Thoughts on Meaning

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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).

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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.

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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.”

Mink_Frog

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.

firebellied

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.

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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.

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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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Sax, B  2001, The mythical zoo: An encyclopedia of animals in world myth, legend, and literature, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, CA.

Sax B,  2013, The Mythical Zoo: Animals in Myth, Legend, and Literature 2 ed. Overlook Duckworth Press, New York and London.

Stuart, SN, Chanson, JS, Cox, NA, Young, BE, Rodrigues, ASL, Fischman, DL & Waller, RW  2004, ‘Status and trends of amphibian declines and extinctions worldwide’, Science, vol. 306, pp. 1783- 1786.

Tyler, MJ  1997, ‘The exploitation of frogs: past, present and future’, Australian Biology, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 65-69.

Tyler, MJ & Looby, M  2004, It’s true! Frogs are cannibals, Allen & Unwin, East Melbourne. 

Tyler, MJ, Wassersug, R & Smith, B  2007,How frogs and humans interact: Influences beyond habitat destruction epidemics and global warming’, Applied Herpetology, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 1-18.

Van Rooij, P, Martel, A, Haesebrouck, F, and Pasmans, F  2015, ‘Amphibian chytridiomycosis: a review with focus on fungus-host interactions’, Veterinary Research, vol. 46, pp. 1-22.

Walther, GR, Post, E, Convey, P, Menzel, A, Parmesan, C, Beebee, TJC, Fromentin, JM, Hoegh-Guldberg, O & Bairlein F 2002, ‘Ecological responses to recent climate change’, Nature, vol. 416, no. 6879, pp. 389–395.

Warshall, P  2002, ‘Watershed governance’, in D Rothenburg & M Ulvaeus (eds), Writing on water, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, pp. 40-57.

Wells,  KD 2007, The Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians, The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London,  p.1.             

Zairi, A, Tangy, F, Bouassida, K, & Hani, K 2009, Dermaseptins and magainins: antimicrobial peptides from frogs’ skin—new sources for a promising spermicides microbicides—a mini review. BioMed Research International.

Biography:

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. https://lifeboat.com/ex/bios.lydia.fucsko  Lydia also holds a Masters Degree in Counselling with other additional degrees. For further general queries, or collaboration on conservation and science education initiatives: Lydia@lydiafucsko.com

Biography:

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.

The Stoics: Excerpts from Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius

“Say thus to thyself every morning: today I may have to deal with some intermeddler in other men’s affairs, with an ungrateful man; an insolent or a crafty or an envious or an unsociable or selfish man”

-Marcus Aurelius

mar033

“As soon as you have devoted yourself to philosophy, you will have overcome all disgust at life, you will not wish for darkness because you are weary of light, nor will you be a trouble to yourself and useless to others…”

-Seneca

 

“The beginning of philosophy is to know the condition of one’s own mind.”

-Epictetus

 

“You may revolve such thoughts as these, about the nicest delicacies of senses: about food, this is the dead car-case of fish, a fowl, a hog: about wine, this is the juice of a little grape: about your purple robes, this is the wool of a sheep, steeped in the blood of a little shellfish: about venereal enjoyments, they are the attrition of a base part of our body, and a convulsive sort of excretion of a mucus…Thus we should employ the mind, in all parts of life: when things occur, which, at first, seem worthy of high estimation, we should strip them naked,  view their meanness, and cast aside these pompous descriptions of them by which they seem so glorious.”

-Marcus Aurelius

 

“We must take a higher view of all things, and bear with them more easily: it better becomes a man to scoff at life than to lament over it. Add to this that he who laughs at the human race deserves better of it than he who mourns for it, for the former leaves it some good hopes of improvement, while the latter stupidly weeps over what he has given up all hopes of mending.”

-Seneca

 

“Each man’s life is flying away, and thine is almost gone, before thou hast paid just honor to thyself; having hitherto made thy happiness dependent on the minds and opinions of others.”

-Marcus Aurelius

 

“A philosopher’s school is surgery: pain, not pleasure, you should have felt therein. For on entering none of you are whole.”

-Epictetus

 

“Evil only comes hard upon those who have lived without giving it a thought and whose attention has been exclusively directed to happiness.”

-Seneca

 

“If you are in Gyaros, do not let your mind dwell upon life at Rome and all the pleasures it offered to you when living there, and all that would attend your return.”

-Epictetus

 

“Hence men undertake aimless wanderings, travel along distant shores, and at one time at sea, another by land, trying to soothe that fickleness of disposition which always is dissatisfied with the present. ”

-Seneca

 

“Let nothing which befalls thee from without distract thee; and take leisure to thy self, to learn something truly good. Wander no more to and fro; and guard also against this other wandering. For there are some too who trifle away their activity, by wearying themselves in life, without having a settled scope or mark, to which they may direct all their desires and all their projects.”

-Marcus Aurelius

 

“If you have given way to anger, be sure that over and above the evil involved therein, you have strengthened the habit, and added fuel to the fire. If overcome by a temptation of the flesh, do not reckon it a single defeat, but that you have also strengthened your dissolute habits.”

-Epictetus

 

“Everyone hurries his life on and suffers from a yearning for the future and a weariness of the present. But he bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow.”

-Seneca

 

“Let silence be your general rule; or say only what is necessary and in few words. We shall, however, when occasion demands, enter into discourse sparingly, avoiding common topics as gladiators, horse races, athletes; and the perpetual talk about food and drink. Above all avoid speaking of persons, either in way of praise or blame, or comparison.”

-Epictetus

 

“We should suggest to ourselves on every occasion this question; is this necessary? But we ought to quit, not only unnecessary actions, but even imaginations, and thus, superfluous actions, diverting us from our purpose, would not ensue.”

-Marcus Aurelius

 

“It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.”

-Seneca

 

“.. But one man is possessed by an avarice that is insatiable, another by a toilsome devotion to tasks that are useless; one man is besotted with wine, another is paralyzed by sloth; one man is exhausted by an ambition that always hangs upon the decision of others, another, driven on by the greed of the trader, is led over all lands and all seas by the hope of gain…”

-Seneca

 

“The deified Augustus, to whom the gods vouchsafed more than to any other man, did not cease to pray for rest and to seek release from public affairs; all his conversation ever reverted to this subject—his hope of leisure. ”

-Seneca

 

“What agreeable leisure does he procure to himself, who takes no notice of what others say, do, or intend; but, attends to this only, that his own actions be just and holy; and, according to Agathon, that there be nothing black or ill-natured in his temper.”

-Marcus Aurelius

 

“Don’t form designs as if you were to live a thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while you may, become good.”

-Marcus Aurelius

 

“It was once a foible confined to the Greeks to inquire into what number of rowers Ulysses had, whether the Iliad or the Odyssey was written first, whether moreover they belong to the same author , and various other matters of this stamp, which, if you keep them to yourself, in no way pleasure your secret soul, and, if you publish them, make you seem more of a bore than a scholar.”

-Seneca

 

“Never call yourself a Philosopher nor talk much among the unlearned about Principles, but do that which follows from them. Thus at a banquet do not discuss how people ought to eat, but eat as you ought.”

-Epictetus

 

“Short then is the time which every man lives, and small the nook of the earth where he lives; and short too the longest posthumous fame, and even this is only continued by a succession of poor human beings, who will very soon die, and who know not even themselves, much less one who died long ago.”

-Marcus Aurelius

 

Mu: A Koan Meditation

mu

 

The passages in this series of blogs are not examples of genuine satori or even especially clever answers to the koans.  They are merely records of my first serious attempts at incorporating this form of meditation into my daily routine. What I have gleaned from it thus far are examples of the useful but ultimately shallow insights aspirants may dwell on for too long. The path to enlightenment is narrow, the road of delusion is wide and covers its slender brother on both sides.

Eventually one realizes a tremendous capacity for discernment must be developed in order to avoid falling deeper into the throes of self-deception.  Although I have read books on Buddhism, I intentionally avoided read any commentary on the koans I selected lest they interfere with my experiment. I see now this was an unnecessary precaution. The rational mind recedes while it is playing with these timeless picture puzzles. It is merely a distraction. The first koan I chose has a special place in Zen, it also appears to be the source of more scholarly debate than any other. It is as cryptic as it is memorable:

One day Joshu was asked, “does a dog have the Buddha-nature?

The master replied “Mu!” (No/Nothing/It does not matter)

I did not use the story itself, but a question that arose from it: what is Mu?

My answer: Mu is the absence of distance.

How did I arrive upon it? That morning I woke up to a song. A chorus was playing, an acoustic guitar was strumming, and a rudimentary bass beat tagged alone.  Although this has happened before, this was the first time I kept the recording in my mind long enough to rise, turn on the computer, and begin writing the verses. I attribute this clarity of mind to reading a third of The Three Pillars of Zen the day before. Before clearing my thoughts I thought of a few musical acts that I would never see and the many things I could never hope to do in a single lifetime, the many meetings that will never be had, the deplorable ignorance all sentiment beings must toil under, the many opportunities that will be forgone out of time constraints or ignorance of their very existence, and, of course, the undeniable insignificance of every action.

The lion’s share of human angst seems to come from feeling separated from a time or place.  One can happily sit still because there is no need to grasp. Everything is within reach. Everything has its own significance, or lack thereof.

 

 

 

The Two Faces of Aging: Cancer and Cellular Senescence

Originally published on Radical Science News.

hela

 

Aging, inflammation, cancer, and cellular senescence are all intimately interconnected. Deciphering the nature of each thread is a tremendous task, but must be done if preventative and geriatric medicine ever hope to advance. A one dimensional analysis simply will not suffice. Without a strong understanding of the genetic, epigenetic, intercellular, and intracellular factors at work only an incomplete picture can be formed. However, even with an incomplete picture useful therapeutics can and are being developed. One face is cancer, a number of diseases characterized by uncontrolled cell division. The other is degradation, which causes a slue of degenerative disorders stemming from deterioration in regenerative capacity.

Now there is a new focus on making Geroprotectors which are a diverse and growing family of compounds that assist in preventing and reversing the unwanted side-effects of aging. Senolytics, a subset of this broad group, accomplish this feat by encouraging the removal of decrepit cells. A few examples include dasatinib, quercetin, and ABT263. Although more research must be done, there are a precious handful of studies accessible to anyone with the inclination to scroll to the works cited section of this article. Those within the life extension community and a few enlightened souls outside of it already know this, but it bears repeating: in the developed world all major diseases are the direct result of the aging process. Accepting this rather simple premise, and you really ought to, should stoke your enthusiasm for the first generation of anti-aging elixirs and treatments. Before diving into the details of these promising new pharmaceuticals, nanotechnology, and gene therapies we must ask what is cellular senescence? What causes it? What purpose does it serve?

Depending on the context in which they are operating a single gene can have positive or negative effects on an organism’s phenotype. Often the gene is exerting both desirable and undesirable influences at the same time. This is called antagonistic pleiotropy. For example, high levels of testosterone can confer several reproductive advantages in youth, but in elderly men can increase their likelihood of developing prostate cancer. Cellular senescence is a protective measure; it is a response to damage that could potentially turn a healthy cell into a malignant one. Understandably, this becomes considerably more complex when one is examining multiple genes and multiple pathways. Identifying all of the players involved is difficult enough. Conboy’s famous parabiosis experiment where a young mouse’s system revived an old ones, shows that alterations in the microenviornment, in this case identified and unidentified factors in the blood of young mice, can have be very beneficial to their elders. Conversely, there is a solid body of evidence that shows senescent cells can have a bad influence on their neighbors. How can something similar be achieved in humans without having to surgically attach a senior citizen to a college freshman?

By halting its own division a senescent cell removes itself as an immediate tumorigenic threat. Yet the accumulation nondividing cells is implicated in a host of pathologies including, somewhat paradoxically, cancer, which as any actuary’s table will show is yet another bedfellow of the second half of life. The single greatest risk factor for developing cancer is age. The Hayflick Limit is well known to most people who have ever excitedly watched the drama of a freshly inoculated petri dish. After exhausting their telomeres cells stop dividing. Hayflick et. al astutely noted that “the [cessation of cell growth] in culture may be related to senescence in vivo.” Although cellular senescnece is considered irreversible, a select few cells can resume normal growth after the inactivation of the p53 tumor suppressor. The removal of p16, a related gene, resulted in the elimination of the progeroid phenotype in mice. There are several important p’s at play here, but two is enough for now.

Our bodies are bombarded by insults to their resilient but woefully vincible microscopic machinery. Oxidative stress, DNA damage, telomeric dysfunction, carcinogens, assorted mutations from assorted causes, necessary or unnecessary immunological responses to internal or external factors, all take their toll. In response cells may repair themselves, they may activate an apoptotic pathway to kill themselves, or just stop proliferating. After suffering these slings and arrows, p53 is activated. Not surprisingly, mice carrying a hyperactive form of p53 display high levels of cellular senescence. To quote Campisi, abnormalities in p53 and p15 are found in “most, if not all, cancers.” Knocking p53 out altogether produced mice unusually free of tumors, but find themselves prematurely past their prime. There is a clear trade-off here.

In a later experiment Garcia-Cao modified p53 to only express itself when activated. The mice exhibited normal longevity as well as an“unusual resistance to cancer.” Though it may seem so, these two cellular states are most certainly not opposing fates. As it is with oxidative stress and nutrient sensing, two other components of senescence or lack thereof, the goal is not to increase or decrease one side disproportionately, but to find the correct balance between many competing entities to maintain healthy homeostasis. As mentioned earlier, telomeres play an important role in geroconversion, the transformation of quiescent cells into senescent ones. Meta-analyses have shown a strong relationship between short telomeres and mortality risk, especially in younger people. Although cancer cells activate telomerase to overcome the Hayflick Limit, it is not entirely certain if the activation of telomerase is oncogenic.

 

MMTP

SASP (senescence-associated secretory phenotype) is associated with chronic inflammation, which itself is implicated in a growing list of common infirmities. Many SASP factors are known to stimulate phenotypes similar to those displayed by aggressive cancer cells. The simultaneous injection of senescent fibroblasts with premalignant epithelial cells into mice results in malignancy. On the other hand, senescent human melanocytes secrete a protein that induces replicative arrest in a fair percentage of melanoma cells. In all experiments tissue types must be taken into account, of course. Some of the hallmarks of inflammation are elevated levels of IL-6, IL-8, and TNF-α. Inflammatory oxidative damage is carcinogenic and an inflammatory microenvironment is a good breeding ground for malignancies.

Caloric restriction extends lifespan in part by inhibiting TOR/mTOR (target of rapamycin/mechanistic target of rapamycin, also called  the mammalian target of rapamycin). TOR is a sort of metabolic manager, it receives inputs regarding the availability of nutrients and stress levels and then acts accordingly. Metformin is also a TOR inhibitor, which is why it is being investigated as a cancer shield and a longevity aid. Rapamycin has extended average lifespans in all species tested thus far and reduces geroconversion. It also restores the self-renewal and differentiation capacities of haemopoietic stem cells. For these reasons the Major Mouse Testing Program is using rapamycin as its positive control. mTOR and p53 dance (or battle) with each other beautifully in what Hasty calls the “Clash of the Gods.” While p53 inhibits mTOR1 activity increases p53 activity. Since neither metformin nor rapamycin are without their share of unwanted side effects, more senolytics must be explored in greater detail.

Starting with a simple premise, namely that senescent cells rely on anti-apoptotic and pro-survival defenses more than their actively replicating counterparts, Campisi and her colleagues created a series of experiments to find the “Achilles’ Heel” of senescent cells. After comparing the two different cell states, they designed senolytic siRNAs. 39 transcripts selected for knockdown by siRNA transfection, 17 affected the viability of their target more than healthy cells. Dasatinib, a cancer drug, and quercitin, a common flavonoid found in common foods, have senolytic properties. The former has a proven proclivity for fat cell progenitors, and the latter is more effective against endothelial cells. Delivered together they they remove senescent mouse embryonic fibroblasts. Administration into elderly mice resulted in favorable changes in SA-BetaGAL (a molecule closely associated with SASP) and reduced p16 RNA. Single doses of D+Q together resulted in significant improvements in progeroid mice.

If you are not titillated yet, please embark on your own journey through the gallery of encroaching options for those who would prefer not to become chronically ill, suffer immensely, and, of course, die miserably in a hospital bed soaked with several types of their own excretions―presumably, hopefully, those who claim to be unafraid of death have never seen this image or naively assume they will never be the star of such a dismal and lamentably “normal” final act. There is nothing vain about wanting to avoid all the complications that come with time. This research is quickly becoming an economic and humanitarian necessity. The trailblazers who move this research forward will not only find wealth at the end of their path, but the undying gratitude of all life on earth.

Blagosklonny, M. V. (2013). Rapamycin extends life-and health span because it slows aging. Aging (Albany NY), 5(8), 592.

Campisi, Judith, and Fabrizio d’Adda di Fagagna. “Cellular senescence: when bad things happen to good cells.” Nature reviews Molecular cell biology8.9 (2007): 729-740.

Campisi, Judith. “Aging, cellular senescence, and cancer.” Annual review of physiology 75 (2013): 685.

Hasty, Paul, et al. “mTORC1 and p53: clash of the gods?.” Cell Cycle 12.1 (2013): 20-25.

Kirkland, James L. “Translating advances from the basic biology of aging into clinical application.” Experimental gerontology 48.1 (2013): 1-5.

Lamming, Dudley W., et al. “Rapamycin-induced insulin resistance is mediated by mTORC2 loss and uncoupled from longevity.” Science335.6076 (2012): 1638-1643.

LaPak, Kyle M., and Christin E. Burd. “The molecular balancing act of p16INK4a in cancer and aging.” Molecular Cancer Research 12.2 (2014): 167-183.

Malavolta, Marco, et al. “Pleiotropic effects of tocotrienols and quercetin on cellular senescence: introducing the perspective of senolytic effects of phytochemicals.” Current drug targets (2015).

Rodier, Francis, Judith Campisi, and Dipa Bhaumik. “Two faces of p53: aging and tumor suppression.” Nucleic acids research 35.22 (2007): 7475-7484.

Rodier, Francis, and Judith Campisi. “Four faces of cellular senescence.”The Journal of cell biology 192.4 (2011): 547-556.

Salama, Rafik, et al. “Cellular senescence and its effector programs.” Genes & development 28.2 (2014): 99-114.
Tchkonia, Tamara, et al. “Cellular senescence and the senescent secretory phenotype: therapeutic opportunities.” The Journal of clinical investigation123.123 (3) (2013): 966-972.

Zhu, Yi, et al. “The Achilles’ heel of senescent cells: from transcriptome to senolytic drugs.” Aging cell (2015).

Every Brain is a Universe: Ontology, Neurotechnology, and Simulation

Originally published on Serious Wonder.

Neurotechnology is the last frontier. Mind-machine interfaces will initially offer ways to simulate, enhance, and stimulate. In conjunction with quantum computers, however, these interfaces will lead to the resolution of the problem of freewill through a proof of its impossibility or through the painstaking design of a being geniunely endowed with this elusive property, the invention of true artificial intelligence (as well as the mentally directed programming environment needed to make it), and assist in the exploration of some largely forgotten debates in ontology. This line of thought ties in strongly with the simulation hypothesis, since these technologies will, ultimately, allow us to create unique and logically contingent universes we can explore as single entities or, as their creators, revel in the totality of what we have wrought.

Try to remember a time you were without consciousness. Go ahead. I hope you almost immediately realized this is a fool’s errand.

battle of lights brain
JOSEPH STELLA, BATTLE OF LIGHTS, CONEY ISLAND, 1913, OIL ON CANVAS, 195.6 × 215.3 CM (77 × 84.75 IN), YALE UNIVERSITY ART GALLERY, NEW HAVEN, CT

Since the evolution of what is widely considered sentience human beings have searched for ways to augment or alter their perception and cognition. By observation alone one should realize the last word in the preceding sentence, reviled for years thanks to the Skinnerian stranglehold on the discipline, is the cornerstone of psychology. To dismiss it was foolish, though less foolish than it is to dismiss it now. Consciousness should be of great concern to all because it sets the pace and tone for every moment of our lives. For all intents and purposes, it is our life. It is our morning oatmeal, the joy of rumination, the ecstasy of victory, the caress of another’s lips, the source of sensations even poets struggle to describe. It does not faithfully store our memories; it actively remodels them depending on how and when they are retrieved. Ontology is a subfield of both philosophy and information science. Although seemingly dissimilar, the latter lends a tangible framework to analyzing the former.The human brain is a small organ capable of receiving and generating an infinite number of unique experiences. Yet as phenomenal as this may seem, our inner worlds, as rich and varied as they are, all arise from similar hardware. Hardware we largely share with birds, reptiles, other mammals, fish, and, to a significantly lesser extent, invertebrates. In spite of the seemingly limitlessness of what a brain can do, stemming from mundane combinatorics, there are fleshy ceilings imposed by biology. Moreover, many of the things it can do, like rendering a dancing 8 bit Santa Claus sliding down a hyperrealistic mound of writhing rectangular raccoons, are not particularly profound or prized. Here I am not referring to anything quantative, not to the brain’s seemingly impoverished calculating faculties when compared to an ordinary desktop computer, but to the qualitative properties of the nervous system when it is functioning “normally.” While it is almost impossible at this time to conceive of nervous systems radically different than our own, it is likely they will, at some point, be invented by augmented humans or by artificial intelligence. By throwing a wrench into the machine, in the form of an exogenous molecule or endogenous chemical changes induced by an activity,dasein changes rapidly. While a pint of stout will probably not lead to any personal revelations, a modest dose of LSD may.

Yes, there are countless similar, as well as very different, physical configurations, including ones bereft of carbon, that could give birth to consciousness, but let us forego that intimidating train of thought for a paragraph or two. Phantom limbs illustrate an important, undeniable, but unfortunately counterintuitive fact about existence. When a body part is lost it may not vanish from the nervous system’s master map. The amputated arm or leg continues to sweat, itch, writhe, and rest.  As any thoughtful person should see, this is more than a tidbit of medical trivia. Although measurement can tell us about an object’s mass, density, etc, the way they feel to their owners is entirely in their brain. In Gestalt and Ericksonian therapies a patient may be asked to identify with an inanimate object. Far from an eccentric technique spawned from the excesses of the sixties, it can occasionally lead to dramatic breakthroughs. It should not be hard to see how major departures from the familiar can facilitate creative resolutions. A little bit of reflection should lead one to conclude time, space, and all other categories of perception are highly unstable. Our bodily awareness is attached to reality by a slender thread.

On a warm Florida night a lad of sixteen smoked a sizeable dose of salvia divinorum on his friend’s back porch before transforming into a dinosaur-rocking chair-man viewing himself from the outside, all while becoming intimately acquainted with what it means to be wooden. At once he was the object and the subject, observer and the observed! With this same entheogen others have reported spending years as articles of furniture or, even more mind-numbingly, as completely ordinary people. I once spoke to a fellow who spent nearly a decade as a blue collar worker in contemporary Texas over the course of fifteen of our earthly minutes. Identity is synonymous with a locus of control. When someone mentions their own consciousness they are usually referring to this place of illusory agency. What is generally called the self is thought of as a static entity. It is a mutable thing that holds together an arbitrary collection of preferences and opinions.The locus defines consciousness. It is the mark that assigns other marks to all our behaviors in order to maintain the image it keeps of itself in relation to its contents, which is why it is so prone to retroactively justifying impulse buys.

At this time there is no proof anyone has free will. Some highly regarded academics, like the physicist Roger Penrose, have tried to debunk determinism. Given the preponderance of fixed action patterns one finds in our species, this seems like a silly assertion. Even if microtubules give higher animals some freedom, on a practical level it is obvious this freedom could be enhanced. Conceptual blending offers endless amusement and discovery. When we think of an angry desk, a feeling, likely different than any other we have had before, is elicited. What about an angry desk made of Ibsen-reading chocolate pudding wombats? There is no limit to the subtlety of our contemplations, besides our almost obsolete wetware. From the refinement of our minds and the acceleration in our communications will come an intellectual explosion unlike any other. We do not, and will not, need to process only one or two thoughts at a time. The mechanisms of the unconscious can be augmented. Access to a collective unconscious in the form of a quantum mainframe or global neuronetwork would be one way of exponentially expediting this process. Such an enhanced being could create a universe populated by other self-aware agents endowed with freewill. It could materialize itself as a single resident within its artificial world or, having no limits on how many sensations it could take in or thoughts it could put out, experience its expanding creation in its entirety. Although I am not a strong proponent of the simulation hypothesis, it is possible all of what is called reality is the toy of such a being. It is even more likely we will become the progenitors of such systems.

A sufficiently advanced civilization could manipulate matter at the most infinitesimal of scales. This means our universe may not be a simulation, but a blob on the table of a physics laboratory. Even with these wonders it is likely humans will never completely lose themselves. Their sense of “I” will be greatly enlarged, but it will not vanish. Even with total automation, people will have lives outside of their mind-enhancing toys. It is disturbing to wonder if a superdimensional entity experimenting with a series of procedural generation algorithms could be responsible for our balanced but amoral cosmos. It would require genius of the highest order to design the initial cosmic egg or framework that would give birth in turn to physics, chemistry, and biology. As astonishing and bizarre as it sounds, this sort of unfathomable brilliance is not far away.

Works CitedBaars, Bernard J. In the Theater of Consciousness: The Workspace of the Mind. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.

Erickson, Milton H., Ernest Lawrence Rossi, and Sheila I. Rossi. Hypnotic Realities: The Induction of Clinical Hypnosis and Forms of Indirect Suggestion. New York: Irvington, 1976. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. New York: Harper, 1962. Print.

Jacquette, Dale. Ontology. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2002. Print.

Perls, Frederick S. Gestalt Therapy; Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. New York: Julian, 1951. Print.

Photo Credit: Joseph Stella

Neurotechnology and the Future of Art

Originally published on Radical Science News

Deep_brain_stimulation_electrode_placement_reconstruction

 

Mind-machine interfaces, the decoding of the brain’s workings, and other unforeseen advances in neurotechnology will usher in a creative explosion unparalleled in all history. It has implications for music, literature, and how, on the most basic levels, reality is experienced. Through future apparatuses ancient questions about aesthetics can be resolved or, at the very least, be brought closer to resolution. In general humanity is guilty of overestimating the breadth of its knowledge and underestimating the depth of its intelligence. Cultures throughout history have reflected this habit by placing more emphasis on the former than the latter. In many ways humanity has failed to progress beyond its Paleolithic propensities because it runs in circles; it attacks the same problems in the same ways, mistakenly believing novel thoughts can spring from the same sorts of brains, underestimating the extent to which culture is a byproduct of biology. In the case of thinking one must throw out the baby, the mind itself, with the bathwater.

 

brainwaves

Miranda and Mathias describe an invention called the neurogranular sampler which “works by taking short segments (or sound grains) from sound files and triggering them when any neurons fire.” While this is somewhat primitive to what will spring from it, it demonstrates the basic principle behind playing an instrument without the strain of manual manipulation. It will be possible to record rich compositions and immediately disseminate them. This is stupendous, but this will seem like small potatoes compared to the coming culmination of neurotechnology’s strides. There is no reason we should have only two eyes or two ears or one tongue or even five senses. Likewise, we do not need to be limited to 100 billion neurons. The approaching era is one of unlimited customizability, unbounded imagination, and unfathomable experiments in transcendence. Like any machine the brain can be augmented, upgraded, and even completely overhauled. In a few decades you might be surprised to find specialists in fields as of yet unnamed will be able to transport, duplicate, or in any number of ways modify your mind.

“You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior…to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.”

-Liane Young

In Young’s experiment Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) was delivered to the right temporo-parietal junction. Participants were then asked a question to test how the shock had affected their views on morality. In this instance they were given a situation, their girlfriend crossing a bridge unharmed, and asked whether its ethicality should be evaluated based solely on its outcome. This is an ongoing debate in the history of ethics. Consequentialists and utilitarians believe only the effects of an action matter, whereas deontologists, like Kant, place more emphasis on intention and principle. When the RTPJ was disrupted volunteers were more likely to deem a situation “good” based on its outcome. These seem like inalienable parts of ourselves, but they are not. It is possible predilections for horror, fantasy, science fiction, in one way or another, can be pinpointed and induced with comparable efficacy.  It is likely the process will be much more complex, but it is also likely seemingly minor tweaks will result in dramatic alterations to aesthetic sensibilities. Why is it some respond to angry music or Impressionist paintings or movies with talking animals? Neurotech will soon have the answers.

 

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If the sentence “hotels are horrifyingly existential” is repeated to different listeners very different feelings will be elicited based on their connectome, mood and the background (in the Gestalt sense) on which the message is being imposed. Maybe they think of Unamuno and then cannot help but think of Hemingway’s fondness for bullfights, absurd spectacles put on for empty amusement to delay confronting unpleasantness of everyday life. It may conjure impressions of sleepy Proustian insularity or familial Faulknerian madness or all-encompassing Lovecraftian angst over the limits of what can be known. The phrase “Tolstoy’s corpus” is a single qualia, albeit a very incomplete one to everyone besides Tolstoy scholars. Yet even they have drastically different views of that single picture. In the future perfect qualia clusters, complete and interweaving pictures with conceptual arms shooting out in every direction linking them to cousin clusters, will be readily accessible to all. For what purpose? The expansion of humanity through the enlargement of its constituents. This all sounds wonderful, but how shall it be done? Why should it be done?

Art for art’s sake, when taken too literally, implies there is something intrinsically valuable about a painting, book, or composition. What is intriguing is not sound waves upsetting the insensate air, processed wood material being tattooed with arbitrary symbols, or unwitting canvasses being smeared with pleasing colors, but the feelings they manage to imperfectly convey. The masters manage to more perfectly (or ambiguously) convey their message; this is what keeps them engaging long after their era has passed. While each of Shakespeare’s play has identifiable elements, themes, etc., his collected works present an endless playground to interpreters because of their depth and breadth. As Harold Bloom wrote, “he exists in all languages. He is put on the stage everywhere. Everyone feels that they are represented by him on the stage.” This is probably because Shakespeare did not endlessly revisit, reuse, and ultimately wear out the same set of devices. Ben Jonson was slightly jealous of his contemporary, who wrote, after some of his early abominations, masterpieces with enviable ease. The Bard was a waterfall of creativity. Yet he is not alone. For Mozart writing music by hand was a menial chore. The man, as Robert Greenberg said, carried music around with him the way modern mortals carry around flash drives. There is no chicken and egg problem here. Art is made to convey a message, but the message is there long before it materializes into something intelligible. In spite of its stupendousness and necessity, art today will be viewed in the future as laudable but laughable attempts at telepathic exchange.

 

VR

 

“MindMaze puts your brain into the game.  Never before have neuroscience, virtual reality, augmented reality and 3D full-body motion-capture come together in a games system.  Gamers will be able to see, feel and experience virtual gameplay with absolutely no delay or need for controllers.”

-Dr. Tej Tadi, founder and CEO of MindMaze.

MindMaze detects and accurately predicts brain and muscle activity to trigger in game movement. The technology can be used to train amputees and stroke victims to control prosthetic limbs. This is an impressive amount of precision! Until quite recently art has been passive. Yes, one can lose oneself in a story or piece of music, but one’s involvement does not ultimately change the content of the article itself. Oedipus will pluck his eyes out, Horatio Alger hero’s will be rewarded for his struggles, Mahler will break eardrums, and Spider-Man will save the day. The rise of expansive fictional universes large numbers of people wish to inhabit coupled with the rise of electronic games has lent further support for Hegel’s views on metaphysics and aesthetics. Immersion in these alternative cosmoses has already come of age in the form of video games, however, virtual food and sex are not nearly as satisfying as their corporeal counterparts. True immersion will involve the engagement of all senses. MindMaze is an achievement, and is hopefully a foreshadowing of even more momentous inventions. Immersive Reality will allow Being and Art to develop concomitantly by fusing them together.

It is possible the worlds we and our descendants will be spending portions of our waking hours within will be chess compared to checkers. Perhaps our universe is more appropriately dubbed Snakes and Ladders. Anything that can be perceived by whatever hardware our consciousness will be residing in will be comprehensible and inhabitable. The nasty parts of human nature have remained fairly static, but there is no doubt art has flowered and flourished in spite of all the dreadfulness that has transpired around it. Harold Bloom famously claimed Shakespeare had “invented” the modern world. The veracity of his statement is debatable, but it is clear art has changed and in the process has changed those who enjoy it. Like the sciences, but in a far more personal way, it forces us to rethink and reframe. Its benefits to health and well-being are legion and being attested to by a growing body of peer-reviewed evidence. Hegel’s “cognitivist” view of aesthetics, as it was deemed by later scholars, is broader and more flexible than the viewpoints of his contemporaries, predecessors, and even most of his successors. Art is about evolution, advancement, and enlargement on the personal, national, and global level. Coming back to some of the crudest formulations of aesthetics, those of mimesis, art as a whole mimics the natural world in a profound manner: it evolves.

The desire to complete this essay crystallized when a conversation with Chris Armstrong about poly-beings led to thoughts on the effects a vessel may have on its cargo. The cargo in this context is what is called, for lack of a more expansive term, mind. The vessel, for lack of a less anthropocentric word, is the body, although it needn’t be fleshy, humanoid, or even organic. I set aside the outline until a post by Maria Konovalenko, a well-known figure in life-extension circles, appeared in my feed. It was about the next unit of selection. After all, first there were genes, then organisms (assuming you do not subscribe to the hyper-reductionist view), and now memes. What will follow? How will selection take place? None of the units listed completely supplanted their predecessors, mind you, so will the next one truly dethrone the others? As a number of epistemologists and AI luminaries have said, ours is not the only possible kind of mind.

Thus, as one would expect, a common answer to her question was self-improving AI or AGI. Allegedly this will be final invention of our species. There are surely many other ways to construct a system that gives birth to the dreaded C word. In a world in which brains are interfacing more closely with hardware than ever it seems inevitable that familiar ways of relating to one’s “surroundings” will change. Interaction steadily will lead to increasingly intimate forms of symbiosis in the forms of AR, VR, and IR. One could call the next unit of selection memetic because it will be mentalistic, but both adjectives here fail to do it justice. To dwell on memes for too long distracts from a more important endeavor, which is learning how to bundle, tailor, and manage them to create better head space for ourselves. Selection will not only take place in forms of consciousness, but networks of entities possessing it, enormous arrays of multiple mega-clusters; not just in clumps of interconnected minds, but in the ways these sprawling swarms are managed. The final unit of selection will be Being itself. What this will mean in twenty or two hundred years can only be speculated upon.

Works Cited

Brady, Paul. “MindMaze Introduces Thought-Powered Virtual Reality Game System.” — SAN FRANCISCO, March 4, 2015 /PRNewswire/ —. PRNEWSWIRE, 4 Mar. 2015. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.

Graham, Gordon. Philosophy of the Arts: An Introduction to Aesthetics. London: Routledge, 1997. Print

Miranda, Eduardo R., and John Matthias. “Music Neurotechnology for Sound Synthesis.”

A.J. Rocke (1985). “Hypothesis and Experiment in Kekulé’s Benzene Theory”. Annals of Science 42 (4): 355–81. doi:10.1080/00033798500200411. Jump up ^

Young, Liane, et al. “Disruption of the right temporoparietal junction with transcranial magnetic stimulation reduces the role of beliefs in moral judgments.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107.15 (2010): 6753-6758.

Catullus: A Modern Poet

Originally published on January 11, 2011

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Little is known about the life of the Roman nobleman Gaius Valerius Catullus. He lived during the late Republic, befriended many prominent people, and fell in love with a woman posterity knows only by the name he gave her. Enamored with the poetry of Sappho, he created the ultimate tribute to his major inspiration by naming his desideratum Lesbia.

Even within the field of Latin literature Catullus has never been considered as canonical an author as Virgil or Horace, and rightly so, but for someone interested in the culture of ancient Rome it may be better to enjoy Catullus’s insults than to study the idealized epics and odes of other poets. While Virgil, the infamous perfectionist, slaved away at his epic, Catullus cheerfully composed verses that reveal life as it was during the exciting times of the First Triumvirate. From the insult culture of this period emerged a poet who refined the art of satire and laid the foundations for modern poetry.

Like the poets of the twentieth century, who turned away from traditional conventions and structures, Catullus also found the classical forms prohibitive and pompous. He knew he could not imitate Homer, and he did not try. Urbane Romans undoubtedly found Apollodorus and the other Homer-imitators of the Hellenistic era as insufferable and derivative as modern scholars. Catullus is indisputably irreverent, but never condescending. He did not have the sublime streak of genius that separates the likes of Shakespeare, Goethe and Cervantes from the chaff, but his work displays substantial range and depth.

In one poem he may ruthlessly attack the femininity of Thalus or mercilessly mock Furius’s destitution, but in others he declares his undying love for Lesbia or provides consolation to the grieving Calvus. The poet who teases his impecunious friend also writes haunting verses: “Odio et amo. Quare id facem, fortasse requires?/Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.” (1-2) This translates to: “I love and yet I hate. Why do I do this, you wonder? I do not know, I can only feel it and I am in agony.

For further proof of substance one can look to his twenty second poem, wherein his critique of Suffenus’s delusions also serves as a critique of human nature. He anticipates Freud when he eloquently reminds his reader that “everyone is assigned his own delusion” (20). He is a scathing polemicist, but he is acutely aware of the universality of human vanity, and this prevents his tone from ever veering into didacticism. Moreover, his works do not contain any lengthy allusions to the alleged morality of the early Republic or dull idealizations of rural living.

It should be noted here that Catullus occasionally utilized classical forms, but it should also be noted that these poems are hardly representative of the rest of his work. Imitation is part of every writer’s initiation process, and while there are tidbits of interest in pieces like “Of the Argonauts”, they have not exerted a significant influence on Western literature. Catullus’s mocking style paved the way for Juvenal and Martial; it is not outlandish to claim the modern tradition of satire begins with him. Callimachus was a major influence, but his subjects and the way he dealt with them were quite different. One could call the Greek Menander as well as the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terrence forerunners, but Catullus is not writing plays, he is painting portraits in verse. He cultivated a potent minimalism that was not rediscovered until the late 19th century.

Catullus is not as shocking as he may seem when historical context is taken into account. He belonged to a culture in which it was acceptable to launch ribald personal attacks against one’s political enemies. The art of the ad hominem was proudly practiced by respected statesman like Cicero, who, although familiar with Aristotelian logic, found it perfectly reasonable to luridly describe the alleged lasciviousness of his foes. The political atmosphere inspired some of his most caustic remarks. He has no love for Caesar or Pompey. He refers to the latter as the “sodomite Romulus” (5) and refers to both Caesar and Mamura as “abominable sodomites, fellators.”(1-2) It is not surprising that he would be at odds with aspiring dictators like Caesar and Pompey. Although, he does not condemn all politicians; he has only good things to say about Cicero.

He is a citizen of a multicultural empire, yet he is acutely aware of the differences even between Italian peoples. He writes of “Sabinus aut Tiburs aut pinguis Umber aut obesus Etruscus”—“If you were a city man or a Sabine or a Tiburnan/or a thrifty Umbrian or a fat Etruscan/or a swarthy or toothy Lanuvian or a Transpadane(11). Yet seemingly in the same breath he speaks of Syria, Libya, Persia, and Britain as if they merely down the road. Despite its sprawling, all-encompassing nature, the Roman Empire was not devoid of racial or religious distinctions. This isn’t a stunning revelation, but because of the tolerance Rome normally displayed towards different races and religions it is sometimes easy to forget these distinctions still existed.

Catullus’s musings on religion give us a glimpse into Roman attitudes towards the Gods around this time period. He  calls Persian religion “impious” when wryly prophesying that a Magi will be born from the union of Gellius and his mother. At another time he calls his own gods “hostile.” One needn’t be an expert to know the Greco-Roman pantheon was not composed of the most caring of deities. It’s easy to see how, when faced with a cruel universe, the citizens of the Roman Empire sought refuge in religions that made better promises than everlasting mindlessness as a shade in the underworld.

While it is only possible to speculate based on the evidence available, one could convincingly argue that Catullus, like many other wealthy Romans, was an Epicurean. His disdain for religion and lack of sexual inhibitions could certainly lead one to that conclusion. It is likely that he did not adopt a formal philosophy or religion. He was, like Cicero, a philosophical eclectic who refused to chain himself to a single school. Modern poets, whether they know it or not, have either been directly or indirectly influenced more by this bawdy satirist than his more illustrious contemporaries. Their unpretentious content and terse approaches to the art are tributes to a relatively minor poet, a poet that many of them have never read or even heard of. Catullus, modest as he was honest, would be very amused by this state of affairs.

An Introduction to Trollish

Originally published on November 5th, 2013.

 

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Trollish is an agglutinative language with a relatively small vocabulary and an even smaller pool of proper nouns. Vowels exist, but in some dialects they are optional. Trollish has few truly abstract nouns due to the simple-mindedness of its speakers, but also because of the rich constructions made possible through agglutination. Although it is not known whether the uncommon constructs created by their bards are immediately understood by their listeners, or if the ambiguity of the longer constructs is part of the charm of their bawdy battle hymns and drunken tavern songs, the most skillful poets among them can create words composed of over three dozen distinct morphemes. They can be made more distinct through inflection and intonation.

Nehk-blathe-ut

Nehk v. Kill,
Blathe adj. Good
Ut n or v. Food or eat

Common Trollish is minimally conjugated and declined. Without any firm grasp of time, thanks to a lack of verb conjugation, and a clear grasp of how nouns relate to one another, one must wonder how the trolls communicate effectively during raids on Elfin and Dwarven towns. Spoken words are frequently slurred due to intoxication, laziness, or fear of appearing too pedantic to other trolls. Yes, bards may occasionally use the past or future tense through a rising or falling intonation, but this phenomenon is rarely observed in ordinary conversations. A guttural inflection may be applied to the morpheme within a word the speaker wishes to put into the imperative case. The pharyngeal fricative (the “HA” sound prominently featured in languages like Hebrew and Arabic) can be used to express rage or disdain. This is preferred over merely raising or lowering their voices. Like most stupid creatures, trolls have a fondness for noise, and like all creatures, they can only speak so loudly.

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Their tongue should not seem terribly impoverished to you at this point, but if it does, let it be said here that concrete words are easily transformed into abstract concepts (for instance, if the object is not within sight or may exist in the future; obviously Trollish does not have the philosophical sophistication of German or Sanskrit) through a rising intonation. Something more literal and earthy can be conveyed through a descending tone. There is bawdy wisdom in the speech of the trolls; there is wonderful blending of the profane with the sacred. Take for instance their word for vagina, luth. Geath luth: Literally, “axe vagina.” The term can be used as an insult, but it can also be endearing. How about geath-luth-blathe-kut? Literally it means “good food axe vagina.”

The speaker may be saying the female companion is good at providing food or he may be talking about cunnilingus. Trollish has never been a written language. Even the Orcs seem quite literate compared to their fellow cave dwellers who, though they have met with human missionaries, have seen no use for writing. Though they are simple creatures, trolls have devised a humorous and lovely language worthy of study.

The Three Principles of Immersive Speed Reading

marm

For many the term speed reading conjures up images of sleazy self-help gurus with the scientific acumen of the average marmoset. Yet the misconceptions surrounding speed reading, and general incredulity regarding its effectiveness, revolve around the erroneous assumption that there is a tradeoff between rapidity and comprehension, between the rate at which one turns pages and retains their contents. Like many myths there are believers who will cling to it no matter how many studies, examples, or cogent arguments are shoved into their faces. Or, if they are persuaded of its usefulness for some or most, may claim to be exceptions to the rule. If they are exceptionally dull, this may be true.  Speed reading is the single most valuable skill I have learned in my life. I would like to share it with as many people as possible.

If you attempted to read a book one word at a time your understanding of it would be dismal. If you attempted to do the same with a single lengthy sentence you would find your comprehension to be similarly deplorable. Does this make sense? If so, let’s us move forward. Think about a book you read a month ago, two months ago, or a week ago. How well do you remember the fine details?

Texts can be as bland or as captivating as one wants them to be. In spite of all the possibilities a simple sentence offers, the majority of readers, including many proud bibliophiles, find themselves perpetually staring at an Necker Cube without realizing a simple tilt of the head is all that is required to change the image. It is quite abnormal for anyone to bother dissecting the underpinnings of their own consciousness and even more unusual for their efforts to bear fruit. We give as little thought to the way we read as the way we walk or the way we chew our food.  Our perceptions are taken for granted; the categories of our perceptions, to borrow Kant’s term, are almost never questioned outside of hazy bull sessions fueled by cheap beer or overpriced coffee.  The epiphanies in these meetings are as painful as they are contrived and predictable. Needless to say, once again, they rarely result in any sort of measurable change to a person’s inclinations or abilities. There is no need for alteration because typically no glaring or life-threatening problems present themselves. Our reading pace seems to be set in stone because we take no pains to move faster.

  1. Use your finger. Use your finger to guide your eyes. Reading can be done in a purely visual manner. Tricky as it may be at first, it is a much more efficient way to get through a text once, twice, or three times if necessary.  Most people subvocalize when they are reading; they hear their own voice, the voice of the character, or the voice of the author. This common approach to processing text, I would contend, is far more exhausting than the alternatives. The first step is to hear the words as if they have been speed up significantly, to glide over them as if you hit fast-forward on a tape recorder, then, with time, you will find yourself scanning them without hearing a sound. Is your unconscious still making noises in the background? Probably.  
  2. Sensory integration is done constantly and learning anything can be approached in a dozen different ways, even if the presentations of the material are identical. Make these things work for you. Your brain, hopefully, still forms new connections every night. Plato, Tesla, Jung, Einstein, and a slue of others have waxed poetically about a universal “source.” Sometimes after studying a subject or playing a game we wake up measurably better at it. Occasionally this improvement has a clear and definite cause. Perhaps we learned a combination of buttons causes our video game character to double jump, thus evading the attacks of fire-spraying nematodes. Maybe our reflexes have sharpened. Other times it is not as easy to pinpoint what has happened.  Chess master Bobby Fischer said at age of 11 he “just got good.” There is no royal road to geometry, but if one chooses interesting content or subject matter one must learn for profit or survival, there is a golden highway to a faster reading speed.
  3. Do not underestimate yourself. With difficult texts you may find yourself wasting more time for the same return. The snail’s crawl may serve you no better than the rabbit’s dash.  Is this not the pinnacle of irrationality? The intricacies of what Huxley called the “antipodes of the mind”, which is swarming with strange thoughts and esoteric methods of manipulating thoughts, can be trusted to deliver consistent improvements.  I think it is safe to say all thoughts can serve as verbs, as modifiers in the combinatorial dance called creativity – cognition itself, really. What our mnemonic machinery does to consolidate what we have learned is normally beyond our control. Affirmations can help, but they often feel silly at first to many hard-minded people. In a number of essays I have emphasized the amorphousness of being. Books are an old and effective way of inducing trance and retraining the mind. Exposure to certain words, patterns, and structures, even if they are not consciously comprehensible immediately, pays off in the long run. Knowledge sometimes needs time to incubate. Have the boldness to seize knowledge, to grapple with it, and to persist in the battle until it has become an ally to asssist in your next skirmish.