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The Old Prevails Over The New: A Case For Ancient Ideas
Henry Molaison, known for most of his life as H.M., was a medical oddity. Surgery to cure severe epilepsy in the 1950s led to the removal of his hippocampus, which is responsible for laying down new memories. Neuroscientists know this because Molaison suffered from anterograde amnesia (the inability to generate new memories) after the surgery but could recall memories from before it. Molaison’s working memory and intelligence remained intact – he completed crossword puzzles up until his death in 2008 – but he was, in a way, stuck in the present.
A healthy brain is not too different from H.M.’s. We tend to accept the current state of affairs and not change course even if doing so is beneficial. The reason for this shortcoming is effort. We rely on energy-saving heuristics, or mental shortcuts that simplify the world at the expense of rationality - a resource-demanding capacity. Even the most critical thinkers mostly run on autopilot. Continuous skepticism is biological impossible.
One empirical account of this phenomenon comes from Professor of Psychology Keith Stanovich. It starts with a quiz: Jack is looking at Anne but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married but George is not. The question is: Is a married person looking at an unmarried person? You have three options:
-Cannot be determined
Over 80 percent of people choose the third option even though the first option is the correct one (think carefully). Here’s the interesting part. The study found that IQ did not correlate with accuracy. Instead Stanovich discovered that performance increased when he promoted participants to “think logically” or “consider all the possibilities.” In other words, we think critically only when we have to or when we are prompted, otherwise we’re lazy.
Recent neurological research suggests that although the brain prefers the path of least resistance (figuratively and neurally) overcoming cognitive challenges strengthens the mind just like exercise strengthens our muscles. This mind-as-a-muscle metaphor is an appropriate one. Several studies demonstrate that participants who engage in sessions of “cognitive training” perform better on tests of fluid intelligence and show gains in working memory capacity. The trick is convincing the mind to deviate from the easy-to-digest present.
This brings me to a predicament.
A curse of the 21st century is the belief that the new prevails over the old and that the new is superior to the old. I’ve realized the opposite is true with respect to ideas. What survives must possess intrinsic value that time recognizes but our cognitive laziness usually misses. A thought experiment to explain.
If a Martian visited Earth he might wonder why only a tiny fraction of ideas that we humans have conjured still exist while the vast majority have perished. The answer is that an invisible hand discriminates ideas based on their value in the same way a sieve filters desired materials based on their size. Think about it. Every generation produces a number of ideas but only a few survive into the following generation and even fewer survive into the generation after that ad infinitum. Call the percentage of ideas that survive the leap from one generation to the next the “sieve constant.” It is a very small number, and the implication is that most valuable ideas that exist today are ancient. As the cliché goes, they’ve stood the test of time – they’ve managed to stay on top of the sieve.
If this seems counterintuitive tally the number of technologies in your living room over one thousand years old and compare it to the number of technologies that arrived in the last one hundred years. From my desk I can spot a few items that did not exist before 1913: a TV and DVDs, the microchips in my computer, the refrigerator and microwave, the Internet. The list of pre-1913 technologies is much longer: kitchen utensils, books, language, a bed, a couch, cushions, a hat, gloves, pants and shirts, a pencil, the oven, electricity, shoes, paint and paintings, bricks, walls, roof, a door, keys and locks, beer and coffee, plumbing and sanitation, a window, glass, paper, a candle, money, coins, the wheels and gears on my bike. I could go on. In fact if I only kept post-1913 technology my apartment would be nearly empty (I wouldn’t even have an apartment actually).*
As a general rule the most widespread technologies are the oldest. So the old indeed prevails over the new. But because the brain (if left unattended) focuses on the present we tend to believe that the new prevails over the old – or that people believe that their generation is an exception to the sieve constant. I suspect that this “present day bias” exists in every generation but it is especially pronounced in the 21st century where dozens of flashy technologies debut annually.
This idea struck me after reading a passage in Nassim Taleb’s latest book in which he expounds the “Lindy effect,” which posits that on average for the perishable (organic and mortal), every additional day in its life translates into a shorter additional life expectancy and for the non-perishable (inorganic and lacks expiration date), every additional day may imply a longer life expectancy.
Think about a book (the content not the physical book) in print for 40 years. It will likely print for another 40 years. If a book has been in print for one millennia, it will be in print for one more. A 40-year-old human, in contrast, will probably only live another 40 years. What determines the lifespan of a non-perishable (or what I am calling an idea) is its value. What I realized was the Lindy effect explains a peculiarity of the sieve constant: the longer an idea exists the more immune it becomes to falling through the cracks. And since it is difficult to determine the value of a new book in order to predict its lifespan (time and the sieve have not tested it yet) a good rule of thumb with respect to books is the older the better.
It is for this reason that I recently purchased Edith Hamilton’s Mythology (as opposed to Harry Potter or a pop psychology book about “how the mind works”), a perennial bestseller and premier introduction to the subject. After navigating Amazon I was happy to discover that several editions are on sale for one cent. Even more sell for less than a dollar. What does that tell us about the value of Hamilton’s masterpiece? In the iSights of Apple aficionados the answer is that the book is cheap. Price-wise they’re right but the reverse is true wisdom-wise. That dozens of editions sell for less than a dollar tells us hundreds of thousands of copies of Mythology exist (perhaps millions). So many, in fact, that they are giving them away for free. The lesson here is not that no one is reading the book but everyone. Publishers don’t print that many copies without a sizeable demand.
A second mistake. On Amazon people buy books in good or excellent condition over books in acceptable or poor condition, ceteris paribus. What does it tell us if a book is in excellent condition? That no one has used it. A book filled with highlights and annotations is more valuable than a book left untouched because a marked up book was more valuable to the previous reader than a book in pristine condition, which was clearly either unused or completely worthless. Between-the-lines commentary is also a great source of wisdom. An Amazon book in “poor” condition is often an invitation to a conversation with the previous reader. So, another rule of thumb; this time for buying books on Amazon:
Value (Wisdom) = Years in Print + Condition (the worse the better)
The reason it took me a while to realize this brings me back to H.M. Recall that the brain is inherently focused on the present. This makes sense from a biological perspective; in order to survive it must compute millions of pieces (about 11 million) of incoming sensory information every second. Reading ancient Greek philosophy is a resource-demanding activity and sadly not a priority. Now that we know the value of old ideas you can see the paradox: the most valuable wisdom is the oldest but the brain craves the present. How do we convince the mind to focus on ancient ideas?
Mythology gives us one strategy. Hamilton’s lurid prose effortlessly distills the complexities of Greek, Roman and Norse mythology into digestible lessons. The book was published in 1942, so we can guess that it will be around for another 71 years. But it is the myths themselves that will stand the test of time. If you do read Hamilton’s book – and I really recommend you do – you’ll enter into a foreign country, the past, where the wisdom is lucid, unlike the perplexing but easy-to-digest present.
* If you want a real challenge try to find something that only contains post-1913 technology
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Why do so many people encounter beings after smoking large doses of DMT?
- DMT is arguably the most powerful psychedelic drug on the planet, capable of producing intense hallucinations.
- Researchers recently surveyed more than 2,000 DMT users about their encounters with 'entities' while tripping, finding that respondents often considered these strange encounters to be positive and meaningful.
- The majority of respondents believed the beings they encountered were not hallucinations.
What are DMT beings?<p>Do DMT entities actually exist in some other dimension, or are they hallucinations that the brain generates when its visual processing system is overwhelmed by a powerful tryptamine?<br></p><p>The late American ethnobotanist Terence McKenna believed that DMT beings — which he called "machine elves" — were real. Here's how he once <a href="https://www.ranker.com/list/dmt-machine-elves-facts/inigo-gonzalez" target="_blank">described</a> one of his DMT experiences:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I sank to the floor. I [experienced] this hallucination of tumbling forward into these fractal geometric spaces made of light and then I found myself in the equivalent of the Pope's private chapel and there were insect elf machines proffering strange little tablets with strange writing on them, and I was aghast, completely appalled, because [in] a matter of seconds... my entire expectation of the nature of the world was just being shredded in front of me. I've never actually gotten over it.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">These self-transforming machine elf creatures were speaking in a colored language which condensed into rotating machines that were like Fabergé eggs but crafted out of luminescent superconducting ceramics and liquid crystal gels. All this stuff was just so weird and so alien and so un-English-able that it was a complete shock — I mean, the literal turning inside out of [my] intellectual universe!"</p><p>McKenna believed machine elves exist in alternate realities, which form a "<a href="https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/old-favourites-the-archaic-revival-1991-by-terence-mckenna-1.3924887" target="_blank">raging universe of active intelligence that is transhuman, hyperdimensional, and extremely alien.</a>" But he was far from the first to believe that DMT is a doorway to other realms.</p><p>Indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin have used ayahuasca in religious ceremonies for centuries, though no one is quite sure when they first started experimenting with the psychedelic brew. The Jibaro people of the Ecuadorian rainforest believed ayahuasca allowed regular people, not just shamans, to <a href="https://atrium.lib.uoguelph.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10214/17902/RichardsonG_202004_HonThesis.pdf?sequence=3" target="_blank">speak directly to the gods</a>. The 19th-century Ecuadorian geographer Villavicencio wrote of other Amazonian shamans who used ahaysuca (known as the "vine of the dead") to contact spirits and foresee enemy battle plans.</p><p>In the West, research on DMT experiences has been sparse yet interesting. The psychiatrist Rick Strassman conducted some of the first human DMT trials at the University of New Mexico in the early 1990s. He found that <a href="https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/dmt/dmt_article3.shtml" target="_blank">"at least half"</a> of his research subjects had encountered some form of entity after taking DMT.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I was neither intellectually nor emotionally prepared for the frequency with which contact with beings occurred in our studies, nor the often utterly bizarre nature of these experiences," Strassman wrote in his book "DMT The Spirit Molecule".</p>
Manuel Medir / Getty<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Whenever I tried to pull any information out of the entities regarding themselves, the data that was given up was always relevant only to me. The elves could not give me any piece of data I did not already know, nor could their existence be sustained under any kind of prolonged scrutiny."</p><p>It's also worth noting that not all people who smoke DMT see beings, and that some see beings that look <a href="https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/dmt/dmt_article3.shtml" target="_blank">nothing like elves or aliens</a>. The diversity of these reports seems to count against the argument that DMT beings exist in some objective alternate reality.</p><p>In other words, if DMT beings exist in some other dimension, shouldn't they appear the same to anyone who visits that dimension? Or do the beings assume a different appearance based on who's looking? Or are there many types of beings in the DMT universe, but most look like elves? </p><p>You might start seeing elves just trying to sort this stuff out.</p><p>Ultimately, nobody knows exactly why DMT beings take the forms they do, or whether they're just figments of overstimulated imaginations. And the answers might be beside the point. </p><p>In the recent survey, 60 percent of participants said their encounter with DMT beings "produced a desirable alteration in their conception of reality whereas only 1% indicated an undesirable alteration in their conception of reality."</p><p>DMT beings may be nothing more than projections of the subconscious mind. But these bizarre encounters do help some people find real meaning, whether it's through personal revelation or the raw power of ontological shock.</p>
So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.
- The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
- The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
- The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>Completing the race in 25 minutes means the cars will need to average about 110 miles per hour. So, while the race may end up being a bit slower than a typical Indy 500 competition, in which winners average speeds of over 160 mph, it's still set to be the fastest autonomous race featuring full-size cars.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is no human redundancy there," Matt Peak, managing director for Energy Systems Network, a nonprofit that develops technology for the automation and energy sectors, told the <a href="https://www.post-gazette.com/business/tech-news/2020/06/01/Indy-Autonomous-Challenge-Indy-500-Indianapolis-Motor-Speedway-Ansys-Aptiv-self-driving-cars/stories/202005280137" target="_blank">Pittsburgh Post-Gazette</a>. "Either your car makes this happen or smash into the wall you go."</p>
Illustration of the Indy Autonomous Challenge
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>The Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://www.indyautonomouschallenge.com/rules" target="_blank">describes</a> itself as a "past-the-post" competition, which "refers to a binary, objective, measurable performance rather than a subjective evaluation, judgement, or recognition."</p><p>This competition design was inspired by the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge, which tasked teams with developing driverless cars and sending them along a 150-mile route in Southern California for a chance to win $1 million. But that prize went unclaimed, because within a few hours after starting, all the vehicles had suffered some kind of critical failure.</p>
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>One factor that could prevent a similar outcome in the upcoming race is the ability to test-run cars on a virtual racetrack. The simulation software company Ansys Inc. has already developed a model of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on which teams will test their algorithms as part of a series of qualifying rounds.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We can create, with physics, multiple real-life scenarios that are reflective of the real world," Ansys President Ajei Gopal told <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/autonomous-vehicles-to-race-at-indianapolis-motor-speedway-11595237401?mod=e2tw" target="_blank">The Wall Street Journal</a>. "We can use that to train the AI, so it starts to come up to speed."</p><p>Still, the race could reveal that self-driving cars aren't quite ready to race at speeds of over 110 mph. After all, regular self-driving cars already face enough logistical and technical roadblocks, including <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53349313#:~:text=Tesla%20will%20be%20able%20to,no%20driver%20input%2C%20he%20said." target="_blank">crumbling infrastructure, communication issues</a> and the <a href="https://bigthink.com/paul-ratner/would-you-ride-in-a-car-thats-programmed-to-kill-you" target="_self">fateful moral decisions driverless cars will have to make in split seconds</a>.</p>But the Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5da73021d0636f4ec706fa0a/t/5dc0680c41954d4ef41ec2b2/1572890638793/Indy+Autonomous+Challenge+Ruleset+-+v5NOV2019+%282%29.pdf" target="_blank">says</a> its main goal is to advance the industry, by challenging "students around the world to imagine, invent, and prove a new generation of automated vehicle (AV) software and inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.
- A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
- Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
- Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Challenging the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders: Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41699c8c2cb2aee9271a36646e0bee7d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-8BDC7i8Yyw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This is a far cry from Howard Rusk's 1947 NY Times editorial calling for mental healt</p><p>h disorders to be treated similarly to physical disease (such as diabetes and cancer). This mindset—not attributable to Rusk alone; he was merely relaying the psychiatric currency of the time—has dominated the field for decades: mental anguish is a genetic and/or chemical-deficiency disorder that must be treated pharmacologically.</p><p>Even as psychiatry untethered from DSM categories, the field still used chemistry to validate its existence. Psychotherapy, arguably the most efficient means for managing much of our anxiety and depression, is time- and labor-intensive. Counseling requires an empathetic and wizened ear to guide the patient to do the work. Ingesting a pill to do that work for you is more seductive, and easier. As Davis writes, even though the industry abandoned the DSM, it continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system." </p><p>That language has infiltrated public consciousness. The team at McLean surveyed 279 patients seeking acute treatment for depression. As they note, the causes of psychological distress have constantly shifted over the millennia: humoral imbalance in the ancient world; spiritual possession in medieval times; early childhood experiences around the time of Freud; maladaptive thought patterns dominant in the latter half of last century. While the team found that psychosocial explanations remain popular, biogenetic explanations (such as the chemical imbalance theory) are becoming more prominent. </p><p>Interestingly, the 80 people Davis interviewed for his book predominantly relied on biogenetic explanations. Instead of doctors diagnosing patients, as you might expect, they increasingly serve to confirm what patients come in suspecting. Patients arrive at medical offices confident in their self-diagnoses. They believe a pill is the best course of treatment, largely because they saw an advertisement or listened to a friend. Doctors too often oblige without further curiosity as to the reasons for their distress. </p>
Image: Illustration Forest / Shutterstock<p>While medicalizing mental health softens the stigma of depression—if a disorder is inheritable, it was never really your fault—it also disempowers the patient. The team at McLean writes,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"More recent studies indicate that participants who are told that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality expect to have depression for a longer period, report more depressive symptoms, and feel they have less control over their negative emotions."</p><p>Davis points out the language used by direct-to-consumer advertising prevalent in America. Doctors, media, and advertising agencies converge around common messages, such as everyday blues is a "real medical condition," everyone is susceptible to clinical depression, and drugs correct underlying somatic conditions that you never consciously control. He continues,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Your inner life and evaluative stance are of marginal, if any, relevance; counseling or psychotherapy aimed at self-insight would serve little purpose." </p><p>The McLean team discovered a similar phenomenon: patients expect little from psychotherapy and a lot from pills. When depression is treated as the result of an internal and immutable essence instead of environmental conditions, behavioral changes are not expected to make much difference. Chemistry rules the popular imagination.</p>