Big Think Interview With Antonio Damasio
Dr. Antonio Damasio is a renowned neuroscientist who direct's the USC Brain and Creativity Institute. Before that he was the Head of Neurology at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. His research focuses on the neurobiology of mind and behavior, with an emphasis on emotion, decision-making, memory, communication, and creativity. His research has helped describe the neurological origins of emotions and has shown how emotions affect cognition and decision-making. He is the author of a number of books, including "Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain," which will be published in November, 2010. Dr. Damasio is also the 2010 winner of the Honda Prize, one of the most important international awards for scientific achievement.
Dr. Damasio is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.
Question: What is consciousness?
Antonio Damasio: If I use the word consciousness, in our lab, in our institute, what we mean is the special quality of mind, the special features that exist in the mind, that permit us to know, for example, that we, ourselves, exist, and that things exist around us.
And that is something more than just mind. You know, mind allows us to portray in different sensory modalities, visual, auditory, olfactory, you name it, what we are like and what the world is like. But this very, very important quality of subjectivity, this quality that allows us to take a distant view and say, “I am here, I exist, I have a life and there are things around me that refer to me.” That me-ness, M-E-hyphen, that is what really constitutes consciousness. In the heart of consciousness is subjectivity, this sense of having a self that observes one’s own organism and the world around that organism. That is really the heart of consciousness.
And it’s very interesting to think about the distinction with mind, which I just made in very general terms, but it can be made more profound when we think that there are many species, many creatures on earth that are very likely to have a mind, but are very unlikely to have a consciousness in the sense that you and I have. That is a self that is very robust, that has many, many levels of organization, from simple to complex, and that functions as a sort of witness to what is going on in our organisms. That kind of process is very interesting because I believe that it is made out of the same cloth of mind, but it is an add-on, it was something that was specialized to create what we call the self. And it exists for very special purposes and it has very special, and I think by and large good consequences, although not only good consequences.
Question: Do all people have the same experience of consciousness?
Antonio Damasio: Well, I think it’s possible to a certain extent to make those comparisons. The problem is the detail with which the comparison can be made. Of course, the first place to make such a comparison would be to ask for a testimony from different people and have people report on what they experience. Now, of course, if the report is going to be about the quality of sound that one and another have, it’s going to be pretty tough to just go on report, even the descriptions are very precise, you really can’t go very far.
Now, there are ways in which you can make that distinction objective to a certain degree. For example, by looking at responses that could be generated in the brain to exactly the same stimulus and there could be differences there. But there, we remove ourselves from the experience itself to a surrogate of the experience, which is whatever measure you take from the brain, be it the electroencephalogram or magnet encephalography or say functional magnetic resonance. So it’s pretty tough to make those comparisons. One thing that is for sure, though is that when you look at people that say, from the same culture, roughly the same age, and not very difference intelligence, and you make a lot of detailed questions about the experiences of say colors, situations, and so on, you’ll get very similar answers. So I think it’s reasonable to say that even thought, in all likelihood, we have slightly different experiences of reality, they are similar enough to us not to clash. In other words, I’m not, it’s very unlikely, in fact, let’s say impossible, for you to say the situation in which you and I are in right now, relative to the machinery that is capturing this. We’re seeing it the same way, we’re hearing the same way, we have the same conception of the situation. And so, for all purposes, we are operating with a very similar perception.
Question: Are some people more conscious than others?
Antonio Damasio: Not so much more conscious, you have different degrees of acuteness of the experience. And that has to do with the amount of concentration, amount of focus that you have on a particular object or event that you’re being conscious of. And that varies a lot. So, for example, you can be highly concentrated on a person, on a problem, and be so good at excluding all other material that that becomes not just the focus of your experience, but practically the sole content of your experience, everything else falling by the wayside.
And you can achieve that, by the way, you can achieve that by exercising that prerogative and I think that people who are great thinkers, in science or in art, people who are great performers, have to have that kind of capacity. Without that kind of capacity, it’s extremely difficult to manage a high level of performance because you’re going to get a lot of extraneous material chipping away at the finery of your thinking or the finery of your motor execution. So I think in that sense, yes, we can be more or less conscious when you create grades of focus on a subject that is flowing in our stream of consciousness.
Question: How do our brains construct coherent personal narrative out of our memories of experiences?
Antonio Damasio: You do it in very interesting ways. A first way is by taking the story as it happens. You know, our biographies happened one part at a time. There is a sequence of events in our lives and so there’s a temporal aspect to our experience that brings by itself, sense into the story. In other words, you were not walking before you were born and you were not doing X and Y before you did something else first. So there’s a sequencing of events that imposes a certain structure to the story.
Then there’s something that intervenes and is very important which has to do with value. Value in the true biological sense, which is that contrary to what many people seem to think, taking it at face value—sorry for the pun—we do not give the same amount of emotional significance to every event. So there are things in our lives that take up an enormous importance and that become very dominant effects in our biography. And that comes out of a variety of reasons, but fundamentally comes out of how that particular experience connects with your effective systems of response. So if something produces an undue amount of pleasure or undue amount of displeasure, it’s going to be judged differently and it’s going to be introduced in your narrative with a different size, with a different development. And so that is the next element to superimpose on the sequencing element. And in fact, that element is so powerful that very often it can trump the sequencing event, that the sequencing aspect. So something may have happened before, and yet this thing that happened just after may be so important that you don’t even know about the thing that happened before and when you tell your story to yourself, or to someone else, it’s going to be told not on the basis necessarily of the time course, but rather on the basis of how it was valued by you.
And that value, by the way, does not need to be conscious. You know, you’re not deciding, "Aha, this is very good, X-value." No, you’re assigning value naturally as life unfolds and that’s this very important element for the construction of one’s narrative. And the other thing that is very important is that narratives are not fixed. We change our narratives for ourselves and we change them not necessarily deliberately. In other words, some people do, some people will constantly reconstruct their biography for external purposes, it’s a very interesting political ploy, you know. But whether we want to do it because we want to have people to have a different idea of who we are or not, we do it naturally. So the way we construct our narrative is different from the way we constructed it a year ago. The difference is maybe very small or it may be huge.
And they’re constantly as a result of events that happen in your life. You’re not the same after, say, an incredible love affair that went very well or a love affair that went bad. Or something that happens to your health, or something that happened to somebody else’s health, that is close to you. Or something that happens professionally. All of those things sort of rearrange the way your story gets constructed.
Question: Does constructing these stories change our brains?
Antonio Damasio: Well, of course it happens, first of all, in the brain, and it's affecting the brain because it sort of changes the weights with which memories are recalled. So I know we had a chance of talking on another occasion about the architecture of convergence and divergence. All of that is constantly operating when you not only learn, but when you recall. But as you recall in a different light, the weights with which something is more probably going to be or not recalled on the next instance, are going to be changed. So you’re constantly changing the way, for instance, synapses are going to fire very easily or not so easily. There’s that effect that is very physical, very down there at the synaptic level, which really means microscopic cellular level, but also molecular level, because all of those structures are operating on an electrochemical basis and so the changes there are very important.
Question: What is happening in our brain when we feel an emotion?
Antonio Damasio: Feeling of an emotion is a process that is distinct from having the emotion in the first place. So it helps to understand what is an emotion, what is a feeling, we need to understand what is an emotion. And the emotion is the execution of a very complex program of actions. Some actions that are actually movements, like movement that you can do, change your face for example, in fear, or movements that are internal, that happen in your heart or in your gut, and movements that are actually not muscular movements, but rather, releases of molecules. Say, for example, in the endocrine system into the blood stream, but it’s movement and action in the broad sense of the term.
And an emotion consists of a very well orchestrated set of alterations in the body that has, as a general purpose, making life more survivable by taking care of a danger, of taking care of an opportunity, either/or, or something in between. And it’s something that is set in our genome and that we all have with a certain programmed nature that is modified by our experience so individually we have variations on the pattern. But in essence, your emotion of joy and mine are going to be extremely similar. We may express them physically slightly differently, and it’s of course graded depending on the circumstance, but the essence of the process is going to be the same, unless one of us is not quite well put together and is missing something, otherwise it’s going to be the same.
And it’s going to be the same across even other species. You know, there’s a, you know, we may smile and the dog may wag the tail, but in essence, we have a set program and those programs are similar across individuals in the species.
Then the feeling is actually a portrayal of what is going on in the organs when you are having an emotion. So it’s really the next thing that happens. If you have just an emotion, you would not necessarily feel it. To feel an emotion, you need to represent in the brain in structures that are actually different from the structures that lead to the emotion, what is going on in the organs when you’re having the emotion. So, you can define it very simply as the process of perceiving what is going on in the organs when you are in the throws of an emotion, and that is achieved by a collection of structures, some of which are in the brain stem, and some of which are in the cerebral cortex, namely the insular cortex, which I like to mention not because I think it’s the most important, it’s not. I actually don’t think it’s the number one structure controlling our feelings, but I like to mention because it’s something that people didn’t really know about and many years ago, which probably now are going close to 20 years ago, I thought that the insular would be an important platform for feelings, that’s where I started. And it was a hypothesis and it turns out that the hypothesis is perfectly correct. And 10 years ago, we had the first experiments that showed that it was indeed so, and since then, countless studies have shown that when you’re having feelings of an emotion or feelings of a variety of other things, the insular is active, but it doesn’t mean that it’s the only thing that is active and there are other structures that are very important as well.
Question: How does emotion affect the way we respond to the world?
Antonio Damasio: Well, you see, emotion operates, very often when you think about how you react to the world, you know, something is happening to you, you’re simply going along and you’re being confronted by different things, not necessarily very important or significance for your ultimate life, but you are constantly reacting to the world. You’re thinking about the world and you’re acting on the world. And emotions are engaged when the stakes outside of your organism are fairly high in positive or negative directions. And this, of course, comes from ancient times in biology when you were constantly being subject to potential threats and to potential opportunities. The threats were obvious, for example, predation, or inclement weather, or physical environments where you would be like setting a precipice, or a hole on the ground. The opportunities are also very easy to see, they would have fundamentally to do with food and with sex.
And so the emotions were placed there in evolution as incredibly smart devices that rather than having you think through the problem, would deliver a solution and make sure that you would act right. It’s in a way, a contribution to a sort of our auto pilots that we inherited through all these millions of years of evolution.
So if there is an opportunity, emotion is going to make sure that you, at some level, know that it’s there and that you’re going to have the tendency to act on it. And if there is a threat, you’re going to be alerted to it and even before you’re alerted to the threat as such, you’re going to be placed in circumstances that are likely to make you either freeze or run away from the danger. Okay? So this is a level of response to the world that is automated, it’s largely non-conscious, and I mean, non-conscious, then you take consciousness of it, because once it’s happening, once you start feeling what is happening and connecting the feeling to what you’re perceiving, then you realize, ah-ha, there’s the danger, or ah-ha, here’s the next lunch. And so there’s a level in which you have a way in which the entire process then is made conscious and enters your mind flow.
And even at this level, you can see that the influence on one’s behavior is astounding and it’s by and large extremely useful. It has, of course, its downsides, because you may be responding to things that you better not respond to, either or on the negative or positive side, that you should not take the bait. You should not, for example, fall for every opportunity and you should not allow yourself to be made angry, for example, or fearful, when there is no cause for it. But there is a way in which by and large the influence is very positive.
And then it, the experiences of emotion also have a way of modeling what you’re going to do next, because unlike, say, a squirrel, who is not going to think much about his or her experiences of emotion, we do. And we have, because we have feelings, because those feelings can actually stay in memory, in terms of the elaborations that we make about the feelings, for example, using language, then we have a possibility of using feelings of certain emotions for future planning, and that makes a huge difference. So, for a little animal that doesn’t have much mind, and no advance planning, it’s a way of keeping alive for animals like us, it’s a way of keeping alive sometimes, but an even better way of constructing a view of the world and making sure that that view is taken into consideration when we plan future events.
Question: How does the mind connect with the body, neurologically?
Antonio Damasio: We have a brain for a very interesting reason. We have a brain because with a brain we can run the economy of the body in a better way. Throughout evolution you have organisms that are bodies without brains—and they do a pretty good job of running their economy and running their life. However, with a brain, you have a better chance of running that life better and why do you do it better? Well, you do it better because with neural-signaling, you have the possibility of making representations, which are rather abstract, of what you can do in certain situations. And then when you come to the point of having a mind, you enter something which is completely new in brain evolution, which is the possibility of creating maps, first of your own organism, and then of the outside world.
And so the idea of mind and body comes from that very peculiar relationship. Mind is not something disembodied, it’s something that is, in total, essential, intrinsic ways, embodied. There would not be a mind if you did not have in the brain the possibility of constructing maps of our own organism. And of course, those maps exist for a very simple reason, you need the maps in order to portray the structure of the body, portray the state of the body, so that the brain can construct a response that is adequate to the structure and state and generate some kind of corrective action.
Intrinsically, no mystery here, you need to deliver to the brain images of the body and the brain needs to use those images in order to make corrections. So as a result of this, there’s a very tight bond between body and brain, and that tight bond occurs at a number of structures in the brain and what I am defending these days and is very, very intrinsic to my thinking now, is the kind of bond that you generate at the level of the brain stem, which have been by and large ignored, certainly ignored a good part of cognitive neuroscience. So a lot of the work that has dealt with, say the mind/body problem, has dealt with it as if the mind were strictly something that happens in the cerebral cortex, and the rest is stuff that happens in the brain stem, not being very important, you know, sort of animal stuff. And I think this is completely wrong. I think that where the most seminal contributions come from is from the brainstem, which is indeed very old and very animal because we basically have a got a brainstem that is designed in the model of reptiles. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important, on the contrary. It’s very, very important. But that’s where it starts.
Now, how you actually end up mapping the outside world is actually via mapping of the body. So, you know, one tends to think, for example, about our eyes or our ears as if they are just outposts of the brain that are picking up on signals from the outer world. Well, it’s not quite the case. There are, in fact, parts of the body just like the rest and they are inserted in the body at critical junctures and so the best when, for example, when I’m looking at a reflection of you, in the camera, and I could, of course, look around and see my surroundings and what is being mapped visually in my cortices First in my retina, then in my cortices, is not just a result of what is in the retina or what is in primary visual cortex, but also a result of lots of things that my body would be doing. For example, moving my head or moving my eyes or having the very complex system of focusing of the image so that I really get it in the retina in the appropriate place. All of these things are actions, they are motor actions and they are being done with the body.
So, what is happening is that the body itself is being the border and the translation service that will allow the outside world to come into the brain. So we do not get the outside world coming into our brain, which really means coming into our mind directly, there’s no such thing. The outside world comes into your mind via your body. The body is constantly being the broker, it’s in between. And so there’s this beautiful way in which the brain through its mind operation creates maps of its own organism, some of which are so complex they will actually be mapping the outside world that is peripheral to that organism.
Question: How much can we actually control the way we perceive things?
Antonio Damasio: Well, we have a variety of controls, of course, the main mode of control has to do with our degree of knowledge and our understanding of the world. As you change how you, what you know about the world, you change how you’re going to control your perception, for example. And you also learn about what you want to pay attention to and what you don’t, so that those are very important, very important aspects and you can create techniques that sort of—technique is probably a little bit too much—but you create strategies that allow you to filter things that you don’t want. For example, right now, in order to pay attention to what you’re asking me and to pay attention to what is going on in my mind, I’m trying to filter out things that are happening around me that have to do with the lights, that have to do with the technicians and so on. And that’s part of the control.
And then there’s a level of control that I would, that I like to describe with the word "deliberation," and which has to do with something that you don’t do online, you do actually offline, when you, rather than perceiving the outside world, you sort of step into yourself, into your mind-space and you imagine what is, I mean, you re-imagine what is happening, you consider a problem, you analyze how the problem can be solved, you think about options and so on. Everything that we normally describe as higher-level reasoning, decision making, and creativity. You know, these are processes that cannot be done online, they are done offline, but of course, have an enormous influence on how the brain is going to work.
Now, to have an influence directly on how the brain is firing neurons right now, that’s a very different story, of course, there are ways of influencing it with states of altered perception, some that are under your control, like say, different kinds of meditation and some that are under the control of say, medications, drugs, whatever. But that’s really about it. So in other words, the control is considerable when you think about, say, long-term goals, the way you react to the world, you can construct guidelines for how you would desire to operate, how you think it’s ideal and try to institute that. And then you have ways in which are sort of probably less effective and which are just controlled, what is happening on the moment, like trying to curb excessive emotional reaction or something of this sort.
Question: How does the brain achieve coordination of the body's functions?
Antonio Damasio: I don’t know if I like the word "coordination," to deal with it. I think that... For example, one of the things that the brain needs to do is regulate a variety of aspects of our metabolism. So, for example, it’s absolutely essential that the PH of our internal milieu be maintained, in the very tight borders above which and below which we cannot operate, we simply die. There are certain levels of certain molecules that have to be maintained tightly within certain values and you have sensors in structures, for example, like they hypothalamus, that are constantly measuring the level and if the level that is currently occurring in your internal milieu is getting dangerously close to the limit, then the brain immediately generates a response that is going to be corrective.
Take, for example, what happens if the level of water is diminishing, because, for example, you took a meal that is very salty. You will, very rapidly, develop a thing called thirst. Now, thirst is a very conscious of the fact that there are sensors going like crazy saying, “Water too low! Water too low! Water too low, make a correction.” And then you go and drink. And of course, in, go back to the squirrel, the squirrel is not going to have very conscious notion of thirst, "I need water," let alone expressing it in words. The squirrel is going to have that feeling of thirst and is going to make the correction by starting to search for water. Even if the squirrel doesn’t do it deliberately, he’s not thinking: "Now, I’m going to need to look for a river or a lake." That’s not likely to happen—although I’ve never been inside a squirrel’s mind. But that is there that there’s the detection of the wrong set point and the shooting off of an order to generate a response. And the response is going to be in the form of a yearning for water. And in our case, not only do we feel it, but then we start translating all of that in very complex concepts and words and we will, for example, if you’re in the middle of a street and you start thinking, “Where am I going to get water? Am I going to go into a restaurant, is there a water fountain?” or whatever.
So that’s a very complex way of dealing with that, but basically at the core, the responses are being operated. You used the word "coordinate," but I don’t think the word coordinate is right, it’s really a way of creating a response for what is a detected imbalance. It’s a detected imbalance, by the way, of a function that is called homeostasis. So, you need to maintain homeostasis, that’s critical and it operates exactly the same way for a signal cell or a multi-cellular organism like we are.
Recorded on August 10, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman
A conversation with the behavioral neurobiologist.
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Opponents of 19th-century American imperialism were not above body-shaming the personification of the U.S. government.
- In the years before 1900, the United States was experiencing a spectacular spurt of growth.
- Not everyone approved: many feared continued expansionism would lead to American imperialism.
- To illustrate the threat, Uncle Sam was depicted as dangerously or comically fat.
Detail from "Charge of the 24th and 25th Colored Infantry, July 2nd 1898", depicting the Battle of San Juan Hill – a turning point in the Spanish-American War. Credit: Kurz and Allison / Public domain
The past is a different country. And not just in the poetic sense. In the early 19th century, the United States was much smaller than it is today. But by the end of that century, the U.S. had consolidated into an empire both in the continental sense as well as the colonial one: not only did it stretch across the entirety of North America, from sea to shining sea, it also had acquired significant amounts of territory and influence beyond those shores.
America's imperial girth and radiance may seem like faits accomplis today, but they were vehemently contested by the domestic press of the time. At the very tail of the century, this opposition led to a curious cartographic phenomenon which, despite its anti-imperialist origins, we today recognize as a decidedly non-progressive practice: the fat-shaming of Uncle Sam.
Uncle Sam is the personification of the United States (the country and, often specifically, its government), with which he shares his initials. His exact origins are unknown, although an apocryphal reference is often made to Samuel Wilson, a meat packer from Troy, NY and supplier of American troops during the War of 1812. Authenticity concerns aside, ever since 1989, the U.S. has had an annual Uncle Sam Day on September 13th, Wilson's birthday.
However, Uncle Sam is also the continuation of Brother Jonathan, who personified the typical New England Yankee and has his origins in the 17th-century English Civil War (where the term was used by the Royalists to mock the Puritans). Sam certainly borrowed Jonathan's striped pants, stove-pipe hat, and lanky figure. The thinness and old-fashioned appearance of both Jonathan and Sam (who were interchangeable by the mid-19th century) were meant to symbolize a kind of restless thriftiness, a supposedly national trait of the Yankee — and by extension, the American nation.
A lightning rod for criticism
Around the time of the Civil War, Sam had largely supplanted Jonathan as a national figure. As a sort of shorthand of the U.S., Uncle Sam was a favorite of cartoonists in the 19th and 20th centuries. (He seems to have gone a bit out of fashion in the 21st.) Especially during the World Wars, he was used as a symbol of national resilience and an important ingredient of patriotic propaganda. Inversely, he was also easily adopted as a lightning rod for criticism of the U.S. and its international policies.
In various cartoons of the 19th century's last decade, Uncle Sam — recognizable by his goatee and tricolored clothes — is depicted as increasingly fat and mocked for it. His embonpoint is understood to be a symbol of geopolitical gluttony, making him — that is, the United States itself — appear both avaricious and ridiculous on the world stage. This was the build-up toward the Spanish-American war of 1898, from which the U.S. would emerge victorious and in possession of much of Spain's remaining overseas empire, consisting of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and other smaller island territories.
This can be seen as America's Julius Caesar moment — when it, like Rome before it, changed from a republic into an empire. It was certainly recognized (and feared) as such in those days.
Trying to swallow Cuba whole
A Victor Gillam cartoon for Judge, this front-page illustration clearly shows Uncle Sam's voracious ambition toward Cuba. Credit: Cornell University Library / Public domain
On August 10, 1895, the satirical magazine Judge published a cartoon by Victor Gillam on its front page that showed a modified map of North America, enlisting the continent's geography to make a shockingly visceral, anti-imperialist point.
Cuba is shown as a small fish, attempting to swim away from the maw of Uncle Sam, who coincides with North America itself. Mexico is his lower jaw, Central America his goatee, Florida his nose, Washington, DC his all-seeing eye, and Canada his hat.
The map is entitled The Trouble in Cuba. The trouble seems to be that Cuba refuses to be swallowed by Uncle Sam, who says, "I've had my eye on that morsel for a long time; guess I'll have to take it in!"
An expansionist menu
"You're too late", says Uncle Sam: "I've eaten."Credit: National Archives / Public domain
In this cartoon, Uncle Sam, identified with President McKinley, is presented as a glutton and his detractors as too slow to stop him. In 1898, the United States had won the Spanish-American War, laying claim to Puerto Rico and the Philippines among other spoils of the now defunct Spanish empire. In the same year, the U.S. had also acquired Hawaii as a territory.
Many in Congress worried that McKinley's policy of continued expansion would lead to imperialism. Bursting through the door to prevent Uncle Sam from gobbling up a load of overseas territories are Representative William Jennings Bryan and Senator George Frisbie Hoar. They are too late; the plates are empty. On the ground is an Expansion Menu, listing what just has been devoured: Hawaiian Soup, Portorican Rice (?), Philippine Pudding.
Cracks in the pond
Skating on thin ice? U.S. expansionism reimagined as a winter sport.Credit: Library of Congress / Public domain
This centerfold cartoon from the New York Herald of November 26, 1898 shows the comically rotund figures of Uncle Sam and President McKinley, skating across a wintery landscape on a body of water labelled Expansion Pond. A rather joyless figure in a deerstalker hat, perhaps newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer, known for his anti-expansionist stance, does not want to join in the fun. "I will not skate on your pond," he avers.
Big, bigger, best?
A cartoon from 1899, from the satirical magazine Judge, depicting the growth (and growth) of the United States.Credit: Bill of Rights Institute / Public domain
In 1899, Judge published another cartoon by Victor Gillam, entitled A Lesson for Anti-Expansionists. Showing the growth of Uncle Sam over the various stages of his life, that lesson is how the U.S. "has been an expansionist first, last, and all the time."
- On the left, the U.S. starts out as an infant (1783, 13 states).
- The second figure is a strapping young lad confidently leaning on a frontiersman's axe (1803, Louisiana Purchase).
- The third figure is a stern-looking, musket-holding soldier (1819, Florida ceded by Spain).
- The fourth figure is a supremely confident-looking gentleman, newly goateed and top-hatted (1861, having recently annexed Texas).
- Fifth is an older gentleman, slightly roguish and rotund (1898, annexed Hawaii).
- In just one year, Uncle Sam has gone from merely full-figured to morbidly obese but with a confident smirk on his face and a ship under his arm, as a symbol of the naval prowess that earned him various colonies (Cuba, Philippines, Porto Rico [sic] in 1899).
The final figure is pondering the many hands outstretched toward him, labelled as Russia, China, Germany, England, and other world powers. "And now all the nations are anxious to be on friendly terms with Uncle Sam," the caption reads. Unlike Gillam's earlier cartoon, this one can be construed as ambiguous: is this a critique of expansionism or an acknowledgement of the influence that expansion has brought with it?
Expand and explode
Gillam may have been inspired by a cartoon published earlier that year in Life magazine, which depicts a similarly inflating Uncle Sam, but with a more dramatic finale.
- Uncle Sam starts out as his full-grown, slim-figured self in 1776.
- The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 seems to subtract rather than to add to his joy.
- The annexations of Alaska and Texas only add to his discomfort.
- Discomfort turns to distemper in 1898, with the takeover of the defunct Spanish empire in the Pacific and Caribbean.
- Growing ever bigger and more agitated over the course of these additions, can it be far off before Uncle Sam simply explodes?
Intervention at the tailor shop
Cartoon by John S. Pughe, published in Puck on September 5, 1900, titled "Declined with Thanks."Credit: Keppler & Swartzmann / Public domain
This cartoon from 1900 shows then-President William McKinley as a tailor, sizing up an enormous Uncle Sam. The striped pants list Sam's recent acquisitions, from Louisiana and California to Hawaii and Porto Rico.
McKinley is getting ready to cut Uncle Sam a new suit from cloth labelled "enlightened foreign policy - rational expansion." But three stern-looking gentlemen have entered McKinley's tailor shop and are keen for another course of action. They want to administer a medicine called "anti-expansionist policy."
The most prominent of the three would have been recognized by contemporaries as publishing magnate Joseph Pulitzer, campaigner against imperial expansion. He says, "Here, take a dose of this anti-fat and get thin again!" To which Uncle Sam replies, "No, Sonny! I never did take any of that stuff, and I'm too old to begin!"
And… thin again
John Bull and Uncle Sam in the year 1900, a study in contrasts. Credit: American Truth Society / Public domain
Uncle Sam and other national personifications have several advantages over real people — one of those is that they can change body type to fit the situation.
Despite years of cartoons showing Uncle Sam as getting too big for his britches, in this illustration from 1900 he reverts to type, becoming rail-thin again. The reason: to contrast with that other national archetype, John Bull, representing the British Empire, which was then at its height. How do you personify a globe-spanning empire? By fattening up the figure in question.
Without knowing anything about the content of The Fable of John Bull and Uncle Sam, it is safe to say, judging from the stance of both figures alone, that it will show the former as unworthy of his leading role in the world with the latter more capable and willing to assume that role.
Strange Maps #1097
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Information may not seem like something physical, yet it has become a central concern for physicists. A wonderful new book explores the importance of the "dataome" for the physical, biological, and human worlds.
- The most important current topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all — information, which is central to thermodynamics and perhaps the universe itself.
- The "dataome" is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls.
- The dataome is vast and growing everyday, sucking up an ever increasing share of the energy humans produce.
Physics is a field that is supposed to study real stuff. By real, I mean things like matter and energy. Matter is, of course, the kind of stuff you can hold in your hand. Energy may seem a little more abstract, but its reality is pretty apparent, appearing in the form of motion or gravity or electromagnetic fields.
What has become apparent recently, however, is the importance to physics of something that seems somewhat less real: information. From black holes to quantum mechanics to understanding the physics of life, information has risen to become a principal concern of many physicists in many domains. This new centrality of information is why you really need to read astrophysicist Caleb Scharf's new book The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithms.
Scharf is currently the director of the Astrobiology Program at Columbia University. He is also the author of four other books as well as a regular contributor to Scientific American.
(Full disclosure: Scharf and I have been collaborators on a scientific project involving the Fermi Paradox, so I was a big fan before I read this new book. Of course, the reason why I collaborated with him is because I really like the way he thinks, and his creativity in tackling tough problems is on full display in The Ascent of Information.)
What is the dataome?
In his new book, Scharf is seeking a deeper understanding of what he calls the "dataome." This is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls. The book opens with a compelling exploration of how Shakespeare's works, which began as scribbles on a page, have gone on to have lives of their own in the dataome. Through reprintings in different languages, recordings of performances, movie adaptations, comic books, and so on, Shakespeare's works are now a permanent part of the vast swirling ensemble of information that constitutes the human dataome.
I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
But the dataome does not just live in our heads. Scharf takes us on a proper physicist's journey through the dataome, showing us how information can never be divorced from energy. Your brain needs the chemical energy from food you ate this morning to read, process, and interpret these words. One of the most engaging parts of the book is when Scharf details just how much energy and real physical space our data-hungry world consumes as it adds to the dataome. For example, the Hohhot Data Center in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China is made of vast "farms" of data processing servers covering 245 acres of real estate. A single application like Bitcoin, Scharf tells us, consumes 7.7 gigawatts per year, equivalent to the output of half a dozen nuclear reactors!
Information is everywhere
But the dataome is not just about energy. Entropy is central to the story as well. Scharf takes the reader through a beautifully crafted discussion of information and the science of thermodynamics. This is where the links between energy, entropy, the limits of useful work, and probability all become profoundly connected to the definition of information.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that you cannot use all of a given amount of energy to do useful work. Some of that energy must be wasted by getting turned into heat. Entropy is the physicist's way of measuring that waste (which can also be thought of as disorder). Scharf takes the reader through the basic relations of thermodynamics and then shows how entropy became intimately linked with information. It was Claude Shannon's brilliant work in the 1940s that showed how information — bits — could be defined for communication and computation as an entropy associated with the redundancy of strings of symbols. That was the link tying the physical world of physics explicitly to the informational and computational world of the dataome.
The best parts of the book are where Scharf unpacks how information makes its appearance in biology. From the data storage and processing that occurs with every strand of DNA, to the tangled pathways that define evolutionary dynamics, Scharf demonstrates how life is what happens to physics and chemistry when information matters. I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
The physics of information
There are a lot of popular physics books out there about black holes and exoplanets and other cool stuff. But right now, I feel like the most important topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all. Information is a relatively new addition to the physics bestiary, making it even more compelling. If you are looking for a good introduction to how that is so, The Ascent of Information is a good place to start.
Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla
- For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
- The scans reveal an intestinal structure that looks awfully familiar — it looks like a Tesla valve.
- The structure may allow sharks to better survive long breaks between feasts.
Considering how much sharks are feared by humans, it is a bit of a surprise that scientists don't know much about the predators. For example, until recently, sharks were thought to be solitary creatures searching the seas for food on their own. Now it appears that some sharks are quite social.
Another mystery is how these prehistoric swimming and eating machines digest food. Although scientists have made 2D sketches of captured sharks' digestive systems based on dissections, there is a limit to what can be learned in this way. Professor Adam Summers at University of Washington's Friday Harbor Labs says:
"Intestines are so complex, with so many overlapping layers, that dissection destroys the context and connectivity of the tissue. It would be like trying to understand what was reported in a newspaper by taking scissors to a rolled-up copy. The story just won't hang together."
Summers is co-author of a new study that has produced the first 3D scans of a shark's intestines, which turns out to have a strange, corkscrew structure. What's even more bizarre is that it resembles the amazing one-way valve designed by inventor Nikola Tesla in 1920. The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
What a 3D model reveals
Video: Pacific spiny dogfish intestine youtu.be
According to the study's lead author Samantha Leigh, "It's high time that some modern technology was used to look at these really amazing spiral intestines of sharks. We developed a new method to digitally scan these tissues and now can look at the soft tissues in such great detail without having to slice into them."
"CT scanning is one of the only ways to understand the shape of shark intestines in three dimensions," adds Summers. The researchers scanned the intestines of nearly three dozen different shark species.
It is believed that sharks go for extended periods — days or even weeks — between big meals. The scans reveal that food passes slowly through the intestine, affording sharks' digestive system the time to fully extract its nutrient value. The researchers hypothesize that such a slow digestive process may also require less energy.
It could be that this slow digestion is more susceptible to back flow given that the momentum of digested food through the tract must be minimal. Perhaps that is why sharks evolved something so similar to a Tesla valve.
What is Tesla's valve doing there?
Above, a Tesla valve. Below, a shark intestine.Credit: Samantha Leigh / California State University, Domi
Tesla's "valvular conduit," or what the world now calls a "Tesla valve," is a one-way valve with no moving parts. Its brilliance is based in fluid dynamics and only now coming to be fully appreciated. Essentially, a series of teardrop-shaped loops arranged along the length of the valve allow water to flow easily in one direction but not in the other. Modern tests reveal that at low flow rates, water can travel through the valve either way, but at high flow rates, the design kicks in. According to mathematician Leif Ristroph:
"Crucially, this turn-on comes with the generation of turbulent flows in the reverse direction, which 'plug' the pipe with vortices and disrupting currents. Moreover, the turbulence appears at far lower flow rates than have ever previously been observed for pipes of more standard shapes — up to 20 times lower speed than conventional turbulence in a cylindrical pipe or tube. This shows the power it has to control flows, which could be used in many applications."
A deeper dive
Summers suggests the scans are just the beginning. "The vast majority of shark species, and the majority of their physiology, are completely unknown," says Summers, adding that "every single natural history observation, internal visualization, and anatomical investigation shows us things we could not have guessed at."
To this end, the researchers plan to use 3D printing to produce models through which they can observe the behavior of different substances passing through them — after all, sharks typically eat fish, invertebrates, mammals, and seagrass. They also plan to explore with engineers ways in which the shark intestine design could be used industrially, perhaps for the treatment of wastewater or for filtering microplastics.
It could fairly be said, though, that Nikola Tesla was 100 years ahead of them.
A new study tested to what extent dogs can sense human deception.
Is humanity's best friend catching on to our shenanigans? Researchers at the University of Vienna discovered that dogs can in certain cases know when people are lying.
The scientists carried out a study with hundreds of dogs to determine to what extent dogs could spot deception. The team's new paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, outlined experiments that tested whether dogs, like humans, have some inner sense of how to assess truthfulness.
As the researchers wrote in their paper, "Among non-primates, dogs (Canis familiaris) constitute a particularly interesting case, as their social environment has been shared with humans for at least 14,000 years. For this reason, dogs have been considered as a model species for the comparative investigation of socio-cognitive abilities." The investigation focused specifically on understanding if dogs were "sensitive to some mental or psychological states of humans."
The experiments involved 260 dogs, which were made to listen to advice from a human "communicator" whom they did not know. The human told them which one of two bowls had a treat hidden inside by touching it and saying, "Look, this is very good!" If the dogs took the person's advice, they would get the treat.
Once they established the trust of the dogs, the researchers then complicated the experience by letting dogs watch another human that they did not know transfer the treat from one bowl to another. In some cases, the original communicator would also be present to watch but not always.
The findings revealed that half of the dogs did not follow the advice of the communicator if that person was not present when the food was switched to a different bowl. The dogs had a sense that this human could not have known the true location of the treat. Furthermore, two-thirds of the dogs ignored the human's suggestion if she did see the food switch but pointed to the wrong bowl. The dogs figured out the human was lying to them.
Photos of experiments showing the dog, human communicator, and person hiding the treat. Credit: Lucrezia Lonardo et al / Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"We thought dogs would behave like children under age five and apes, but now we speculate that perhaps dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful," co-author Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna told New Scientist. "Maybe they think, 'This person has the same knowledge as me, and is nevertheless giving me the wrong [information].' It's possible they could see that as intentionally misleading, which is lying."
This is not the first time such experiments have been carried out. Previously, children under age five, macaques, and chimps were tested in a similar way. It turned out that children and other animals were more likely than dogs to listen to the advice of the liars. Notably, among the dogs, terriers were found to be more like children and apes, more eagerly following false suggestions.