Your Brain Is like This Mardi Gras Party

I was just thinking, which, it turns out, the brain does not like to do. At least not the purposeful, effortful, stay-focused kind. It’s work to think, to pay attention. 

Your Brain Is like This Mardi Gras Party

I was just thinking, which, it turns out, the brain does not like to do. At least not the purposeful, effortful, stay-focused kind. It’s work to think, to pay attention. You literally do pay, in calories, for concentrating, and the brain is a calorie hog, using way more per pound than any other part of the body. And since we evolved back when there weren’t 7/11s and McDonald’s everywhere and the next load of calories was no sure thing, that three pounds of potential cognitive firepower in our skulls has developed ways to mostly keep things on relatively lazy subconscious autopilot and leave the serious focused paying attention for when it’s really needed.

I was thinking about this in the context of Mardi Gras, and Lent, and how nearly every faith tradition prescribes some version of the same thing; sacrificing, giving something up, doing the hard work of going without…as a way of demonstrating strength of character. On Fat Tuesday we overindulge, because for the next 40 days we’re not supposed to, as a way of being strong (i.e. good), of demonstrating mastery over our material selves…of forcing ourselves to get closer to the spiritual beings that, at our core, is who we really are. Or at least that’s what Christians and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and most other belief traditions prescribe in one way or another. Going without forces us to pay attention to the more meaningful side of our lives.

And it occurred to me that what Mardi Gras is to materialist discipline, multitasking is to paying cognitive attention….a way out of doing the work required. As it is easier to overeat and overdrink and over indulge our physical pleasures than to do the work of going without, it is also easier to check your email whenever a message comes in, or your Twitter or Facebook feed every five minutes, or text a friend, or play some online game, than to stay focused on that one task or person you’re paying attention to at the moment.

Is that article you’re reading getting kind of long? Just bookmark it and click on to something else…save the work of paying attention for later. Got to a tough spot in that essay you’re writing or project you're working on, that needs a little pondering to figure out where to go next? Just hit save and check out your Tweet stream. Is the conversation among your friends losing interest? Whip out your smart phone and check…whatever. (How many times have you seen that happen? Or done it!?) Why pay attention, if you have an easier way out?

It may well be that we multitask not because the world has become so busy and demands it of us, but because the technologically advanced world offers us an unprecedented universe of possibilities to get out of having to pay attention to the task at hand. We multitask not because we have to but because we CAN, literally seduced by how the brain intrinsically operates, always looking to avoid the heavy lifting/calorically expensive work of focused purposeful thinking. We overeat, many believe, in large part because food is so readily available, and we have evolved to want the calories, and that imperative easily overpowers the work it takes to discipline our diets. We may well be overmultitasking for similiar reasons. The distractions are so readily available, and the brain has evolved to save the calories and get to lazy autopilot whenever it can, and that imperative easily overpowers the work it takes to discipline our focus.

This has ominous implications, of course (which are being researched by a wide range of scholars). To the extent this is true, our unprecedented world of easy distractions does not bode well for the things we need to pay attention to if we want to do them well. Like, say, making thoughtful decisions. Or thinking critically for ourselves instead of just going along with the crowd. Or being decent friends and family members by paying attention to other people’s feelings and ideas and lives. Or even just learning. There is already research suggesting that whatever we read online we remember less, apparently because the brain knows it  can just go back and look it up later so why spend the calories paying attention to it and remembering it now.

This doesn’t bode well for the human ability to explore ideas in any richness or depth. In fact, it doesn’t bode well for the possibility that most of those who started this piece are even still here. Google Analytics says the average duration a reader spends on this blog is :47 seconds. Which means the average reader made it roughly to my mention of Fat Tuesday back in the second paragraph. (Granted, a majority of ‘visitors’ are just bots, and they have REALLY short attention spans, dragging the average down.) Congratulations on your mental focus, and thanks for your interest, if you’re still here!   

There is a WONDERFUL piece on short attention spans by Farhad Monjoo in Slate, You Won’t Finish This Article. Go read it. (When you have the time.) But this issue is about more than the human attention span, which may be shrinking but has always been short. As I said, the brain is trying to slip into calorie-saving autopilot whenever it safely can. More broadly this about how carefully we think, and the broad implications for us as individuals, and for society, when we don’t. The more we’re on autopilot and not paying attention, the less we learn, the less we connect, the less careful and thoughtful our choices and behaviors.

It’s like living in a world of constant Mardi Gras, happily pigging out and partying and saving the work of self-discipline for later. Not great for our physical health. We ought to worry what the constant cognitive Mardi Gras of our über connected/multitasking existence is doing to our social and intellectual health, to our decision making, and even literally to our safety. I’m sure serious researchers are looking into this. So sure, in fact, that…it’s time to check the Tweet stream.


A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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