expunged from the records by the moratorium placed upon the use of words like cognition, memory, and scores of other terms he, his teachers, and hundreds of generations of men and women have used for thousands of years to describe the subjective states all sentient beings experience. Because mental states could not be directly observed, they were deemed unworthy of serious inquiry, or formal recognition, by Watson, Skinner, and their followers (Baars, 1989). Even with the advent of advanced neuroimaging techniques the scientific study of consciousness remains woefully – or delightfully – interdisciplinary. Sidis saw the inextricable interconnectedness of all fields of knowledge. This is one of his strengths. It consistently shows in his writing.

His atheism, Jewish ancestry, fervent rejection of Freudian psychoanalysis, isolationist position towards American intervention in the First World War, opposition to eugenics, and obvious theoretical and methodological irreconcilability with the rising tide of Behaviorism in research psychology all conspired to ensure his alienation from society in his lifetime as well as the posthumous interment of his achievements. We must count his son, arguably the greatest child prodigy in recorded history, among them. However, Billy was another contributing factor to his father’s fall from grace. Worse was that after graduating from Harvard William James Sidis, who had been a regular source of sensationalized stories for the press, led an adult life that did not seem to meet the expectations set by his boyhood feats.

Maybe the lad cracked under pressure? Likely not. Boris had more in common with a modern Montessori instructor than James Mill. Long before William entered his teens the newspapers had decided he was bound to have a nervous breakdown. Before he was of grade school age they decided Boris’s methods would ruin his son’s health. A significant portion of the claims made by the Yellow Press were either exaggerated or, even more often, completely fabricated (Wallace, 1986). Had they bothered to acquaint themselves with Sidis senior’s views on education they would have known he did not just discourage cramming, but “study” itself. Learning was best, he claimed, when it was effortless; genius begins when instruction becomes indistinguishable from play. A precocious polyglot, an astounding mathematician, and a Harvard freshman by the age of 11, Billy’s IQ is estimated to have been between 250 and 300. This amused his father, who dismissed intelligence tests as “silly, pedantic, absurd, and grossly misleading (Sidis, 1914).”

Extant photographs present us with a severe man standing in the stalwart fashion of someone who has spent their life upholding an ideal, a Hercules at once fatigued and emboldened by his labors. Perhaps he was too ready defend himself, too uncompromising in his commitments. The search for truth sometimes has to give up its seat to diplomacy. Although Boris disliked organized religion, he had an impressive command of the scriptures of more than one religion. He read the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament in Koine Greek, and the Sanskrit epics of India. He also regularly spoke with holy men of different faiths. Like any serious student of history or crowd psychology he was acutely aware of the darker features of the human mind, but there are few proponents of human potential as optimistic as Boris Sidis. Thus he differed from Freud not just in his picture of the subconscious, but in his very conception of human nature. In this respect, if no other, there are few who could be considered a more worthy successor to the aims and spirit of the psychology propounded by his cherished friend and mentor, William James. One wonders how psychiatry and psychology in the twentieth century would have developed had their torrents been tempered more by Boris Sidis.

Adam Alonzi

November 3, 2018

References and Suggested Reading

Baars, Bernard J. The cognitive revolution in psychology. Vol. 157. New York: Guilford Press, 1986.

Baars, Bernard, and Adam Alonzi. “Global Workspace Theory.” The Routledge Handbook of Consciousness 2018, pp. 122–137.

Battino, Rubin, and Thomas L. South. Ericksonian Approaches-: A Comprehensive Manual. Crown House Publishing, 2005.

Bruce, H. Addington. “Masters of the mind.” American Magazine 71 (1910): 71-81.

Damasio, Antonio. “The feeling of what happens.” Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (1999).

Linenthal, Harry. Who’s Who in America, 1022-23; Harvard Coll. Class of 1894, 1923.

Jones, Ernest. “The Controversy over Psychoanalysis.” Received by James Putnam, 6 Mar. 1911.

Mahony, Dan. The Sidis Archives,

Sidis, Boris. The foundations of normal and abnormal psychology. RG Badger, 1914.

Sidis, Boris. “Fundamental states in psychoneurosis.” The Journal of Abnormal Psychology 5.6 (1911): 320.

Wallace, Amy. The Prodigy. E.P. Dutton, 1986.

A Review of Superforecasting by Philip Tetlock


Alexander Consulting the Oracle of Apollo, Louis Jean Francois Lagrenée. 1789, Oil on Canvas.

A Review of Superforecating by Philip Tetlock

“All who drink of this treatment recover in a short time, except those whom it does not help, who all die. It is obvious, therefore, that it fails only in incurable cases.”


Before the advent of evidence-based medicine most physicians took an attitude like Galen’s toward their prescriptions. If their remedies did not work, surely the fault was with their patient. For centuries scores of revered doctors did not consider putting bloodletting or trepanation to the test. Randomized trials to evaluate the efficacy of a treatment were not common practice. Doctors like Archie Cochrane, who fought to make them part of standard protocol, were met with fierce resistance. Tetlock contends that the state of forecasting in the 21st century is strikingly similar to medicine in the 19th. Initiatives like the Good Judgement Project, a website that allows anyone to make predictions about world events, have shown that even a discipline that is largely at the mercy of chance can be put on a scientific footing.

More than once the author reminds us that the key to success in this endeavor is not what you think or what you know, but how you think. For Tetlock pundits like Thomas Friedman are the “exasperatingly evasive” Galens of the modern era. In the footnotes he lets the reader know he chose Friedman as target strictly because of his prominence. There are many like him. Tetlock’s academic work comparing random selections with those of professionals led media outlets to publish, and a portion of their readers to conclude, that expert opinion is no more accurate than a dart throwing chimpanzee. What the undiscerning did not consider, however, is not all of the experts who participated failed to do better than chance.

Daniel Kahneman hypothesized that “attentive readers of the New York Times…may be only slightly worse” than these experts corporations and governments so handsomely recompense. This turned out to be a conservative guess. The participants in the Good Judgement Project outperformed all control groups, including one composed of professional intelligence analysts with access to classified information. This hodgepodge of retired bird watchers, unemployed programmers, and news junkies did 30% better than the “pros.” More importantly, at least to readers who want to gain a useful skillset as well as general knowledge, the managers of the GJP have identified qualities and ways of thinking that separate “superforecasters” from the rest of us. Fortunately they are qualities we can all cultivate.

While the merits of his macroeconomic theories can be debated, John Maynard Keynes was an extremely successful investor during one of the bleakest periods in international finance. This was no doubt due in part to his willingness to make allowance for new information and his grasp of probability. Open-mindedness, an ability and willingness to repeatedly update their forecasts, a talent to neither under nor over react to new information by putting it into a broader context,  and a predilection for mathematical thinking (though those interviewed admitted they rarely used an explicit equation to calculate their answer). The figures they give also tend to be more precise than their less successful peers. This “granularity” may seem ridiculous at first. I must confess that when I first saw estimates on the GJP of 34% or 59% I would chuckle a bit. How, I asked myself, is a single percentage point meaningful? Aren’t we just dealing with rough approximations? Apparently not.

Tetlock reminds us that the GJP does not deal with nebulous questions like “Who will be president in 2027?” or “Will a level 9 earthquake hit California two years from now?” However, there are questions that are not, in the absence of unforeseeable Black Swan events, completely inscrutable. Who will win the Mongolian presidency? Will Uruguay sign a trade agreement with Laos in the next six months? These are parts of highly complex systems, but they can be broken down into tractable subproblems.

Using numbers instead of words like possibly, probably, unlikely, etc seems unnatural. It gives us wiggle room and plausible deniability. They also cannot be put on any sort of record to keep score of how well we’re doing. Still, to some it may seem silly, pedantic, or presumptuous. If Joint Chiefs of Staff had given the exact figure they had in mind (3 to 1) instead of the “fair chance” given to Kennedy the Bay of Pigs debacle may have never transpired. Because they represent ranges of values instead of single numbers words can be retroactively stretched or shrunk to make blunders seem a little less avoidable. This is good for advisors looking to cover their hides by hedging their bets, but not so great for everyone else.

If American intelligence agencies had presented the formidable but vincible figure of 70% instead of a “slam dunk” to Congress a disastrous invasion and costly occupation would have been prevented. At this point it is hard not to see the invasion as anything as a mistake, but even amidst these emotions we must be wary of hindsight. Still, a 70% chance of being right means there is a 30% chance of being wrong. It is hardly a “slam dunk.” No one would feel completely if an oncologist told them they are 70% sure the growth is not malignant. There are enormous consequences to sloppy communications. However, those with vested interests are more than content with it if it agrees with them, even if it ends up harming them.

When Nate Silver put the odds of the 2008 election in Obama’s favor he was panned by Republicans as a pawn of the liberal media. He was quickly reviled by Democrats when he foresaw a Republican takeover of the senate. It is hard to be a wizard when the king, his court, and all the merry peasants sweeping the stables would not know a confirmation bias from their right foot. To make matters worse, confidence is widely equated with capability. This seems to be doubly true of groups of people, particularly when they are choosing a leader. A mutual fund manager who tells his clients they will see great returns on a company is viewed as stronger than a poindexter prattling on about Bayesian inference and risk management.

The GJP’s approach has not spread far — yet. At this time most pundits, consultants, and self-proclaimed sages do not explicitly quantify their success rates, but this does not stop corporations, NGOs, and institutions at all levels of government from paying handsomely for the wisdom of untested soothsayers. Perhaps they have a few diplomas, but most cannot provide compelling evidence for expertise in haruspicy (sans the sheep’s liver). Given the criticality of accurate analyses to saving time and money, it would seem as though a demand for methods to improve and assess the quality of foresight would arise. Yet for the most part individuals and institutions continue to happily grope in the dark, unaware of the necessity for feedback when they misstep — afraid of having their predictions scrutinized or having to take the pains to scrutinize their predictions.

David Ferruci is wary of the “guru model” to settling disputes. No doubt you’ve witnessed or participated in this kind of whimpering fracas: one person presents a Krugman op-ed to debunk a Niall Ferguson polemic which is then countered with a Tommy Friedman book, which was recently excoriated  by the newest leader of the latest intellectual cult to come out of the Ivy League. In the end both sides leave frustrated. Krugman’s blunders regarding the economic prospects of the internet, deflation, the “imminent” collapse of the euro (said repeatedly between 2010 and 2012) are legendary. Similarly, Ferguson, who strongly petitioned the Federal Reserve to reconsider quantitative easing, lest the United States suffer Weimar-like inflation, has not yet been vindicated. He and his colleagues responded in the same way as other embarrassed prophets: be patient, it has not happened, but it will! In his defense, more than one clever person has criticized the way governments calculate their inflation rates…

Paul Ehrlich, a darling of environmentalist movement, has screeched about the detonation of a “population bomb” for decades. Civilization was set to collapse between 15 and 30 years from 1970. During the interim 100 to 200 million would annually starve to death, by the year 2000 no crude oil would be left, the prices of raw materials would skyrocket, and planet would be in the midst of a perpetual famine. Tetlock does not mention Ehrlich, but he is, particularly given his persisting influence on Greens, as or more deserving of a place in this hall of fame as anyone else. Larry Kudlow continued to assure the American people that the Bush tax breaks were producing massive economic growth. This continued well into 2008 when he repeatedly told journalists that America was not in a recession and the Bush boom was “alive and well.” For his stupendous commitment to his contention in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary he was nearly awarded a seat in the Trump cabinet.

This is not to say a mistake should become the journalistic equivalent of a scarlet letter. Kudlow’s slavish adherence to his axioms is not unique. Ehrlich’s blindness to technological advances is not uncommon, even in an era dominated by technology. By failing to set a timeline or give detailed causal accounts many believe they have predicted every crash since they learned how to say the word. This is likely because they begin each day with the same mantra: “the market will crash.”  Yet through an automatically executed routine of psychological somersaults they do not see they were right only once and wrong dozens, hundreds, or thousands of times. This kind of person is much more deserving of scorn than a poker player who boasts about his victories, because he is (likely) also aware of how often he loses. At least he’s not fooling himself. The severity of Ehrlich’s misfires are reminders of what happens when someone looks too far ahead while assuming all things will remain the same. Ceteris paribus exists only in laboratories and textbooks.

Axioms are fates accepted by different people as truth, but the belief in Fate (in the form of retroactive narrative construction) is a nearly ubiquitous stumbling block to clear thinking. We may be far removed from Sophocles, but the unconscious human drive to create sensible narratives is not peculiar to fifth century Athens. A questionnaire given to students at Northwestern showed most believed things had turned out for the best even if they had gotten into their first pick. From an outsider’s perspective this is probably not true. In our cocoons we like to think we are in the right place either through the hand of fate or through our own choices. Atheists are not immune to this Panglossian habit. Our brains are wired for stories, but the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves seldom come out without distortions. We can gain a better outside view, which allows us to see situations from perspectives other than our own, but only through regular practice with feedback. This is one of the reasons groups are valuable.

Francis Galton asked 787 villagers to guess the weight of an ox hanging in the market square. The average of their guesses (1,197 lbs) turned out to be remarkably close to its actual weight (1,198 lbs). Scott Page has said “diversity trumps ability.” This is a tad bold, since legions of very different imbeciles will never produce anything of value, but there is undoubtedly a benefit to having a group with more than one point of view. This was tested by the GJP. Teams performed better than lone wolves by a significant margin (23% to be exact). Partially as a result of encouraging one another and building a culture of excellence, and partially from the power of collective intelligence.

“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

-Helmuth von Moltke

“Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.”

-Mike Tyson

When Archie Cochrane was told he had cancer by his surgeon he prepared for death. Type 1 thinking grabbed hold of him and did not doubt the diagnosis. A pathologist later told him the surgeon was wrong. The best of us, under pressure, fall back on habitual modes of thinking. This is another reason why groups are useful (assuming all their members do not also panic). Organizations like the GJP and the Millennium Project are showing how well collective intelligence systems can perform. Helmuth von Moltke and Mike Tyson aside, a better motto, substantiated by a growing body of evidence, comes from Dwight  Eisenhower: “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Latin Proverbs: O


The Fall of Phaeton by Peter Paul Rubens. c. 1604/1605, probably reworked c. 1606/1608.

Omnia Romae cum pretio

Everything in Rome comes with a price.

Juvenal died around 130 AD.  Since it took another 346 years for Rome to fall to Odoacer’s hordes, we could say Juvenal was either remarkably prescient or just another literary type bemoaning the “vanity of life” and the vapidity of consumerism. He was critical of sycophancy, the respect enjoyed by actors and gladiators, the privileges granted to the military class, and the overall decadence he observed in the capital. While perceiving decadence in the present is quite common (Mircea Eliade’s classic study of shamanism shows that even tribal societies like to believe there was a glorious golden age replete with supernatural happenings that came just before their own), one should not condemn Juvenal for poking fun at the faults of the empire, though maybe he should have points deducted for frequently being so hamfisted about it.

An unrelentingly vicious satirist is immediately offensive to some and inevitably insufferable to everyone. Mike Judge originally wanted King of the Hill to be a prolonged attack on a typical American family and its traditional Texan values. After the first few episodes it was decided this was not sustainable. The characters were given believable personalities and he plots were devised to entertain rather than preach. However, he got his wish for pure mockery when he put together Goode Family in 2009. It lasted a single season. The most common mistake in satire is to remain too close to the subject matter. Mockery is best done from a comfortable distance. Do anything, do everything, but don’t be tiresome.

Oratores fuint, poetae nascintur

Orators are made, poets are born.

Elocution, poise, diction, syntax, cadence, gesticulation, and sophistry can all be drilled into an aspiring salesman or politician. They can and should be practiced until they look natural (in other words, complimentarily blended with the speaker’s peculiarities – too much pre-planned poise is transparently irritating to all audiences. Think of how uninspiring Americans found Hillary Clinton’s calculated choreography compared to her husband’s homespun charisma). Rhetoric was once an exalted art form, but at some point between 1950 and now it degenerated into the the sort of “debates” we get the pleasure of watching every four years.

Poetry is not magic, no matter how tingly it makes us feel; poems adhere to forms and conventions that can (and have) been taught to machines, but at this time spark needed to write elegant, convincing, and congruent verse is not a skill that can be easily transmitted. Intuitively a good ear knows not only if something scans well, if the consonants and vowels compliment each other, but also if there is balance not only in the sounds but in the images and concepts. A poet, like any other artist, needs an intimate familiarity with the workings of the human mind.

The intelligent navigation of a system requires an intimate familiarity with the various contexts within it. In the realm of psychology one encounters contexts within contexts…a nearly bottomless pit. Maybe there will be some training system (available for only 3 easy payment of $29.99) that can give you a knack for the sort of verbal flourish that drives readers to laughter or tears.

Optimum medicantuium quies est

The best medicine is rest.

According to the NIH “sleep is involved in healing and repair of your heart and blood vessels. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke…” But the word here is not somnus, but quies (from which we get “quiescent”). Sleep is critical for good health, but can the same be said for lying around?

In more than one self-help book it has been noted that some famous insights have come to artists and scientists in dreams or while they were otherwise distracted. The French mathematician Henri Poincare, a venerable figure often cited by authors peddling the “power of the subconscious”, emphasized the importance of “unconscious incubation.”

A post on PsyBlog describes it in this way:

“It’s not just you that’s fresher, it’s also your take on the problem that has been freshened up. Before, you saw the problem in a particular way which limited your ability to come up with solutions. After a break, though, you forget things that held you back, which allows the breakthrough. On the other side of the fence sit psychologists who say, yes, these things are important, but they don’t tell the full story. The break doesn’t just freshen you up, it gives your unconscious time to work towards a solution.”

Optimi natatores saepius submerguntur.

The best swimmers often drown.

The admonishments against hubris in Greco-Roman mythology were not just cosmic injunctions handed down by the Olympians or the social manifestations of jealousy stemming from mediocrity. Sometimes we have to get a safe range of altitudes before soaring; sometimes we need to know if we can drive the sun chariot without bursting into flames. The myth of Phaethon tells us that, unless you happen to be the sun god, it is best not to try. The expert bias, the equally irritating brother of the Dunning-Kruger effect (the amateur obstinately oblivious to their own incompetence), is quite common. After running into no issues using what we have been taught, there is a decent chance that even the most cautious among us will be lulled into believing nothing can go wrong or, if it does, it not in any way our own fault. It’s also likely the person in question has stopped thinking about the motions they’ve painstakingly committed to procedural memory.

According to Ovid the intrepid adventurer’s epitaph reads: “here Phaethon lies who in the sun-god’s chariot fared. And though greatly he failed, more greatly he dared”

Otium dat vitium.

Idleness breeds vice.

Before beginning this blog I assembled the proverbs the night before. I remembered upon awakening that I have not seen the adjective “otiose” in months. Which means some 19th century British prose will be on the menu soon…

It can mean idleness or, according to Merriam-Webster, “serving no practical purpose or result.” In greater numbers than ever humans must combat the evils that come with having more leisure time than they can easily fill. Now, as far as challenges go, this is far from the worst. I would much rather be stuck with having to decide between picking up an instrument or binge watching a Netflix comedy than which sweatshop I’d like to begin working at on my 9th birthday. It is a problem, nevertheless, and one that warrants careful deliberation. Too little rest makes us dull, too much makes us insane. I could go on a rant about the diminishing spotlight occupied by willpower in the Western mind, but I did that in my last blog entry.

Review and Summary of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney


“But something may be done that we will not:

And sometimes we are devils to ourselves,

When we will tempt the frailty of our powers,

Presuming on their changeful potency.”

-William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida

“Nothing surely is so potent as a law that may not be disobeyed. It has the force of the water-drop that hollows the stone. A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”

-Anthony Trollope

“The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one… anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”

-Robert Benchley

Roy Baumeister’s name is synonymous with the scientific study of willpower, a term that has steadily fallen out of favor in the West since its heyday in the Victorian era. Whether its decline will continue is anyone’s guess. As antiquated or absurd as the word may seem to modern readers, it is an essential virtue that Baumeister and others have linked with success, happiness, and even charitability. In other words, self-control creates better citizens and better societies. It is unfortunate that it has become equated with stiffness, blandness, and misery. After all, to be anything but a mewling infant incessantly beset by perfectly avoidable misfortunes is to be a robot!

Yet common ideas about willpower, like our impressions of other critical but deceptively familiar concepts, are not quite right. Folk psychology occasionally captures kernels of truth, but it is just as likely to fall on the wrong side of the fence. Using the techniques available to us we may believe, rightly or wrongly,  that the fault lies with us – a healthy but occasionally dysfunctional response that leads us to begrudgingly accept that we cannot become early risers or make ourselves practice our scales every afternoon. Yet by going deeper, by seeking out what the cutting edge has to tell us about what is effective and what is not, we can construct a blueprint that may deliver results.

The Stanford marshmallow experiment is widely cited for a good reason. It is rare that such a seemingly trivial test provides insights into how someone’s character in childhood can shape the rest of their lives. Long after the experiment had finished Mischel continued to hear stories about the participants, which compelled him and his fellow researchers to track down the participants. On average those who managed to wait 15 minutes for a greater reward scored 210 points more on the SAT than their less patient peers. Yet self-discipline does not just improve scores on exams that exist solely to fill the coffers of the College Board. Tasks that seem to rely more upon other traits are deeply affected by our capacity for self-regulation. Managers with high levels of self-control are rated more favorably by their employees than others, presumably because they were better at viewing a situation from multiple perspectives – something hotheads and dictatorial personalities do not do well.

The Radish Experiment showed that resisting chocolate chip cookies reduced a person’s willingness to work for extended periods of time on insoluble geometry problems. It also showed that flooding your brain cells with glucose (temporarily) boosts your morale and that, on occasion, psychological investigators can be quite sadistic. It also pointed at two key components of willpower that would be tested more extensively. One is that willpower is a finite resource. The other is we all have one will, which must cope with all the demands our work, families, and social lives place upon it. Resisting the doughnuts at the office draws from the same piggy bank as your irritating coworkers and roommates.

But before you bawl over in terror and crawl into some dank corner to sob uncontrollably I must tell you that there is a flipside to this seemingly dreadful design: by exercising one’s will with tasks that place significant demands on it, including arbitrary ones like organizing our papers or reciting a mantra, we can steadily carve out more organized lives for ourselves. Baumeister and others have referred to willpower as a muscle because it can be strengthened. Since we have all been endowed with a single reservoir that flows into countless tributaries that clamour for our ever-dwindling stock of patience (while multiplying like fanged rabbits from one of Fibonacci’s nightmares), our only option is to work on what we have been given.

Heroin addicts in Burlington, Vermont (and presumably in other cities) give us a glimpse into the underworld of the chemically dependent brain. When asked to write about “the future” the members of the control group envisioned themselves being promoted, getting married, buying a house, etc. The addicts focused on events that would transpire within a week or two. Warren Bickel found that habitual drug users, with the exception of pot smokers, have a similarly foreshortened “temporal horizon.” Other groups found students with long-term goals tended to perform better than their peers and showed monthly planning is much more useful to students than daily planning. A year after the study ended the monthly planners were still outperforming the dailys. A bit of reflection on particularly goal-oriented periods in your own life will probably provide some personal proof of this concept.

Not surprisingly, consistent effort has been found to be vastly superior to the heroic “bursts” procrastinators pray for before drifting off to yet another night of fitful sleep. Procrastination, it is claimed, can be used to stall indulgence. We simply tell ourselves that we will enjoy the vice we have in mind “later.” I have not tried this myself, but I suspect it is not nearly as effective as saying “later” to laundry, bills, or uncomfortable phone calls. The Zeigarnik Effect, named in honor of Bluma Zeigarnik, is an especially insidious consequence of piling tasks on an already overcrowded plate.

One evening Kurt Lewin, her professor and a seminal figure in Gestalt psychology, was awed by a waiter’s ability to remember long orders – and by how quickly he forgot the orders once the food was delivered. Uncompleted tasks nag us; they take up space. It seems that these reminders abate in subjects who make a plan outlining how they intend to finish the task. Based on this observation Baumeister and Tierney assert that the effect is the unconscious mind’s request to the conscious mind to “make a plan.” Look, they even Italicized it. If something is nagging you, make a plan. .

The self-esteem movement has been under fire for years, mostly by people who like to think they have earned their sense of self-worth (they haven’t). Since it is an excuse to praise yourself for doing nothing it is unlikely to die off suddenly. However, it has become clear to those in the know that it has not delivered on the incredible promises it started making in the 1970’s. While low self-esteem has been linked to many self-destructive behaviors, it seems the causality is wrong – or at least not always right. As the authors starkly state: “It works the other way: Being a sixteen-year-old pregnant heroin addict can make you feel less than wonderful about yourself.”

I don’t believe the authors are naive enough to think the stream only flows in one direction. Surely in some cases low self-esteem leads to undesirable behavior. This section is concluded with wonderful cheekiness: “when the going gets tough, people with high self-esteem often decide they shouldn’t bother. If other people can’t appreciate how terrific they are, then it’s the other people’s fault.” This leads to a comparison between the parenting styles of Americans of European descent and Americans from East Asia.

Although accounting for (at the time of the book’s publication) two percent of the country’s population, people of East Asian descent account for a full quarter of the students at top-tier universities in the United States. The massive differences in success rates between Asian and other American children are probably not wholly (or even largely) the result of genetics. It is amazing how quickly rabid nurturists, the types of academics who begin frothing at the mouth at the mere mention of DNA, suddenly become implacable hereditarians when they feel the need to throw the blame off of themselves. The authors cite a couple studies and list a few anecdotes showing how Asian parents put a premium on long-term planning and emphasize rewards for genuine accomplishments over self-esteem for its own sake.

It should be noted that even with “tiger mothering” the child’s genetic mediocrity will, in the end, rise to the surface. No, this is not just my overly harsh assessment. Yes, he will probably be more successful than his burger-flipping peers but, in the grand scheme of things, utterly unextraordinary. No. Forcing a child to play the cello for three hours a day will not turn him into Pablo Casals. Coercing a child into “algebra competitions” will not produce an Emmy Noether or a Grothendieck. Yes, Richard Feynman competed, but it was on his own accord, fueled by his own unique genius and passion. As of right now there is no recipe for instilling the lifelong enthusiasm for learning that makes a Feynman.

Decision fatigue, Tierney alleges, is why sweet treats are placed at the front of a store. After shopping and standing in a line customers are too exhausted to resist the delectables by the register. One disturbing story illustrates how harmful decision fatigue can be: “On average, each judge approved parole for only about one of every three prisoners, but there was a striking pattern to the decisions, of all the judges as the researchers found. The prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 65 percent of the time.Those who appeared late in the day won parole less than 10 percent of the time. Thus the odds favored the prisoner in our Case 1, who appeared at 8:50 AM…Whatever their personal philosophy – whether they were known for being tough on crime or sympathetic to the potential of rehabilitation – they had fewer available mental resources to make further decisions.”

In other words, all the lofty legalistic philosophy imbibed or spouted by these people to rationalize their decisions following their ruling is bunk. They’re just tired. Bottomline: if you have had to make a lot of choices, don’t make anymore until your fatigue has subsided.

Experimenters have found one way to make a particular group of subjects more impulsive (as if we need more impulsivity in the world): men who were shown pictures of attractive women were more prone to taking immediate rewards over larger future payoffs.

One piece of “good news” (in other words, the sort of factoid that can be used to justify a habit that isn’t widely approved of) is a group of researchers at Harvard have concluded that benefits can be derived from playing video games since, like a musical instrument or a similarly challenging hobby, they require the player to learn rules and follow precise steps. While Starcraft is probably not your child’s ticket to the Ivy League, it is better than television. However, you may want to put a mirror in their room.

Wicklund and Duval looked into how self-consciousness impact work ethic. In other words, if you know (or believe) you’re being watched or if you can see your reflection, you are likely to slavishly adhere to the values you claim to cherish and attend to the job you promised to do. One psychologist tried this out on trick-or-treaters who, even while wearing costumes, were less likely to take more than one piece of candy when the mirror was facing them. Without a mirror – or the self-awareness it induces – the little imps felt they could disobey their instructions. We needn’t look at a literal image of ourselves in order to be hit by the realization that we have not been acting as we should.

In his autobiography Anthony Trollope kept a record of how many words he wrote each day. He preemptively responds to those who felt this kind of self-discipline is beneath an artist:  “When I have heard such doctrine preached, I have hardly been able to repress my scorn. To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting.”

Trollope was a fabulously prolific author. While he penned his fair share of tripe, a few of his novels remain undisputed masterpieces. The method is so simple. As the authors mention, willpower is not magic. It has limits. You cannot force yourself to be happy or sad – not genuinely, anyway. Subjects told to not smile during a comedy or not to show any emotion during a tragedy showed significant amounts of “ego-depletion” – similar to people who have passed up delicious cookies. Tapping into those emotions requires a memory or image that conjures them, and the willingness to spend time learning how to tap into them at the drop of a hat. However, if you are not an actor or a salesman. I see no reason to commit to this sort of practice.

Amanda Palmer’s street performance act involved standing still – being a human statue, even when boorish pedestrians would try to antagonize her. David Blaine claims before a stunt his discipline skyrockets, only to fall precipitously afterwards. I can’t say I cared much for the celebrity anecdotes the authors felt the need to include – presumably to connect to a wider audience. One more tidbit that made me chuckle: in spite of the lamentations of many would-be trail-blazers, psychologists have failed to find a link between procrastination and perfectionism. Perfectionism is just a noble-sounding excuse for laziness.

When one smoker quits it can move through their social network. They also note that if a person quits smoking their self-control in other areas improves. These small changes can have a tremendous impact on our lives and the lives of others. Willpower is a treasure that is worth cultivating and this is a wonderful book that, I hope, will change your life for the better.

Rhythms of the Brain by György Buzsaki: Review and Excerpts


Buzsaki presents a difficult subject in a commendably clear manner. It is an exemplary piece of scientific writing produced by one of the grand old men of brain wave research. A growing literature, which has expanded significantly since the book’s publication in 2006, suggests neural oscillations are not “noise” or novelties for someone interested in the minutiae of neuroscience, but fundamental to understanding perception, peak performance, emotional regulation, memory formation, the organization of the various “levels” of the brain, a variety of psychiatric illnesses, and consciousness itself.

“There is no good reason to assume that the brain is organized in accordance with the concepts of folk psychology.”

—Cornelius H. Vanderwolf

“Berger called the large-amplitude rhythm (approximately 10 waves per second, or 10 hertz), which was induced by eye closure in the awake, calm subject, the “alpha” rhythm because he observed this rhythm first. He named the faster, smaller amplitude waves, present when the eyes were open, ‘beta’ waves. Paradoxically, Berger’s recordings provided firm physical evidence against his idea that waves generated by one brain could somehow be detected by another brain.”

“Assuredly, neuronal oscillators are quite complex. Nevertheless, the principles that govern their operation are not fundamentally different from those of oscillators in other physical systems.”

“The intimate relationship between space and time is packaged into the concept of “spacetime” (x, y, z, t dimensions). Oscillations can be conceived of and dis- played in terms of either space or time. The phase-plane of a sinusoid harmonic oscillator 8 is a circle. We can walk the perimeter of the circle once, twice, or billion of times and yet we always get back to our starting point….”

“Linear causation works most of the time, and it is the foundation of many essential operations from catching a ball to solving a mysterious murder case. Causation can also fail. For example, in an oscillatory system, most or all neurons with reciprocal, one-way connections or no direct connections may discharge with a zero time lag (i.e., simultaneously), making linear causation impossible….

If the second ball starts moving in the same direction after the arrival of the first ball, we conclude from the timing of the events that the first ball caused the second one to move. However, derivation of such a conclusion depends critically on the exact timing of the events. We make the inference of causality only if the second ball begins to move within 70 milliseconds after the first ball reaches it.”

“Although in this case a simple cause–effect (unexpected object–braking) relationship exists, mental reconstruction offers a different cause. The brain takes into consideration the conduction velocities of its own hardware and compensates for it. For example, touching your nose and toe at the same physical time (or touching your nose with your toe) feels simultaneous even though neuronal events in the cerebrum, representing the touch of two body parts, are delayed by several tens of milliseconds.”

“ ‘Representation’ of external reality is therefore a continual adjustment of the brain’s self-generated patterns by outside influences, a process called “experience” by psychologists. From the above perspective, therefore, the engineering term “calibration” is synonymous with “experience.”

“A quick glance through the Cycles makes it clear that the title Rhythms of the Brain is a bit grandiose relative to the modest content of the book. Many important topics are omitted or glossed over. The vital oscillations generated by the spinal cord and brainstem are completely ignored, and the bulk of the discussion is centered on cortical systems of the mammalian brain. Circadian and other long period oscillations are discussed only as they pertain to the faster neuronal events.”

“The basic circuit capable of the aforementioned control functions is recognizable in all vertebrate brains, small and large. During the course of evolution, the basic circuit is not fundamentally modified, but instead, multiple parallel circuits, consisting of intermediate and longer chains of neurons, are superimposed on the existing wiring. No matter what fraction of the brain web we are investigating, neuronal loops are the principal organization at nearly all levels. A physicist would call this multi-level, self-similar organization a fractal of loops.”

“For the sake of simplicity, let us start with just 50 neurons. To link each of these neurons to all other neurons would require 1,225 bidirectional connections. But we know that this is not the brain’s choice. Neurons are not connected to all other neurons but only to a fraction of them. What is the minimum number of links that can connect each neuron to at least one of its partners? The general solution to this sort of a problem is the most famous in graph theory. It took the genius of two mathematicians, Paul Erdös and Alfréd Rényi, to solve this puzzle. They showed, that using just 98 randomly placed links, a mere 8 percent of the 1,225 all-to-all connections, we can connect all 50 nodes (neurons).”

“The number of random links required to keep the synaptic path length short increases much less than the size of the network. In other words, the larger the network, the greater the impact of each random link on the effective connectivity of the network.”

“By examining the accessibility of the websites on the Internet, his team realized that traffic is directed mostly toward a handful of busy sites, for example, the search engine Google and the popular e-store These popular hubs are visited orders of magnitude more frequently than, say, my website. Barabási argued that many real-world networks, including the Web, evolve by some rules but they cannot be described by illustrating a typical, representative example. Instead, the connections in these ‘scale-free’ networks obey a statistical rule called the power law.”

“In scale-free systems, things are different. In systems governed by power law statistics, there is no peak at an average value, and a select small group can have the largest effect. For example, if we drop a vase on the floor, it will break into fragments of varying size. There will be a lot of debris but also a number of reasonably large fragments. If we collect all the pieces, from the microscopic ones to the large, and plot their numbers as a function of size on a log–log scale, we will get an oblique line: a power law for fractures. No one fragment can be considered as the characteristic size. There is no “typical example” in a scale-free system. A power law implies that there is no such thing as a normal or characteristic size scale and that there is no qualitative difference between the larger and smaller pieces or events.”

“Giulio Tononi, Olaf Sporns, and Gerald Edelman from the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California, searched for a structure-based metric that could more objectively define ‘neuronal complexity’ and capture the relationship between functional segregation and global integration of function in the brain. Using the concepts of statistical entropy and mutual information, they estimated the relative statistical independence of model systems with various connectivity structures. Not surprisingly, they found that statistical independence is low when system constituents are either completely independent (segregated) or completely dependent (integrated).”

“Its robust local tensegrity organization has allowed continuous growth from the small brain of a tree shrew to the giant brain of the whale… The cerebral cortex is a scalable and robust spherical structure. 33 Its modular plan is identical in all mammals, with five layers of principal cells and a thin superficial layer containing mostly distal apical dendrites and horizontal axons.”

“Tensegrity dynamics can be maintained only if the excitatory effects are balanced by equally effective inhibitory forces, provided by specialized inhibitory neurons. If only excitatory cells were present in the brain, neurons could not create form or order or secure some autonomy for themselves. Principal cells can do only one thing: excite each other. In the absence of inhibition, any external input, weak or strong, would generate more or less the same one-way pattern, an avalanche of excitation involving the whole population.”

“A textbook example of a state transition is the shift between water and ice.  A slight change in temperature (an externally imposed influence) can shift the state in either direction. If a system, for example, a neural network, can self-organize in such a way as to maintain itself near the phase transition, it can stay in this ‘sensitized’ or metastable state until perturbed.”

“For example, the thalamus, basal ganglia, and the cerebellum possess a low degree of variability in their neuron types. In contrast, cortical structures have evolved not only five principal-cell types but also numerous classes of GABAergic inhibitory interneurons.”

“How can such a minority group keep in check the excitatory effects brought about by the majority principal cells in cortical networks? Interneurons deploy numerous mechanisms to meet this challenge. In contrast to the typically weak synaptic connections between principal cells, principal cell–interneuron connections are strong. In the return direction, a typical interneuron innervates a principal cell with 5–15 synaptic terminals (or boutons). Furthermore, almost half of the inhibitory terminals are placed at strategically critical positions for controlling action potential output.”

“The primary role of the interneuron networks is to coordinate timing of the action potentials. This task becomes more and more complex as the brain grows because neurons are placed farther apart from each other.”

“The seismologists’ task is literally identical to that of a neurologist who attempts to localize the source of an epileptic seizure from scalp recordings. The source localization problem or, as engineers call it, the “inverse problem” is the task of recovering the elements and location of the neural field generators based on the spatially averaged activity detected by the scalp electrodes. However, surface recordings provide only limited information about the structures and neuron groups from which the hypersynchronous epileptic activity emanates, and the inverse problem does not have a unique solution.”

“The complex EEG or MEG waveform can be reproduced by an appropriate combination of sine waves. This method is similar to the trick used by electronic synthesizers that can make convincing acoustical forgeries of everything from trombones to harps. It is done by a mathematical process called Fourier synthesis, named after the French mathematician Joseph Fourier. 32 The reverse process, called Fourier analysis, takes the complex EEG or MEG signal and decomposes it into the sine waves that make it up. After the signal is decomposed into sine waves, a compressed representation of the relative dominance of the various frequencies can be constructed. This frequency versus incidence illustration is known as the power spectrum. The Fourier method transforms the signal, defined in the time domain, into one defined in the frequency domain.”

“For example, random noise is defined as uncorrelated because it is similar only to itself, and any small amount of temporal shift results in no correlation with the unshifted signal at all. In contrast, oscillating signals go in and out of phase when shifted in time.”

“Coherence is the measure of the state in which two signals maintain a fixed phase relationship with each other or with a third signal that serves as a reference for each. The phase differences are often used to infer the direction of the force, although in most cases such inference is not possible…”

Page 109 lists several key definitions.

“Karl Friston emphasized the importance of short-lived transients in his “labile brain” series (Friston, 2000). According to Friston, brain dynamics move from a stable incoherence through dynamic instability to complete entrainment. A similar idea is echoed by the chaotic organization of Walter Freeman’s “wave packets” (Freeman and Rogers, 2002; Freeman et al., 2003) and the “neural moment” of transient synchrony of Hopfield and Brody (2001). It is not clear, though, how stable incoherence (high entropy) can be maintained in an interconnected system, e.g., the brain. As Sporns et al. (2000a, b, 2002) have pointed out, high-complexity and high-entropy conditions require very different architectures.”

“Perhaps what makes music fundamentally different from (white) noise for the observer is that music has temporal patterns that are tuned to the brain’s ability to detect them because it is another brain that generates these patterns. The long-time and large-scale note structure of Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto is quite similar to the latest hit played by a rock station or to Scott Joplin’s Piano Rags. 26 On the other hand, both high temporal predictability, such as the sound of dripping water, and total lack of predictability, such as John Cage’s stochastic “music” (essentially white noise) are quite annoying to most of us.”

“Psychophysical law that comes to mind in connection with the 1/f nature of cortical EEG is that of Weber and Fechner: the magnitude of a subjective sensation (a cognitive unit) increases proportionally to the logarithm of the stimulus intensity (a physical unit). For example, if a just-noticeable change in a visual sensation is produced by the addition of one candle to an original illumination of 100 candles, 10 candles will be required to detect a change in sensation when the original illumination is 1,000 candles. 28 According to Rodolfo Llinás at New York University, Weber’s law also underlies the octave tonal structure of music perception and production. He goes even further by suggesting that quale, 29 the feeling character of sensation, may “derive from electrical architectures embedded in neuronal circuits capable of such logarithmic order.”

“Pausing with this thought for a second, the math is not as simple as it looks. The seductively simple 1/f α function is, in fact, a very complex one. Every new computation forward takes into consideration the entire past history of the system. The response of a neuron depends on the immediate discharge history of the neuron and the long-term history of the connectivity of the network into which it is embedded. Assuming 100 independent neurons with spiking and nonspiking binary states, more than 10 30 different spike combinations are possible. However, only a very small fraction of these combinations can be realized in the brain because neurons are interconnected; thus, they are not independent constituents.”

“A household example of a relaxation oscillator is a dripping faucet. If the faucet is not turned off completely, it behaves like a metronome, generating water spheres and annoying sounds at regular intervals. The energy source that maintains the oscillation is the water pressure, whereas the balance between gravity and local viscosity determines the drop size. If the pressure is reduced, the interval between the drops increases; thus, the oscillator slows down, but the drop size remains the same. The frequency of the relaxation oscillator is calculated from the intervals between the pulses (water drops).”

“A good piano has good resonance because it amplifies the sound. Oftentimes, resonance is unwelcome because it amplifies events we want to avoid. Engineers of bridges and skyscrapers constantly struggle with unwanted resonance.”

“Resonant properties of neurons constrain them to respond most effectively to inputs at biologically important frequencies such as those associated with brain oscillations.”

“The astonishing conclusion from contemporary biophysics is that every part of the neuron can function as a resonator-oscillator. All the neuron needs is channel, activity with opposing actions and feedback to sustain the ying-yang game. Thus, a single neuron consists of myriads of potential resonators whose properties differ due to the different channel properties and densities of the membrane along the somatodendritic and axonal surface.”

“In its broad definition, synchrony refers to the concurrence of events in time, a relation that exists when things occur simultaneously, such as two or many neurons firing within a short time interval. Events that occur at different times are asynchronous. Although this definition of synchrony is found in most textbooks, it is not particularly useful. For two observers to have expectations of something occurring “at the same time” is meaningful only if they see the same clock. Furthermore, a “discrete time window” should be defined for the judgment of simultaneity. Otherwise, it is impossible to name the time at which something occurs…

If the same tune is played at the same time on the radio in both London and New York City, and the London broadcast is transmitted through the Internet, the tunes played by a radio and a computer in New York will not be judged as being simultaneous by a human listener. The same is true for an observer neuron that receives inputs from other neurons with different physical distances. If the difference in travel time of the action potentials from the presynaptic neurons is too long, the target neuron may treat them as asynchronous (separate) events.”

“For real neurons, however, the integration time window is much harder to determine and depends on a variety of factors, such as replenishment of the neurotransmitter in the presynaptic terminal, the actual resistance of the membrane, receptor types, the immediate spiking history of the neuron, and the state of the various conductances in general. When the neuron is very active, it becomes leaky and can integrate over a much shorter window than at times of low activity….

The slower the rhythm, the wider is the window of opportunity for synchronization. In a wider time window, more neurons can be recruited from larger brain areas because synaptic and axonal conductance delays are less limiting; thus, the spatial extent of synchrony is much larger in the case of a slow rhythm.”

“The optimal performance of man-made devices can be notoriously deteriorated by the presence of noise. But noise is not necessarily bad. An oft-quoted beneficial aspect of noise in bistable systems, for example, neurons, is its ability to amplify hidden periodic signals under certain conditions.”

“Noise can maintain spontaneous activity in computer models of neural networks. Signals become detectable due to resonance between the weak deterministic signal and stochastic noise.”

“Although signal amplification through noise appears advantageous for the brain, it has its own problems. A critical issue is the source of noise. Classical theories, in which the brain is viewed as a stimulus-driven device, assumed that spike response variability in response to an invariant input derives from unreliable individual neurons. 31 According to such view, a neuronal population can represent consistent and coherent decisions, but single cells within the population can cast different votes. These individually incongruent opinions are usually regarded as wasted action potentials from the representational point of view and are considered the source of synaptic noise. From the “population code” perspective, stochastic resonance is a clever mechanism because it can “recycle” the wasted action potentials. However, in contrast to the population code model, numerous recent works emphasize that action potentials are used sparingly in the brain, and spiking of neurons is much more reliable than previously thought.”

“Hebb’s cell assembly is a transient coalition of neurons, much like the dynamic interactions among jazz musicians. Members of the cell assembly are brought together by Hebb’s synaptic plasticity rule, on the basis of temporal relations among them: “When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite a cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A’s efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased.”

“For example, in the hippocampus, spike transmission from pyramidal cell to interneuron is low at both low and high frequencies and highest at 15–40 hertz, which is the typical discharge frequency of an activated pyramidal neuron. In other words, a single but strongly “activated” pyramidal cell can exert an equal or larger effect in discharging its basket neurons than several dozen other presynaptic neurons discharging the same number of spikes because they target different, rather than the same, synapses. In essence, the high-frequency discharge of a pyramidal cell in its receptive field “enslaves” its basket cells through resonance tuning. In turn, the output of the basket cells suppresses the activity of the surrounding pyramidal neurons. Such “winner-take-all” or “rich-gets-richer” mechanisms are abundant in complex systems, from automatons to Bill Gates’s empire, and analogous mechanisms may be responsible for the segregation of neurons in networks strongly interconnected by excitatory collaterals.”

“Perhaps the most spectacular example of low-energy coupling, known to all physics and engineering majors, is the synchronization of Christiaan Huygens’s pendulum clocks. Huygens’s striking observation was that when two identical clocks were hung next to each other on the wall, their pendula became time-locked after some period. Synchrony did not happen when the clocks were placed on different walls in the room. Huygens’s clocks entrained because the extremely small vibrations of the wall that held both clocks were large enough that each rhythm affected the other.”

“However, when very large numbers of neurons come together with some time jitter, their integrated output, in principle, can be so smooth that the population may appear to behave like a sinusoid oscillator. In fact, this principle is routinely exploited by electric engineers to construct reliable sinusoid (i.e., harmonic) generators without the inconvenience of the inertia inherent in real sinusoid generators.”

“There are two requirements for an oscillator: opposing forces and positive feedback. Systems with opposing forces but without feedback can maintain only a transient oscillation with decreasing amplitude, a phenomenon called resonance. Neurons and networks with these properties preferentially treat inputs whose frequency matches their own resonance. Neuronal oscillators belong to the family of limit cycle or weakly chaotic oscillators. Two well-defined oscillators, harmonic and relaxation types, have numerous examples in the brain. Harmonic oscillators are good long-term predictors because their phase is constant. Relaxation oscillators can synchronize quickly and efficiently. Brain oscillators tend to exploit and combine these properties.”

“However, the information theory strategy cannot account for important functions of the brain that do not require immediate environmental inputs, including various the hard-to-define types of mental processing and sleep. I take a different approach in this book, beginning with the examination of the unperturbed, resting-sleeping brain and examining its evolving state changes.”

“The pattern of thalamic connectivity coevolved with the neocortex. However, cortical representations grew much more rapidly. For example, the number of thalamocortical neurons in the mouse is only an order of magnitude less than the number of target neurons in the cortex, whereas in the human brain the ratio is less than one to a thousand. Even though thalamic growth did not keep up with the fast development of the neocortex, higher order nuclei in primates are relatively larger than the first-order relays, indicating that allocation of divergent cortical–thalamic–cortical connections is more important for the evolution of the mammalian brain than enhancing the bandwidth capacity of primary sensory pathways.”

“This is interesting because the same cortical inputs can produce a diametrically opposite change in the network state, depending on the short-term history of the network. The mechanisms responsible for bringing the active network back to silence are not well understood. A combination of various factors, including decreasing. Input resistance of neurons, activity-dependent K + currents, and gain of inhibition over excitation, are considered opposing forces of excitation that collectively revert the network into a silent state. Anesthetics that increase K + conductance or potentiate the action of GABA can prolong the down state. In contrast, cortical neurons in the waking brain stay virtually constantly in the upstate. A major reason for this is that a main action of subcortical neurotransmitters is to decrease K + conductance of cortical neurons”

“The strong cholinergic activity during REM sleep and in the waking brain is mainly responsible for the lack of down states in cortical neurons. The most prominent oscillation of the waking brain is the family of alpha rhythms that occur selectively in every sensory and motor thalamocortical system in the absence of sensory inputs. Nevertheless, alpha oscillations are not simply a result of sensory disengagement but may reflect internal mental processing.”

“Similarly, Robert Stickgold and coleagues at Harvard Medical School found that the magnitude of memory enhancement after sleep was positively correlated with the amount of early-night slow-wave sleep, although it was also correlated with late-night REM sleep. Moreover, behavioral performance also increased after a daytime nap, which is dominated by slow-wave sleep.  Perhaps the most spectacular result in this area of research is the demonstration of sleep facilitation of creative insight. Did you ever wake up with the right answer to a problem that you could not solve the night before? To bring this folk psychology belief into the lab, Born’s team asked their subjects to generate number sequences that included a hidden rule—the second sequence was identical to the last in the series. Uncovering the hidden rule was possible only after several trials. The subjects were given only two trials before going to bed, not knowing about the hidden rule. A night’s sleep triggered insight of the rule the following morning in most subjects, whereas the same amount of time spent in waking during the day had little effect. These experiments provided the first controlled laboratory experiments for the widely known anecdotes of several famous scientists, writers, and musicians that sleep catalyzes the creative process. 14 The potential physiological basis of such associations are discussed in Cycle 12.”

“Brains of yogis and Zen practitioners, therefore, provide unexploited opportunities to examine the effects of long-termbehavioral training on brain rhythms. Unfortunately, it is difficult to obtain consent of highly trained contemplative yogis and students of Zen to participate in laboratory experiments. Not surprisingly, quantitative studies are rare. Nevertheless, the available evidence is telling. When absorbed in the Samadhi of Yoga meditation, when the self-versus-environment distinction disappears, external stimulation is largely ineffective in blocking alpha oscillations, whereas continued blocking without habituation is observed in Zen meditators. Both types of practice increase both the power and the spatial extent of alpha oscillations, and the magnitude of changes correlates with the extent of training. Beginners show increases of alpha power activity over the occipital area, whereas in intermediate meditators the extent of oscillating cortical area is increased and the frequency of alpha oscillations is decreased. After decades of training, large-amplitude theta-frequency rhythm may dominate over a large extent of the scalp.”

“Imagine that the brain and the body would mature separately in a laboratory, and only several years later we would connect them. This newly united brain–body child would not be able to walk, talk, or even scratch her nose. Local stimulation of her hand or foot would trigger generalized startle reactions, as is the case in premature babies, rather than a spatially localized motor response that characterizes a full-term baby. The reason is that the motor or sensory relations generated by the brain grown in isolation would not match.”

“The primacy of movement-induced sensory feedback may also underlie more complex processes such as development of social communication and speech. Songbirds, such as the extensively studied zebra finches, learn their songs from their fathers. This process is more serendipitous, though, than a well-thought-out learning algorithm. The young birds do not start with the first syllables of the father’s song and acquire the rest piece by piece. Instead, each bird “babbles” some sounds, and it is these self-generated “syllables” from which the birds expand to learn a species-specific adult song. Each bird starts out with a unique seed syllable. Analogously, babbling in human babies also reflects a self-organized intrinsic dynamics.”

“If all currently active neurons to a particular face were selectively and instantaneously eliminated in the inferotemporal cortex in my brain, I would not suffer from face recognition problems because neighboring neurons would instantaneously take over the response properties of the eliminated cells. 18 Another objection that can be added to the list of criticisms is that purely feedforward circuits with closed ends do not really exist in the brain.”

“An alternative to the hierarchical connectionist model of object recognition is a more egalitarian solution: binding by temporal coherence. The key idea of this model, usually attributed to Peter Milner, a colleague of Donald Hebb at McGill University in Montreal, and to the German theoretical physicist Christoph von der Malsburg at the University of Heildelberg, Germany, is that spatially distributed cell groups should synchronize their responses when activated by a single object. n this new scheme, connectivity is no longer the main variable; rather, it is the temporal synchrony of neurons, representing the various attributes of the object, that matters. The different stimulus features, embedded in the activity of distributed cell assemblies, can be combined by mutual horizontal links.”

“Neurons with overlapping receptive fields and similar response properties synchronize robustly with zero time lag, whereas neurons that do not share the same receptive fields do not synchronize. Importantly, it is the response features of the neurons, rather than their spatial separation, that determine the vigor of synchrony. Neurons several millimeters apart in the same or different stages of the visual system and even across the two cerebral hemispheres have been shown to come together in time transiently by gamma-frequency synchronization”

“Instead, the attributes of the object are generated by the observer’s brain. As Gestalt psychologists have known for long, the whole is often faster recognized than its parts, indicating that object recognition is not simply representation of elementary features but the result of bottom-up and top-down interactions, in harmony with the architectural organization of the cerebral cortex.”

“A particular striking correlation between working memory and gamma oscillation was observed by subdural grid recordings. Working memory is a hypothetical mechanism that enables us keep stimuli “in mind” after they are no longer available. The amount of information to be held at any given time is referred to as memory load, for example, the number of ‘nonsense’ syllables to be stored when trying to repeat a toast salutation in a foreign language.

The longer the string of the syllables, the larger the memory load. Experiments in epileptic patients, equipped with large numbers of subdural electrodes for diagnostic purposes, showed that gamma power increased linearly with memory load at multiple, distributed sites, especially above the prefrontal cortex. The power remained at the elevated level during the retention period but fell back quickly to baseline level after the working memory information was no longer needed.”

“There are two fundamental requirements for affecting synaptic strength: sufficiently strong depolarization of the postsynaptic neuron and appropriate timing between presynaptic activity and the discharge of the post-synaptic neuron. 38 Because both mechanisms are affected by the gamma oscillation–mediated synchronization, adjustment of synaptic strength is a perpetual process in the cortex.”

“It is important to recognize that once synchrony is established on a single gamma cycle, the two sites can remain synchronous for several cycles even without further synchronizing events. This is the major advantage of oscillatory synchrony and the main reason why synchrony can be established by relatively weak connections and few spikes.”

“Model systems are always a trade-off, giving up some direct relevance for simplicity. Consider olfactory perception in insects as a model for visual perception in higher mammals. Yet, these entirely different sensory systems have at least one thing in common: stimulus-induced gamma oscillations. The technical advantages of using insects over mammals are enormous…

[In locusts] Different odorants activate different sets of cells, indicative of some spatial representation of odors. However, many neurons respond to several odorants, and the temporal patterns of spike responses are characteristic to different odorants and concentrations. Laurent observed that at a certain time after the odorant presentation, the individual spikes become phase-locked to the induced gamma cycles as well as to other simultaneously recorded neurons.”

“Gamma oscillations have been hypothesized to offer a solution to the century old ‘binding problem’ of perception. Because different features of an object, such as color, texture, distance, spatial position, and smell, are processed in separate parts of the cortex by different sets of neurons, one should explain how they are bound into a complex representation in a matter of 200 milliseconds or so to ‘reconstruct’ the physical object. An earlier solution of the binding problem is a hierarchical feature extraction in feedforward networks, the product of which is a set of ‘gnostic’ neurons at the top.”

“[Penfield] stimulated various sites of the surface of the neocortex of epileptic patients and asked them to narrate their experience. The stimulations evoked dream-like sensations, combining the actual situation and assumed recalled memories. Repeated stimulation of the same cortical site typically produced different experiences, while stimulation of some other sites could evoke the same experience. A possible explanation of the stimulation results is that the stimulation effects were combined with the ongoing trajectories of neuronal activity.”

“The variation of our motor and cognitive abilities is present at multiple time scales, extending from periods of tens of milliseconds to hours. The brain-state variability to a large extent is internally coordinated even in the waking brain.”

“Virtually all neocortical regions project to the perirhinal and entorhinal cortices, and the neocortical information is funneled to the hippocampus by these structures. Thus, according to the brain hierarchy formula, the hippocampus is the ultimate association structure, receiving the highest order neuronal information”

“But even giants can make (small) mistakes. A few decades after Ramón y Cajal outlined the direction of the main hippocampal output, it was discovered that the subcortical projection of the hippocampus is not the most significant output projection. Instead, the principal hippocampal efferents return to the subicular complex and to the deep layers of the entorhinal cortex, from where the information is routed back to the neocortex. Thus, the principal direction of neocortex–paleocortex traffic is not downward to the archipallium but upward to the neocortex.”

“Let’s begin with some theoretical speculation. The computational properties of recursive organization, such as the extensive CA3 recurrent system, meet the requirements of an “autoassociator.” By its computational definition, an autoassociator is a self-correcting network that can recreate a previously stored pattern that most closely resembles the current input pattern, even if it is only a fragment of the stored version.”

“At the very least, the synaptic interactions among neurons should account for the trial-to-trial variability of phase precession. An analogy may be helpful here to illustrate the differences between the pacemaker and cell assembly models. Imagine musicians of an orchestra playing their parts in isolation, supervised by a metronome timer only. Once all the musicians have played their parts separately, the recorded pieces are combined into a single set. have to convince the reader that the quality of the metronome-paced cut-and-paste piece would never match the quality of a real, concert hall performance, where interactions among musicians are available at a much finer time scale than supplied by the metronome-supplied beat (figure 11.15).”

“Seeing a dog for the first time in life is an episode. However, after seeing many different dogs and pictures of dogs, the universal features assume a semantic meaning: a common name. 113 Neuron members of an omnidirectional or explicit assembly collectively define or symbolize the ‘meaning’ of an item. Such explicit, higher order representation is invariant to the conditions that created it.”

“The most prominent collective pattern of hippocampal neurons is theta oscillation, a sustained rhythm associated with explorative navigation.”

“A major motivation for studying the mechanisms of oscillatory coupling is to use such understanding for describing the direction and strength of functional connectivity between brain areas of interest. Unfortunately, there is no general mathematical or computational theory of oscillatory networks of multiple interacting oscillators.”

Latin Proverbs: N



Nemo nisi per amicitiam cognoscitur

No one learns except by friendship [with the subject being studied]

The literal translation of this proverb is awkward and misleading. If we think of something we want to master as an adversary we are almost destined to never move beyond mere competence, although perhaps we never end up thinking of it as a friend because we are unable to move beyond the frustrating stage of having to consciously plan every our every move to reduce the chance of embarrassing fumbles. The activity does not begin to become “friendly” until some of its more tedious aspects become unconscious. Maybe it is wisest to assume whatever or whoever we are working on, with, through, or for will eventually become amicable – towards us, anyway.

Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret.

Drive out Nature with a pitchfork; she will always return.

One of the running gags of the tragicomical sitcom called civilization is the widespread refusal to accept certain facts of nature and, by extension, to equate the acknowledgement of what is with an endorsement of how things ought to be. Whether it is the denial of the sex instinct, the Soviet attempt to replace Mendelian genetics with Lysenkoism, or the uncanny knack for religious apologists of all stripes to shove their heads deep into the mud when paleontological evidence clashes with their preferred creation story, people have a nasty habit of forgetting they are, as Aristotle said, situated somewhere between “the beasts and the gods.”

Ne supra crepidam sutor iudicaret

A shoemaker should not judge beyond the shoe

There are an overwhelming number of opinions in the world, although very few of them are unique, and even fewer are unique to one person. On any given subject even a well-read person likely has only one or two canned tangents prepared when it is mentioned (it is a wonder how no one has won the Loebner Prize yet – a typical human conversation shouldn’t be that hard to simulate – I’m joking, of course)

A shoemaker should not be the only person with a view on the topic. A podiatrist knows more about who will and won’t benefit from them and the person who has to wear them has to decide whether they are comfortable or not.

In other words, the proverb, as well as those who worship at the altar of (perceived) expertise, are assuming we are dealing with a good shoemaker with an omniscient knowledge of his craft and the needs of all those he services. But does the cobbler really need seven consultants to help him make a shoe for a baker? People have been making what we would call shoes for at least 7,500 years. Surely some wisdom has accumulated over seven and a half millennia.

Necesse est aut imiteris aut oderis

You must either imitate or loathe the world

Seneca neatly summarizes the perennial dilemma of the thoughtful person. As philosophy became an academic discipline and philosophers became tenured professors the focus shifted from thinking about the ideal life, which seems terribly pompous nowadays. Over the last half century academics in the humanities (usually calling themselves “critical theorists”) and far too many laypeople appropriated and misapplied Einsteinian physics to every sphere of their everyday lives.

Seneca would not choose Scylla or Charybdis, or if he did, his mind would remain elsewhere. It may not be an entirely false dichotomy, but it is irrelevant to a Stoic.

Nunc est bibendum

Now is the time to drink.

Inebriation rarely offers any answers to our problems, but given the rollercoaster ride that was 2016, I believe we have all earned a glass of whiskey.

Seven More Sonnets



The first bunch can be found here. These were written in rapid succession.



Those for whom dreams are a welcome refuge

And the silence of sleep their sole respite

Mourn at dawn for another lost deluge

And search the drab earth to regain that height.

There they call all they see the fabled truth,

For all seems to be beauty incarnate.

For there headless lies are woven to soothe

And assure them they belong to this state.

What sad mimics, what a sorry charade

The deceits of dreams have lately become.

Fastened to you by an unbroken braid,

From their foolhardy hold I always run.

Some sleepers to night may gladly resign,

But when I see you I know you are mine.


Let’s gather it all in a solemn place,

And stare surely at what we held sacred:

Grey idols, memories we would chase,

Hollow enchanters boredom calls blessed.

On wandering evenings of no matter,

Plain treks to a destination well-worn,

There is nothing, almost nothing to spur

The pulling of the remembering thorn.

Pitiful to pass the precious hours

In time squandered or honourably spent,

But your love’s truth, grace, and powers

Forces my drab memories to relent.

Let us lead these lies to a worthy tomb,

And let our love feed, grow, and bloom



My thoughts were once a shiftless wilderness,

Mad as I was—passing from place to place

Confessing to sin, sinning to confess—

Praying idleness could let me efface

The search for what is fleetingly fresh

In green forests rich, but truthfully bare:

Where fair spirits die with the feckless flesh

And clocks cackle as the vines ensnare

Youth and its red lustre with certainty,

For a free soul without an object pure

Is a windblown weed without real liberty,

Another lost to the world’s false allure.

I embrace your light and the shadows fall,

Next to you this earth is nothing at all.



Wisdom is a tortured slope seldom scaled

By youth or age. For one is too tender,

The other has tried—and already failed.

What sage proverbs could the aged confer

Upon days and nights so unlike their own,

For everyone has a time and but one time

And save for that moment, we are alone.

Then to blank innocence do we align

To stave the decay, life’s cold retort

To the highest hopes of our beginnings?

Naturally some ships will remain in port

And ponder everything’s underpinnings.

From plain time our love let us retreat;

Let us let time be neither fate nor conceit .



The master smith will whisper to her ore

And slowly sow the seeds of her design,

For it does not know the shapes it may take

Or through what honeyed charms she can refine

The basest of beasts, the weakest of minds

In the scarlet hearth of a forge most kind.

Perhaps a gutless block would not welcome

The breathless blaze of each blinding blow

For from such beauties the hapless run

Lest they be caught by eyes and lips that know

Their hearts better than they, or would request

They grow again and forsake the fallow.

Let my mould and course be once more recast,

Made mutable by a love unsurpassed.



Against my will, with nothing to my name,

I entered a vessel some have envied.

For their arrivals have been much the same,

But with the sun their looks have not agreed.

This splendid symmetry you admire

Conceals uneven terrain within me.

Of these jagged things you do not tire,

For you know they are beauty’s penalty.

Better still you can whisper with shadows,

The groping cliffs with uncertain edges,

The unexpected encroach of arrows

That enliven the sad sand-swept ledges.

Let the rivulets assume a single course,

For in you they find a purer source.



When the air is crisp and I can commune

With ancient texts or a fortifying tome

Dawn is destined to trouble me too soon

And banish me from my nocturnal home.

When raptured to my untainted abodes

I can see endless wonders within me;

Distant stars, the meanest moods and modes,

Weave themselves together unknowingly.

There is not a thought unturned by the tide

Nor a paltry sand speck it does not know:

A more perfect portrait can be espied

Than in the discordant realms below.

Without you these ventures would be for nought,

For you encompass all that can be sought.



Latin Proverbs: M


The Kanizsa Triangle, an illustration of Gestalt psycology in action.

Malum quidem nullum esse sine aliquo bono.

There is no evil without some good.

This proverb should not be interpreted as blind Panglossianism. That sort of naive optimism is antithetical to the Greco-Roman worldview, which itself was far from homogenous. It is hard to imagine a Stoic, Epicurean, Skeptic, Neoplatonist, Aristotelian, or a run-of-the-mill Pagan trading places with Voltaire’s ridiculous professor (teleology is not the same as believing this is the “best of all possible worlds”). Minor mishaps help us prepare for more formidable disasters. Catastrophes may force us to change by giving us a deeper appreciation for our lives and life itself.

This does not mean we should subject ourselves to hardships, it does not mean it is “for the best” when a monsoon obliterates  a village or a tyrant is given absolute power or a loved one passes away, but these sorts of calamities, whether it is the strengthening of a resolve for liberty, the bonds of family and community, or the expansion of one’s empathy, do not come without some good – which is all that is being claimed here. Since at this point in time tragedies are unavoidable, it is wise to draw what we can from this maxim and apply it to our own typically less-than-ideal circumstances.

Mundus vult decipi

The world wants to be deceived

And maybe the ultimate deception is the need to construct coherent narratives. As Postmodern as this may sound I am not denying the existence of objective facts, the usefulness of the scientific method, or the validity of properly applied deductive logic. I am simply saying there is a universal need – shared even by Postmodernists – to believe we have a consistent and complete picture of the areas we consider important enough to demand this sort of self-deception. The shadows, what Donald Rumsfeld called the “unknown unknowns”, greatly outnumber the other three types of knowables.

Optimism is practical. Occasionally bolstering one’s faith in Lady Luck or Providence is not wholly irrational, since it is likely these terms are  describing a set of very real traits and circumstances working in one’s favor. Pessimism is easy to fall prey to because we are wired to give more weight to negative events, which only assists in constantly amplifying the bias (and engorging the smugness of the pessimist). There is even a special sort of satisfaction in complete agnosticism, partially because it requires so little effort and partially because it often seems like the wisest position to take.

Gestalt psychologists like Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Kohler found that people are very good at “filling in the blanks”, sometimes to their detriment. It is described in the approriately titled Law of Closure. In a way, pretending to know what is between the gaps is an essential form of closure in both senses of the word.

Melius est nomen bonum quam divitae multae.

A good name is better than vast riches

As the information age matures everyone will become increasingly accountable for their actions and, more controversially, their beliefs. Beliefs in some way must be reflective of the person who holds them. Yes? This means someone who holds a specific idea must be entirely evil and therefore deserving of condemnation.  Yet the belief has an origin, likely quite mundane and fairly arbitrary, because there is never an effect without a set of causes behind it (I seem to be channeling Aquinas this morning – bear with me). As I have argued  before, beliefs are rarely the result of critical thinking.

When a person can be beheld as a whole, how do we judge them? Usually not as a whole. It takes too much time and energy to properly evaluate someone’s character. Names rise and fall with sound bites, with incidents that suddenly dim public perception. Surely we all enjoy sharing the triumphs of those we consider representative of ourselves and our values, but nothing is relished more than the fall of the mighty. Care must be taken not because there is so much information, but because a single speck, even if it is only a speck in the eye of one vicious critic, can irreparably damage a legacy.

Mendax memorem esse oportet.

A liar should have a good memory.

In different states of mind we can more readily access different memory clusters. Anyone who has been intoxicated, hypnotized, or has utilized the Stanislavski Technique knows this.

In some way or another we are liars, either by omission (to protect our reputations or spare the feelings of others) or by stating things we know are untrue. Even in the latter case the lies may not be malicious or harmful. Most of us would never tell a child he or she is stupid, even if, as far as we can tell, they are quite stupid.  Someone who constructs a false narrative must remember all its details, otherwise they are bound to be convicted, but the same can be said for someone who is trying to tell the truth.

Yet, as George Costanza said, “a lie is not a lie if you believe it.” Memories must seem true, otherwise one’s recollections will be unconvincing.

Misera fortuna, qui caret inimico.

It is unfortunate to have no enemies

This one is open to interpretation. At first glance it looks like a joke, maybe something a politician once said to lighten the mood of a banquet. On the other hand, it expresses a sentiment older than Rome, older than our species. Rats roughhouse with one another and so did, presumably, our rodent-like ancestors. This bouts are not being waged between two “enemies”, although it would also be silly to claim the rats are friends. There is an instinct to play.

For these reasons Johan Huizinga dubbed our species Homo Ludens. George Leonard writes:

“What we call ‘mastery’ can be defined as that mysterious process through which what is at first difficult or even impossible becomes easy and pleasurable through diligent, patient, long-term practice.”

While many people have contentedly striven for mastery without paying much attention to their rivals, or the world outside their studio or office, there is no doubt competition is a necessary incentive for practitioners who would otherwise see no point in continuing. Even Leonard, who takes a rather spiritual view of mastery, must admit that a game without challenge is incredibly boring.


Thoughts on Meaning



It is natural to long for something long gone. It is just as natural to want a feeling or experience to last longer than it ever could, perhaps even for it to become a permanent way of being, either at the time or, more commonly, when silhouetted by the softening light of hindsight. A tremendous amount of potential is lost to nihilism. The passivity it engenders only causes the afflicted to dig an even deeper hole, to waste more time, to rigidly withhold their energies from expenditure, and to feel increasingly disenfranchised from the dreams they prematurely deemed unreachable or meaningless.

Nothing in the universe is meaningless. Transient? Undoubtedly. Though even then it depends on how you define it. Approximately 300 million cells in our bodies die every minute, but barring hereditary disorders and unfortunate accidents, we live for many decades. To say it is without purpose is to isolate the part from the whole, a symptom of the rabid reductionism still endemic to scientific circles. The celerity of a mailboy, the virulence of a bacterium, and the temperaments of thunderstorms have all shaped the fates of nations. The characters of leaders and thinkers have been impacted as much by their life stories and their encounters with painfully ordinary people as they have by the achievements of their predecessors. To declare an action pointless is to forget it does not and cannot stand alone. Nothing comes from a vacuum. It is the result of countless causes, the chain to which it belongs is so intricate and delicate the doer can contemplate upon but never truly understand its craftsmanship or the craftsman.

For a Daoist meditation in motion is superior to sitting. Lord Krishna exhorts Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita to faithfully execute his dharma as a kshatriya without any regard for victory or defeat. While some schools of Buddhism, particularly the Sotoshu, emphasize the importance of remaining silent and seated in zazen, this is not the case for all. Due to journalistic sensationalism  we are bombarded by editorials that are made out to be the final words on a matter. There is seldom a final word on anything. There is unstoppable change, unexpected detours and, dare I say, progress. As anathemic as the term may be to subjectivists, there has no doubt been a massive expansion of knowledge since the invention of writing and, I would wager, a commensurate increase in possible conscious states. As hinted at in the preceding paragraph, we must at once conceive of things as they are, but always keep in view their place in the grander scheme of things.

Are there perfect forms we can contemplate upon? Is there an entity called Truth that is as unequivocally perfect as an ideal isosceles triangle? I do not know if Plato’s Forms are somewhere in the clouds, but there is no doubt we can experience them. Climb the mountain, revel in the peak. 


Amphibians Through the Ages: Why Frogs Matter

Originally published on Radical Science News

Authors: Lydia Fucsko and Adam Alonzi

Green Tree Frogs Litoria caerulea on bananas ©Lydia Fucsko

Green Tree Frogs (Litoria caerulea) on bananas ©Lydia Fucsko

Amphibian derives from the Greek words ‘amphi’ (double) and ‘bios’ (life) – and their unique life cycles have made them icons of the environmental movement. Frogs have become symbolic of biodiversity conservation and environmental water management.   

Although there are a plethora of amphibians and water sources, the conventional image is of a frog in a pond. In this peaceful place adult frogs sit on branches and leaves, dragonflies hover overhead, and tadpoles wriggle below the surface. Aside from this conventional image, amphibians have a long tradition of mythology that extends into popular culture, advertising, and even web animations.

The common need for water creates a close kinship between humans and these remarkable organisms. Almost anyone can appreciate amphibians, at the very least, for their astonishing diversity (ARAZPA 2008; Attenborough 2008). It is hardly surprising Kermit the Frog has leapt into human popular culture given the character’s universal appeal (Tyler, Wassersug & Smith 2007).

Frogs and toads, as members of the class Amphibia, are commonly referred to as amphibians. Frogs and toads are different than caecilians and salamanders because they do not have a tail after reaching adulthood. Frogs and toads belong to the order Anura, which translates to “no tail.” Further distinctions between frogs and toads are widespread and generally understood, however, “From a taxonomic perspective, all members of the order Anura are frogs, but only members of the family Bufonidae are considered ‘true toads.’ The use of the term ‘frog’ in common names usually refers to species that are aquatic or semi-aquatic with smooth and/or moist skins, and the term “toad” generally refers to species that tend to be terrestrial with dry, warty or bumpy skin.” Frogs and toads are found on every continent except Antarctica. As of April 2015, there are 6,482 species in the Anura order according to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).


Tadpoles, tadpoles, tadpoles!

It is well-known frogs begin their lives as small fish-like creatures called tadpoles. Tadpoles, like their mature counterparts, vary in size and morphology. At this stage they are usually herbivorous, but have been known to prey upon zooplankton, insect larvae, and even other tadpoles (Altig et al, 2007).

Frogs are eaten in many countries, including Peru, India, China and France. They were also considered delicacies by the ancient Romans. In fact, frogs are so prized in certain culinary circles that a number of Asian countries have forbidden their exportation. Although particularly popular in France and China, they are also consumed on the Iberian Peninsula, in Southeast Asia, and parts of the Balkans. It’s true what they say: (some) frogs taste like chicken. Typically their meat is bland and requires frying or hot sauce. Others taste fishy to discerning palates. This should not be surprising, since amphibians are not far removed from the first creatures to climb out of the Devonian sea. By piecing together the puzzle of the geographic distribution of amphibians using DNA sequence data, academics offer further insights into how amphibians crossed vast continents over time.  

Frogs have continued to serve as sources of haute cuisine and new drugs (Adler, 2003; Grenard 1994; Tyler 1997). Throughout the ages frogs and toads have been used in innumerable medicines and magical rituals (Sax 2001, p. 125). Misconceptions about frogs still abound and many superstitions are still believed wholeheartedly. Do they give us warts? Empirical evidence reveals this is not so (Tyler & Looby 2004, pp. 68-69). They even gave us the first human pregnancy test and have helped us better understand mitosis and meiosis.


The Waxy Monkey Tree Frogs

They offer a treasure trove of pharmaceuticals to help humans to combat disease: ways to numb pain, treat ulcers, and improve the organ transplantation process, among many others. Peptides like dermaseptins and magainins in the skin extracts of the waxy monkey treefrog (Phyllomedusa sauvagei) and the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis) hold promise. Amphibians are proving to be powerful allies in research against STI-causing pathogens. Such peptides may prove to provide safer microbicides and spermicides. Microbicides are more convenient to use in the form of gels, films, or suppositories, and capable of neutralizing viruses and bacteria. Researchers have also identified a peptide with the potential to accelerate wound-healing on the skin of Graham’s frog (Odorrana grahami). Secretions from many Australian tree frogs contain antimicrobial peptides that form part of the host defence mechanism to ward off bacterial infection.

The size of the African clawed frog’s (X. laevis) eggs allows researchers to see and manipulate them easily. They can study the effects of injecting drugs or DNA into the egg. thThe cells divide rapidly and many ingenious ways of halting, restarting, and modifying the cell cycle have been developed. Their tadpoles are transparent, which is yet another blessing to developmental biologists because it lets them see how tissues and organs are formed. This species can survive for up to twenty years, the entire time furnishing researchers with useful information. The 18th century biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani proved sexual reproduction can only take place through the joining of male and female gametes by putting rubber pants on frogs! It is often claimed frogs will allow themselves to be boiled to death if the temperature of water is raised gradually enough, but this is disputed by Douglas Melton, a Harvard biology professor: “If you put a frog in boiling water, it won’t jump out. It will die. If you put it in cold water, it will jump before it gets hot—they don’t sit still for you.”


The Mink Frog

As ingredients in numerous folk remedies and sources of cutting-edge pharmaceuticals, frogs have long played a role in medical research. The Russian brown frog Rana temporaria, for instance, is dipped into milk to prevent souring. In China powdered toad venom acts much like digitalis in strengthening heart contractions. Tribes in South America have used frog secretions as venom for their arrows and as ointments for their wounds.

Most infections attack the mucous membranes. Since a frog’s epidermis is essentially one large mucous membrane one may wonder why they do not turn into “bags of pus.” Although their skin houses a wealth of antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial agents, it is not especially adept at fighting off certain types of fungi. The mink frog of North America (Rana septentrionalis) can combat the dreaded “Iraqibacter”, a drug resistant bacterium that has infected wounded American soldiers in Iraq.

The foothill yellow-legged frog (Rana boylii) shows promise in fighting methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria, however this species is now facing extinction. Bear in mind many of these compounds are large peptides which, at this time, do not make the best pharmaceuticals. They can elicit immune responses and are often metabolized too quickly. However, as delivery methods become more sophisticated, this may no longer be an issue.


Courtesy of What Do Animals Eat?

Two small peptides isolated from the waxy monkey frog (P. sauvagii) show antiangiogenic properties. By stopping the formation of blood vessels they could be useful in killing tumours. The giant fire-bellied toad (Bombina maxima) has a peptide that does the opposite. Encouraging angiogenesis could be a boon to stroke victims, organ transplant recipients, and patients with certain types of cardiovascular disease. Samples were collected from two groups of frog species: Litoria, which includes the Australian green tree frog, and Crinia, a genus also native to Australia. Litoria produce caerin peptides, which attack cell membranes. Members of Crinia make riparins, which can enhance immune response, regulate blood pressure, and relax tense muscles. Some frogs are also veritable alkaloid factories, a family of molecules that contains recognizable names like caffeine, morphine, psilocybin, and nicotine. Epibatadine is a toxin derived from the Equadorian poison tree frog (Epipedobates tricolor) with analgesic properties.

While it will not supplant opiates in the near future, it may serve as the inspiration for new and less addictive types of painkillers.


Poison Dart Frogs: they pose a greater immediate threat to you and you to them.

Frogs breathe with their lungs and through their skin to regulate moisture and fluid transfer (Australian Government Department of the Environment and Heritage 2004, p. 1). Humans should not haphazardly handle an amphibian out of regard for its safety. Unless it is a poison dart frog (Dendrobatidae), and you immediately place your fingers into your mouth or near your eyes after contact, you likely pose a greater threat to the little creatures than they ever will to you. Having semi-permeable membranes makes them vulnerable to dehydration and to whatever toxins or harmful microbes someone may be harboring on their hands. A guide to properly handling amphibians can be found here. Every so often a frog deformed by pollution makes its way into the news. This is a result of exposure to harmful chemicals during critical windows of development or to pathogens that have sprung up as a result of ecological imbalances. These unfortunate mutants should serve as sobering illustrations of what the irresponsible disposal of teratogens can do to living things.

As sensitive indicators of changes in their habitat, the health of amphibians is related directly to, and a telling reflection of, disease and dis-ease in the environment. “If chemicals in the water cause mutations and reproductive problems in frogs think of what they could be doing to humans,” states Vicky Poole of the National Aquarium in Baltimore. We can “help save frogs and other amphibians” by limiting the use of chemicals and pesticides which ultimately end up in the watershed and ultimately harm frog populations.

Maleficent, beloved, educative, beneficent, or endangered, frogs and toads have been seen in different lights at different times. These many different roles suit an animal that spends part of its life in the water and a portion on land, time in one body and time in another. They come in a dizzying array of shapes, sizes, and colors. More than just bulging eyed fly catchers, frogs and toads have a diverse assortment of mating rituals, child rearing methods, lifestyles, life cycles, and defences against predators. Frost et al. (2006) note there are estimates of well over 5,200 frog species and there are likely many more to be discovered. Tragically, it is estimated that over 120 amphibian species have become extinct since 1980 (Moore, 2014).

Amphibians, once reviled and perpetually promoted as symbols of doom in literature, are now harbingers not only of spring, but of a burgeoning global shift in consciousness. Conserving these creatures is seen as not only noble, but also in humanity’s best interest – the outdated belief that an ecological crisis was mere hearsay has been put to rest now global warming  is widely accepted by the scientific and the political communities around the world (McKibben, 2006;  Flannery, 2015).

Frogs are used in scientific testing. Most iconically they were used in the past by institutions of learning to teach anatomy, physiology, and pharmacology. In the twenty first century there has been a global outcry against such practices and mounting concern about the health of our water resources. There is a growing awareness about the absence of those creatures that traditionally dwelt in, on, or near waterways—the problem is apparent when an eerie silence falls upon places once bustling with croaks, calls, and songs.

frog brain12

Courtesy of Scrapbook Anatomy

Amphibians have sophisticated nervous systems that allow them to feel pain and pleasure like any other sufficiently advanced animal. The central nervous system of a frog is composed of the front, mid, and hind brains. The hind, which contains the medulla oblongata, keeps the frog balanced. The frontal and mid areas manage sensory inputs. Its peripheral nervous system is composed of ten pairs of cranial nerves, as opposed to twelve in humans, as well as their extensions that allow for the exchange of information between the brain and the rest of the body. For over half a century we have gathered ample evidence that clearly shows nonhuman animals feel pain and experience many other emotions once believed to be unique to Homo sapiens (Balcombe 2010; Bekoff 2007, 2010; Bekoff et al. 2002; Bekoff & Pierce 2009; Fouts & Mills 1997; Griffin 1992).  Thus, it should be clear that it is inhumane to intentionally injure or cause them distress.

Humans have long been mesmerised by the metamorphosis amphibians undergo, and have sought insights into human physiology by observing it. Tyler, Wassersug & Smith (2007, p. 2) note that, “This is not surprising as frogs and humans share similar organ systems and biological needs” (Holmes 1993; Nussbaum and Oksenberg Rorty 1995). There are similarities and differences between mammalian and amphibian physiology. Frogs have a brain, two eyes, two ears, a mouth, and a nose, but have no ribs, only nine vertebrate, and no tail. However, a urostyle, a downward extension of the spinal column, is a tail-like relic from the evolutionary past.

Whereas humans have two lower leg bones, the tibia and a fibula, nature’s great hoppers have only one. Amphibians do not have ears on the outside like mammals, but they can hear. Their ears are composed of a cartilage ring that vibrates which then tickles the fluid, which moves tiny “hairs”, which stimulate the nerves. This is all fine and good, but what is more unusual is the fact a frog’s lungs are almost as sensitive to vibration as their ears. Professor Peter Narins (2006) discovered the two are connected by an airway. This is analogous to the way fish can “hear” with their air bladders.


Courtesy of Dog Kisses

In many locales croaking is synonymous with a midsummer night’s eve. The size of the tympanum, the circular ear cover, is one way to distinguish between the genders. In males it is smaller than their eyes, in females it is approximately the same size. Although for many species emitting a call is critical to attracting a mate, it is just as important that females can hear it! As in most animals, sexual dimorphism exists. When breeding commences the male employs his specialized call to attract females. The male will attempt to climb on top of the female’s back and clasp around her “waist” in what is referred to as amplexus, and the eggs are generally fertilized in the water as she lays them. The male is typically smaller in order not to crush the future mother of his children; the female is larger to store her many eggs. There is great diversity in the world of courtship and reproduction where frogs are concerned.

More than one Nobel Prize has been won with the help of our gracious little friends. The Ig Nobel Prize was awarded to Andre Geim for his frog levitation project. In his defence, he later snatched a Nobel for his work on graphene, making him the one man to have the honour of winning both awards. In 1962 John B. Gurdon proved the reversibility of cell specialization by replacing the nucleus of an egg cell with one taken from an adult. The resulting chimera developed into a normal tadpole. This led to a shared Nobel Prize with Shinya Yamanaka 50 years later. In the 1700’s Luigi Galvani made a seminal contribution to neurology when he passed a current through the legs of a dead frog. The twitching it induced proved the nervous system had an electrical foundation. These experiments made him famous and would later inspire Mary Shelley to write one of the most famous horror novels in the Western canon.

In the Middle Ages amphibians were associated with a sundry of diseases and evils. These superstitions and prejudices did not readily die. Wells (2007) cites the eminent eighteenth century Scandinavian biologist Carolus Linnaeus, who, in 1758, wrote in Systema Naturae (The System of Nature) that, ‘These foul and loathsome animals…are abhorrent because of their cold body, pale colour, cartilaginous skeleton, filthy skin, fierce aspect, calculating eye, offensive smell, harsh voice, squalid habitation, and terrible venom….’

Such a misguided statement may well have been indicative of a general fear felt by the public towards these animals which was further compounded by the hysteria surrounding the alleged practice of witchcraft. The Catholic Church decided frogs were one of the forms familiars could assume, familiars in this case refers to malevolent entities who carry out a witch’s commandments. From that point onward amphibians became synonymous with witchcraft in the West.

Loved or maligned, kissed by princesses or boiled by witches (Cooper 1992, p. 107; Ribuoli & Robbiani 1991, pp. 38-47), amphibians have long enchanted us and continue to appear in folklore, children’s stories, magic and mythology, and popular culture (Heiner 2010).  

Ribuoli and Robbiani reinforce this presence when they mention frogs feature ‘so prominently throughout history, the world over, in legend… art and popular entertainment’ (1991, p. 6). From Exodus to Aesop, Aristophanes, Jim Henson’s most famous Muppet, and the Egyptian goddess of fertility, frogs have played important roles in the mythologies and cultures of the world. Heqet, the Egyptian frog deity, was depicted simply as a frog, or a woman with a frog’s head or, less commonly, as a frog perched upon a phallus. With the annual flooding of the Nile came millions of frogs. It is no wonder Heqet amulets were worn by women who wanted children.

An enduring fable attributed to Aesop concerning a croaking assemblage of frogs provides a timeless moral. In The Frogs Who Desired a King a community of pond dwellers prayed to Zeus for a monarch to rule over them. Zeus, always ready to teach terrible lessons, first made a humble log their ruler. Discontent with a mere figurehead, the serfs petitioned the thunder god for a more fearsome king. Always willing to grant a wish when its outcome is destructive, Zeus sent them a stork that greedily gobbled them up.  

In many mythologies amphibians have been inexorably connected to and associated with the primeval waters from which life emerged. For the Huron Indians and other Native Americans, the deliverer of rain is a frog (Sax 2013, p. 292). The aborigines of Queensland, Australia have a well-known legend that a frog once swallowed all of the waters on the land. Here is one version of The Story of Tiddalik.

Jin Chan, literally means “Golden Toad.” Legend has it Jin was the rapacious wife of one of the Eight Immortals who was punished for stealing one of the peaches of immortality by moneytoadbeing turned into a toad. According to Feng Shui beliefs, Jin Chan, also known as the “Money Toad” or “Money Frog”, is a charm strategically placed in homes and places of business to increase good fortune.

These life forms, which figure so prominently in so many stories and mythologies, are often symbols of prosperity. Today they are profitable commodities for pet traders, but are suffering as a result of being taken from their homes in such large numbers. Many die during transport and those that arrive, as one would expect, are never returned to their habitats. Additionally, the unregulated trading of amphibians has spread many infectious diseases, including the potentially lethal Chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis), which was identified in 1998.

Amphibians are a critical link in the food chain. Frogs and toads are carnivores that happily gulp down any living thing they can fit into their mouths Depending on their size, they will prey upon flies, mosquitoes, and other flying annoyances. Larger types will eat worms, grasshoppers, bugs, spiders, worms, larvae, slugs, baby turtles, mice, small fish, snakes, and even other frogs. Besides removing pests, they also serve as an indispensable food source for fish, birds, reptiles, mammals, and even arthropods.  

As mentioned earlier, for many years amphibians have been used as a way of assessing the health of water bodies. The overuse of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, as well as industrial runoff can result in failed metamorphosis, immunosuppression, hermaphroditism, disease, and death.

The pesticide atrazine feminizes male frogs and glyphosate causes growth abnormalities in tadpoles. The hydrological cycle ensures the widespread and sometimes unpredictable dispersal of pollutants. This means the carelessness of one country or city can harm the wildlife of another thousands of miles away. Climate change hits frogs, toads, and their kin especially hard. Their eggs lack the protective shells of birds and reptiles. This makes them susceptible to drying out. Adult frogs, needing to maintain moisture, are always vulnerable to desiccation. Even desert dwelling amphibians depend on the periodic formation of puddles. Mating can be affected by temperature and the availability of water.

Other frogs find themselves accidental tourists in an inhospitableor overly hospitable—land. Sometimes given the epithet “Banana Box”, they are transported across great tracts of land or sea in crates of fruit, vegetables, or plants. Hidden from view these displaced travellers may carry diseases like the deadly Chytrid fungus (Chytridiomycosis) which presents a serious threat to native species. For this reason frogs must never be released into the wild unless special approval is granted.  

Environmental issues are a central topic for debate. Global summits to save frog species are increasing in number and relevance. The Year of the Frog in 2008 with Sir David Attenborough presenting as patron, proved successful in raising awareness of their plight.

The ARAZPA 2008 Year of the Frog Campaign Information pack is available here:   

The latest assessment by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s leading authority on the conservation status of different species, Red List of Threatened Species (update 2015) shows that at a minimum 41% of all extant amphibian species face risk of extinction. Their threatened status is alarming given that so many of them have already left our company for the oblivion of extinction (Walther et al. 2002). Mass extinctions and serious population declines have been observed over the last quarter century (Lips et al. 2006; Pounds et al. 2006; Stuart et al. 2004).

Although there is increasing evidence there are several factors behind these demographic changes (Johnson 2006), the part humans play in this process is obvious in the form of habitat destruction. Global warming is implicated, however, this environmental crisis cannot be remedied with a single approach.

Habitat destruction displaces animals of all kinds. The purposeful or accidental introduction of invasive species has also taken its toll on native populations around the world. The cane toad was brought to Australia to keep pests under control. Unfortunately, it drove many other amphibians to extinction.  Historically black and brown rats, notorious carriers of pestilence, had a negative impact on formerly isolated populations of frogs. Now chytridiomycosis affects one third of all amphibian species, causing further extinctions (Rooji et al. 2015). In 2006, researchers suspected that African frogs used as pregnancy tests may be actually spreading the deadly amphibian Chytrid fungus around the world. It is clear alternative treatments need to be developed if biodiversity is to be preserved.

For the sake of our ecosystems and the preservation of animals that have given so much to humankind, we ought to make their protection a priority as soon as possible.

Warshall reminds us that, ‘Humans lose water constantly-we are not water tight-and we need to replenish ourselves or die. This is a ‘hydro-contract’, an inescapable biospheric life support that we need to work with to maintain ‘hydro-harmonies’ ‘ (2002, pp. 42-43). Still, to this day, the human conception of water is mostly as an abstract resource. Because of this the vital connection we ought to feel with water has been lost. Benefits to the human race must continue to be demonstrated from frog conservation efforts, showing how our fates and theirs are inextricably interwoven. This could influence politicians and the general public to take further steps to protect endangered species and their habitats (Tyler 2007, pp. 1-18).

Why should we help amphibians? It may be suggested this question arises precisely because we have irretrievably lost a measure of our humanity by remaining indifferent to the extinction of so many species worldwide that we have become divorced from our essential compassion. Why shouldn’t we help them?


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Lydia Fucsko’s PhD research with scientists highlights worldwide amphibian declines and reflects her passion for environmental activism. She is a member of the Education and Sustainability Board of The Lifeboat Foundation: Safeguarding Humanity.  Lydia also holds a Masters Degree in Counselling with other additional degrees. For further general queries, or collaboration on conservation and science education initiatives:


Adam Alonzi is a writer, biotechnologist, documentary maker, futurist, inventor, programmer, and author of the novels “A Plank in Reason” and “Praying for Death: Mocking the Apocalypse”. He is an analyst for the Millennium Project, the Head Media Director of BioViva Sciences, and Editor-in-Chief of Radical Science News. Listen to his podcasts here. Read his blog here.