Big Think Interview With Penn Jillette
Penn Jillette is a cultural phenomenon as a solo personality and as half of the world-famous Emmy Award-winning magic duo Penn & Teller. In the mid-'80s, Penn & Teller went from playing the tiki lounges at various Ramada Inns to being one of the most popular, big-budget, death-defying, nightclub acts in the country. After killing it in movies and SNL appearances, the duo went on to have their own Showtime series where they attempted to debunk everything from male enhancement pills to UFO sightings. Penn has independently produced the stand up comedy tribute film, The Aristocrats, and hosts a successful podcast with Ace Broadcasting, Penn's Sunday School. Penn & Teller: Fool Us, a current CW series, began its first season in London and now it has just begun its seventh, under the dazzling lights of Las Vegas.
Penn Jillette: Business partners, I mean, the most important thing about our partnership is it's not based on cuddly love and affection. I mean, over 35 years, I mean, by many definitions he has to be my best friend. I mean, he's the person I talk to when my mom and dad died. He was there when my, you know, right after my children were born. He's all of those things but we're much more like two guys who own a dry cleaning business, you know, many of your show business partnerships start in love.
I mean, Lennon and McCartney had a love affair pretty clearly. Martin and Lewis had a love affair, Jagger and Richards had a love affair. And when that goes south, when all of a sudden love fades away, it becomes a huge explosion. I mean, Lennon and McCartney hated each other. And with working with Teller there was no real attraction. We didn't want to spend all our time together. We spent all our time together but we weren't dying to do that. What we wanted to do was do a show together and we had much more respect than affection.
And I think there's a lot to be learned from how much stronger respect is than affection. For one, we understand respect and we don't understand affection. So it's a little easier to get your mind around and be able to manipulate. And so when Teller and I don't like each other, when we're not getting along, it doesn't change much of anything. You know, it's like when you work at the 7-11, you don't quite get along with the guy who's cleaning the Slurpee machine that day. You don't care that much, your life goes on.
So he's become my best friend but in a very circuitous route through respect and through work.
Question: What do you and Teller each contribute to the partnership?
Penn Jillette: I think if you were to picture what we do you'd probably be pretty right. I tend to have the responsibility for what I say. There are lines here and there that are Teller's—there are moments in the shape of the plot of things that are Teller's—but for the most part I'm in charge of what I say. And for the most part Teller is in charge of the magic. Now there are great lines in the show that came from Teller and there are slightly clever magic moments that come from me and we do work together on things.
But those are really the responsibilities. If you wanted to break it down in really traditional terms I think you would see Teller is kind of the director... kind of directs the show and I don't care very much about staging, lights, how things look. In my mind I'm always doing a radio show.
Question: Describe the first magic trick you ever performed.
Penn Jillette: I was interested when I was very young in card magic... but I was interested in card magic, the kind that's like juggling. I mean, there are kind of a couple different—many, many but I'm breaking it down to two different styles of magic. There are people that are very concerned with "How do you fool people, what are they thinking, how do you get them to think something else?" Very important to Teller.
Then there's the part of magic that has to do with manipulation and when I was a child I cared very much about the manipulation stuff, which is the juggling side of magic. I mean, I wanted to learn a perfect shuffle so you could shuffle the cards 52 times and end up with the same order you started in. You know, that's what I was interested in. I was interested in manipulating the cards and holding things in my hands that looked hard. I was not very concerned with fooling people.
I was more concerned with the flourishes and the technique which is why I didn't spend much time in magic but moved right onto juggling, which is very much inline with my heart. I mean, juggling is very, very straightforward; very, very black and white; you're manipulating objects, not people. And that's always appealed to me.
Question: What is the future of magic?
Penn Jillette: Magic has so few people working in it that it moves very, very slowly. I would say that you don't get much, you know, you've got this huge burst of change in magic with Houdini, who did not event but popularized the idea of magician as a spokesman for skepticism. We've learned to lie to people now we'll teach you how there's no lying to you. That wasn't started with Houdini, but Houdini certainly made the most coin off of it.
Then you go on and you've got this... you've got Doug Henning bringing, you know, magicians with kind of a hippie sensibility, which doesn't mean much. You've got a bunch of other magicians doing that kind of torturing women in front of mylar to, you know, bad Motown music, in front of a mylar curtain. You know, I mean, that kind of stuff. Then you have the biggest break through done in our lifetime was David Blaine's "Street Magic," where his idea was to do really simple tricks but to concentrate... to turn the camera around on the people watching instead of the people doing.
So to make the audience watch the audience, which that first special "Street Magic," is the best TV magic special ever done and really, really does break new ground. Then a lot of people jump in and start doing it and turn it in to pure suck. I mean, that whole form is... sucks now. I mean, no one is doing good stuff but when David Blaine first did it, before he did all the "I'm really no kidding, honestly I'm not going to eat, swear to God I'm not eating, no really I'm not eating, no it's not a trick I'm really not eating." I don't know what that is.
But that first street magic thing was just brilliant. I don't think the future of... I think the future of magic... you don't want to forget Siegfried and Roy who invented the idea of doing an animal act while doing a magic act and invented the idea of full Vegas show. I mean, all of those are big break through but you don't get the kind of... you don't get the number of just the raw number of people like you have in music. When you have the number of people you have in music you can have, you know, instantly Hendrix and James Brown turn into Prince, you know, OK Go was able to pop up out of the lack of irony that comes in out of kind of punk but also emo. You don't have hundreds and hundreds of thousands, millions of people working in it. In magic you're talking about thousands of people. So being several orders of magnitude down you just don't get that kind of evolution.
So in 20 years I imagine magic will be damn similar to how it is now. Also, magic doesn't tend to work in the cutting edge of technology. I mean, you've got that... I believe he's Japanese, forgive me if he's not. That Japanese kid doing the stuff out of the iPad where he's pulling stuff out. And that's just film-to-life stuff.
That was stuff that was done a hundred years ago in France. There's no new technology there. The screen is different but the ideas are not new and most shows are shows certainly... but David Copperfield, Chris Angel, David Blaine, Lance Burton, none of us are using really what you call cutting edge technology. And the problem... the reason you can't is that people are more aware of what's possible with cutting edge technology than they are with threads and a line.
Question: Does magic have to be performed live?
Penn Jillette: There are performers who have built their whole career doing magic on TV and can't really perform live at all—don't really have jobs and skills. And people watch those shows and seem to enjoy them. I don't think it's magic. I don't think it's valid and not because they're doing camera tricks which they are, and not because they're using plants, which they are. And not because they're using editing tricks, which they are. The problem is simply that what you've seen on that screen, what you're competing with... I mean, once you've shown "Avatar" on video what does sleight of hand mean? It means nothing.
And you can't keep telling people, "We're not cheating. No honest, we really mean this." What does that matter when your job is to lie? The most amazing trick I could ever do for you is to be from one place to another place instantly and that's done about three times a minute on every TV show, even the news. So I don't think you can do that. Whereas in the theater Teller and I don't have to spend a moment saying: "We're not using camera tricks." Because what we're doing there in that room is following the rules of physics and the rules of time that you've dealt with since birth.
And that makes it bypass a certain kind of intellect that makes it fascinating to me. That's what I think, but there are many people that watch Chris Angel and, go: "Ooh, that's a magic trick." It's not to me but they are, "Ooh it is." So they're not wrong they just, you know, have a different perception of what video does and I do. I mean, there are people that will watch things on Chris's show that to me are crystal clear how they're being done, and they seem to fool people. I mean, if you want a very simple example: if you go out on the street with your camera and you take a deck of cards and you let the person open the cards, shuffle them, clean deck, nothing, reach in, pick out a card, peek at it, put it down, and you say, "Is that the seven of diamonds?"
If you go out on the street in New York and do that for two hours eventually you'll be right. You know, you don't have to do any other cheats other than editing, just pick the time it works. You know, show us the time it works and you've done magic and you don't have to design any of that. So to me that's really clear. Whenever I'm watching TV I have a very real sense that I'm watching different tries of the same thing stuck together. And with that sense in my heart, with my sense in my heart that when you're watching DeNiro do a take that he might have done that 15 times. It's different for me than watching an actor in the theater that i know is going directly into what he's doing now from what he did 10 minutes ago because we were both in the room in realtime. I think it's an entirely different thing but most people don't.
Question: Have you ever flubbed a trick in a live performance?
Penn Jillette: Well every night. I mean, I would say a 100 percent of the time. It all depends on your definition of "flubbed." You're always wanting to be a little better. One of the great things... Michael Goudeau, who's the head writer on "Bullshit" and also a juggler in the Lance Burton show. Michael Goudeau said that variety arts were for people who watched the movie "Groundhog Day" and thought it looked like a good thing. It's wonderful to do things over and over again to be able to do them right. And you always strive to do them better.
We have had tricks not work. We've had embarrassment with that... not often. But the thing I'm most proud of in my career is that in 35 years of doing shows, not Teller, not me but as importantly, no one that works with us has ever been injured seriously. And by seriously I mean hospital overnight. You know, you're allowed to cut yourself, you can do that, you know, you can... within my morality you can even break a bone. We haven't had that happen but within my morality you can.
But people who get badly injured in show business that is... that's wrong. And the idea of doing stuff that's really dangerous is to me distasteful. The idea of magic and performance is to celebrate life and health. And when you do a movie that is supposedly full of violence the representation of violence and no one gets hurt, that's a celebration of everything beautiful. When you do a movie or a performance where someone really does get hurt it's in a certain... artistically, it's a violation of humanity.
I don't know about this trend that David and Chris do where they do stuff that is supposed to convince people they really hurt themselves, or that they're really suffering. That, to me, is not beautiful. I'm not interested in that. What interests me is the fact that Teller and I do the bullet catch at the end of our show where we fire 357 Magnum into each other's faces and ostensibly catch the bullet. And saying that... that's a trick and bragging that we've never been hurt, and bragging that we can't be hurt isn't such a good trick, to me is beautiful.
Question: How do you prepare before a show?
Penn Jillette: Same way Kennedy prepared for his debates: with a blow job and a cup of coffee. No. Teller and I have done so many shows, we were figuring the other day that - I think it's possible Teller and I certainly together, we've done more shows together on stage—more hours of shows on stage—than I believe anyone alive. I think if we keep going another 10 or 20 years, which we certainly hope to, it will be more than anyone ever has.
Individually we've spent a lot of time on stage, so because of that, you know, I went on stage the night my child was born, one of them. One of them was born when I had vacation. I went on stage the night my mom died. I went on stage the night my dad died. I went on stage the night my sister died. I've gone on stage when I've pulled IVs out of my arm, left the hospital, gone on stage, gone back, went back on morphine. I have done shows during horrible, emotional breakups. I've done shows when exhausted and after you've been through... however many shows you've done, 20,000, you know, tens of thousands of shows, maybe more than that, you no longer prepare.
We would be backstage off-Broadway—we shared a backstage area with he gentleman who were doing the Steppenwolf Show, you know, and wonderful, wonderful actors. I mean, fabulous actors. Tremendous. I mean, much better actors than us. I mean, we're not even actors. We shared the backstage area, and the great thing was that they would be there 45 minutes before the show meditating and going, you know, "Red, leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather," and working with their whole instrument, you know, everything prepared. And Teller and I would be just finishing up tying our ties, while reading, and walk on stage directly in the middle of a conversation we'd be having about a movie we saw on TV last night. No preparation whatsoever and it's just because... well I like to think it's just because we had done so many more shows than they had. But you might also think it's because they're better than we are. I think either answer could be... you could make an argument for.
Question: How did you become an atheist?
Penn Jillette: In my church group in Greenfield, Massachusetts at the age of about 16 or 17, I had made a deal with my mom and dad—I was very, very close to my mom and dad. I'm a real momma's boy and got along with them my whole life, hardly even rough periods. And they went to the Congregationalist church: The Church of the Covered Dish Supper in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Massachusetts is an old enough state that you could not charter a town without having a Congregationalist church and this was the first one in out town. I mean, from back 200 years ago.
And I made a deal with my mom and dad that I wouldn't have to go to church services Sunday morning if I went to youth group Sunday night. So we had a pastor—that minister at that church—that was fairly hip, you know, he was trying to deal with the children, play a Jim Morrison song once in a while. Played the Beatles. Far out! And he sincerely wanted us to do some inquiry into theological questions and I took it very seriously. I may have been the only in the youth group that did take it seriously and I read the Bible cover-to-cover and I think that anyone who is thinking about maybe being an atheist... if you read the Bible or the Koran or the Torah cover-to-cover I believe you will emerge from that as an atheist. I mean, you can read "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins, you can read "God Is Not Great" by Hitchens... but the Bible itself, will turn you atheist faster than anything.
Question: Why would reading the Bible make you an atheist?
Penn Jillette: I think because what we get told about the Bible is a lot of picking and choosing, when you see, you know, Lot's daughter gang raped and beaten, and the Lord being okay with that; when you actually read about Abraham being willing to kill his son, when you actually read that; when you read the insanity of the talking snake; when you read the hostility towards homosexuals, towards women, the celebration of slavery; when you read in context, that "thou shalt not kill" means only in your own tribe—I mean, there's no hint that it means humanity in general; that there's no sense of a shared humanity, it's all tribal; when you see a God that is jealous and insecure; when you see that there's contradictions that show that it was clearly written hundreds of years after the supposed fact and full of contradictions. I think that anybody... you know, it's like reading The Constitution of the United States of America. It's been... it's in English. You know, you don't need someone to hold your hand. Just pick it up and read it. Just read what the First Amendment says and then read what the Bible says. Going back to the source material is always the best.
When someone is trying to interpret something for you, they always have an agenda. So I read the Bible and then I read Bertrand Russell and I read a lot of other stuff because in the Greenfield public library the 900's of the Dewey Decimal System... I mean, one of the few people that still remembers it, the 900's are theology. They're only about this long but that's all on camera. Only about this long, the one armed guy who caught a fish this big. They're only about this long and so I read a lot of them. I started going go to class and, to his credit, the pastor who was a wonderful man, wonderful man would let me talk to him about this stuff.
And finally after—I don't know, it's so long ago—but after months of this platonic questioning every night at youth group, the minister called my mom and dad and said, "You know, I think maybe Penn should stop coming to youth group, he's no longer learning about the Bible from me. He is not converting everyone in the class to atheism." So I was asked to leave—very politely, very nicely—youth group. And then with the help of Martin Mull, Randy Newman, Frank Zappa, the idea that these three men were out-of-the-closet atheists was so inspiring to me and so important to me. And reading interviews with somebody...
And I remember being somebody in a religious—and not a religious community like wack jobs, but, you know, in a community where most everyone was Christian—having those people in interviews say the simple sentence "There is no God" meant the world to me and gave me joy and gave me passion and gave me love and gave me confidence. And I think the first time I was interviewed, as presumptuous as this seems—and please forgive me—I remembered Frank Zappa's interviews. And I wanted to give a chance for someone else reading that to not feel they were alone. Now that's less important now. I mean, the population of atheists in this country is going through the roof. I mean, I'm now on the side that's winning.
It's over 20 percent by some polls and I believe if you counted atheism as a religion it's the fastest growing religion in the history of the United States of America. So now I'm on the team that's winning which is an uncomfortable position for me. But back, you know, 30 years ago, 40 years ago, it still felt like it meant something, you know, it's... we're several years behind gay rights but we're following a much faster path at acceptance.
Question: Is religion responsible for a lot of the world’s problems?
Penn Jillette: What you've said, "a lot," sure. If you want to go to "most" or "all," then no but there is certainly people... there's a great quote by the physicist... What's his name? Weinberg. Steve Weinberg. The quote of with or without religion good people do good things and bad people do bad things but for good people to do bad things that takes religion. I'm not sure that's word-for-word, almost certain it isn't, but it's important. I think it's not religion. It's much deeper than that. My beef is not with religion per se; my difference of opinion is with objective and subjective reality.
Einstein said the big question is when you turn away is the tree still there? And I talk to Richard Feynman about this and Murray Goodman, there's a feeling that in particle physics the "experimenter effect," a lot of that stuff is distorted. I believe very strongly that there is a physical reality that my perception does not change. Now you can make the argument that we're all just brains in jars, the Matrix, and all of this is an illusion and that is an airtight argument. You can't refute it but let's just say it's not that. I think there's a real reality out there and the people who say "I believe in God because I feel that there's some higher power in the universe"—the problem I have with that is that once you've said you believe something that you can't prove to someone else you have completely walled yourself off from the world.
And you've essentially said no one can talk to you and you can talk to no one. You've also given license to everybody else who feels that. If you say to me "I can't prove it Penn, but I have a feeling in my heart that there is a power over everything that connects us," why can't Charlie Manson say "I can't prove it but I can have a feeling that the Beatles are telling us to kill Sharon Tate and that the race riots are coming?" Why can't Al Qaeda say "I have a feeling in my heart that we need to kill these particular infidels?" Why can't the men who tortured and disfigured Ayaan Hirsi Ali—why isn't what they feel in their heart valid?
The problem is if you have a sense of fairness simply by saying you believe in a higher power because you believe in it, you've automatically given license to anyone else that wants to say that. So I would rather be busted on everything I say and I am, you know, when you've put yourself out on television and on radio as someone who really does believe in objective truth there is not a sentence that I will say in this interview that won't get three or four tweets of somebody with information busting me on it. And they're right, you know, very rarely am I busted on something where I'm right. If someone is taking the trouble to let me know I've said something wrong, chances are I'm wrong.
But that's the world I live in. I want to live in a world of a marketplace of ideas where everybody is busted on their bullshit all the time because I think that's the way we get to truth. That is also what respect is. What we call tolerance nowadays, maybe always—I'm always skeptical about the "nowadays" thing. I don't think things get that much different. What we call "tolerance" is often just condescending. It's often just saying, "Okay, you believe what you want to believe that's fine with me." I think true respect... it's one of the reasons I get along so much better with fundamentalist Christians than I do with liberal Christians because fundamentalist Christians I can look them in the eye and say, "You are wrong." They also know that I will always fight for their right to say that.
And I will celebrate their right to say that but I will look them in the eye and say, "You're wrong." And fundamentalists will look me in the eye and say, "You're wrong." And that to me is respect. The more liberal religious people who go "There are many paths to truth you just go on and maybe you'll find your way"... is the way you talk to a child. And I bristle at that, so I do very well with proselytizing hardcore fundamentalists and in a very deep level I respect them and at a very deep level i think I share a big part of their heart. I think in a certain sense I'm a preacher. My heart is there.
Question: Why is it important to mistrust the government?
Penn Jillette: I believe that our country, uniquely for the time, was founded on mistrust for the government, which is such a heady and beautiful idea. The idea that we have all the rights in the world. We have complete and utter freedom and we give up very specific freedoms in order to have a government that will protect the other freedoms.
Such a profound idea and so deep, and so wonderful. And I think that it was so weird to see all the people who said that dissent was part of their job during the Bush Administration turn around and say that we were all supposed to rally behind Obama. I mean, I disagreed with Bush and Obama tremendously... and on the exact same issues. And the only issue that really matters to me is wars and killing people overseas. I'm against them... and I was against them when Bush was doing it and now that Obama is doing it more I'm against it too. And I think that it's part of the joy and the wonder and the brilliance of the ideas of the United States of America that whoever is in power is questioned and beat up.
I was asked... and I'm going on the Joy Behar Show later today and you get questions ahead of time, unlike here. They lay stuff on you ahead of time. And it was Obama said he wants to figure out whose ass to kick and that before he was busted for being not emotional enough—too cold. And now he's being busted for being too straight. How can he win? And my answer is: he's not supposed to win. He's the President. They're supposed to be millions of people disagreeing with him on everything and busting him on everything.
That's the way the country is supposed to work, and that's not something to bemoan the fact that the government can't rally everybody to work together. That's to be celebrated. The government being is hamstring and as closed off and as clumsy as possible is exactly what we want. The last thing we want is a government that can get things done. A government that can get things done all they will get done is taking away freedoms. Its been shown over and over again. We want a clunky, sloppy, slow-moving, small, insignificant, weak government there all the time. And that's a government we can love and protect.
Question: What is the biggest misconception people have about libertarians?
Penn Jillette: Well it's the same misconception that everybody seems to have about everyone else and it's the same misconception libertarians have about liberals or conservatives have and that is we sometimes tend to forget that everybody is trying for the best. Everyone's goals are the same with very small differences. I mean, the goal of a socialist and the goal of a libertarian are exactly the same. The goals are happiness and security and freedom and you balance those.
But I think the biggest misconception that I find about libertarians is that there's a lack of compassion and I think that there is as much compassion on libertarians as there is among liberals. It's not what the problems are, it's how to solve them. Everybody wants clean, safe, energy. Some people think nuclear is the way to go. Some people think coal is the way to go. Some people think wind is the way to go. And there's always balances on that. Libertarians tend to put freedom as a goal in itself and also a way to attain other goals. Liberals tend to put security as a goal in itself and a way to obtain other goals.
I think the biggest misconception is that libertarians... I guess the cliche would be don't care about the crack babies. I just think you can deal with people in trouble using compassion. One of the things that bothers me about statism is that they take away my compassion. When you take money from me by force, run it through the government to help other people... I think there's less compassion than me being able to do something. What I say about libertarians verses liberals is I will gladly help you build a library; I will not use a gun to get someone else to join us in helping to build that library.
I want credit. I want credit for helping. I want to feel like I'm helping and giving money to the government does not seem like the best way to help and forcing other people to give money the government seems immoral to me. I think that if I want to cure cancer I should work on curing cancer. You can't force other people to give money to cure cancer then you're not really helping or you're helping in a way that I don't think is right. So the question on health care was not if you saw someone laying in the street who needed help would you run over and bandage them. The question is really if you saw someone suffering in the street would you run, get a policeman, have that policeman find a doctor, have that doctor forced by everybody around to take a vote and then come in and help.
But I think that it's forgotten that what everybody is trying to do is help the people that need it. Everybody is trying that and I will say that about every political group and I think that I would love to see people using the word "wrong" more and using the word "evil" less. Obama is a really good guy, a really smart guy, and every moment, every second of every day is spent trying to do what's best. I disagree with him. But there's no sense that he's evil and this is something I'll say that a lot of people will freak out at. I think the same was true for George W. Bush. I think every second he was trying as hard as he could to do what was best. I disagree with him very, very, very intently—but that's back to the fundamentalist atheist thing.
To be able to say "you're wrong, and here are the reasons," is respect. To say "you're evil" is antihuman because the people that I've met in my life who were truly bad and are truly evil is such a small number. I mean, if you take the six billion people on the planet and round off the numbers about six billion are good.
Question: You've appeared a few times on the Glenn Beck show. What do you think of him?
Penn Jillette: He's a nut. I mean, he's a deep, deep nut. On a one-on-one level I like him. My tolerance for crazy people is I think high a tolerance as you're ever going to find. I love being around David Allen Coe. I would have loved to hang out with Tiny Tim. I can listen to Sun Ra on a tape-recording rant. I have... it's not patience, it's love for people who are... live outside the law. And Glenn Beck is that. I mean, I compare Glenn Beck mostly to Abbie Hoffman, you know. When I was a child I would read "Woodstock Nation" and "Steal This Book." And I didn't really agree with very much of any of it because it was essentially socialist and collectivist and didn't really ring true for me. But I loved the way he did it. I loved the outrageous poetry of it and I loved that my arguments with my dad about it where my dad thought he was a dangerous nut. And I thought he was a fun nut.
And my arguments about Glenn Beck are exactly the same as I used to have with my dad about Abbie Hoffman. I'm so upset that someone else compared him to Abbie Hoffman publicly before I did because I've been telling all my friends. Liberals do misunderstand it. They... liberals think the medium is the message and I believe is the message is the message and I had Tommy Smothers tear me apart for going on Glenn Beck, and he was right. Tommy Smothers was 100 percent right. He said that by going on I gave some credence and support to some very bad ideas. I think it's exactly right.
Tommy Smothers is a hero of mine. I think he's completely right to bust me on that and I think I'm also completely right to say, "But you should go on shows that you don't agree and tell the truth as you see it." I think that's also completely right. He said to me—did not say this to me on air but he said to me off air—"If Hitler had a talk show you would go on it." And I answered, "Yes and I'd try to tell the truth." And I think that's - when I went on Glenn Beck I argue with him about gay rights. I argue with him about Mormonism. I agree with Glenn Beck on a few things, those aren't the things I talked about when I went on the show. I went on in order to argue.
But it is misunderstood and I think that... I mean, my appearance is misunderstood. That wasn't your question. Your question was is he misunderstood. There's something I see done with Howard Stern. I want on Howard Stern, I've done dozens and dozens, maybe hundreds of hours with Howard Stern. I'm not a big Howard Stern listener but if you listen to Howard Stern everyday, you develop a deep context for who Howard Stern is, what's important to him, what's important to Robin, what his morality is, what his relationships are, what his heart is. And I'm not talking about listening for a week, I'm talking about listening to Howard Stern for months.
And I'm not talking about, you know, a dozen hours over a month. I'm talking about hundreds of hours, you know. You get to know Howard Stern and when he says something it's automatically in a very deep and very big context. And when someone who hates Howard Stern—there are plenty of them—pull something out of context, even if you get the context, even if they play you 15 minutes before and after you're really missing the context. And I think—and I don't listen to Glenn Beck very much, so I don't know—but I think with someone like Glenn Beck if you listen everyday you understand that the rage is also tempered by the outrageous things are tempered with a certain kind of humanity and certain kinds of other things.
Now I disagree with him on a lot of things but I'm just saying that there's a full person there and I think what we often forget when we're reading media, you know, you pick up a paper and read "this is what Obama said," that you forget that there is not the context of the quote but the context of the public figure. And I think that with Abbie Hoffman when you'd read something about revolution and the violent overthrow of the United States government, unless you'd seen all the pranks and the playfulness and the fun, and the sexiness, all kind of rolled in you couldn't possibly understand. You're also not supposed to because these are all grownups and Howard Stern knows he'll be taken out of context. Abbie Hoffman knew that. Glenn Beck knew that. So they do have a reasonability.
But for me once you listen to somebody a lot on radio or on TV you develop a relationship with them that's not entirely different from "I got this crackpot uncle and he said this thing about how guns should be carried by deer so that they can defend themselves." And you kind of laugh about it and everybody you're talking to knows that crazy uncle and they know what he does at Christmas time. You know, and they know that at Thanksgiving he was dancing in a hula skirt and they know all this stuff. And they also know that when their car broke down at three in the morning that was the uncle that showed up.
They know all those things. And I think that with public figures they're not supposed to be given that much leeway but I still do. I still read something Howard Stern said and even if it's directly contrary to something I believe I never think, "Well Howard's evil." You know, because I know he's not evil. I know he's a good guy and even when Glenn Beck says stuff that's reprehensible I say, "I sat in a room with Glenn. He's not trying to kill people. He's not hurting children. He's just thinking and sometimes he's thinking half-assed." I do think he's sometimes taken out of context but I think that's also part of his job and it's okay.
Question: You live in Sin City, yet you don’t gamble and you’ve never used drugs or alcohol. Why not?
Penn Jillette: Oh I don't know. It's a complicated question but I will separate those. When Is say I haven't used recreational drugs, I mean, not a puff of marijuana. Now of course I've been on morphine in the hospital for intense pain but not recreational. When I say I haven't drank alcohol, I've never had one sip of wine. I've never had one sip of beer but, you know, vanilla, in your cake, has come alcohol content. There are foods that have alcohol in it and it doesn't all boil off but I've never had recreational alcohol. I have gambled. When I first got to Vegas, I did want to play every single game for $20 so I spent about $200, played a lot of different games and about broke even.
And I will occasionally, because my wife loves it, play poker—and I'm friends with all the Full Tilt guys. I'm not a good player and I don't enjoy it very much. Any game where the winner goes the longest seems to be a bad game. I want games where the winner goes the shortest so you can get on to other stuff. The reason I don't, I give a lot of different reasons, you can look up... I give a different reason almost every time I'm asked because I don't know is the only honest answer.
My mom and dad we teetotalers, my grandparents were teetotalers. There was never any discussion of alcohol or drugs. It never was... my mom and dad never had a serious talk. They never sat down and said, "You know, don't drink alcohol." I was never told not to. It was just understood that as a Jillette we didn't. I mean, it's just... it was so funny, there wasn't even a bottle of wine in the house. On New Year's Eve we watched TV and ate ice cream. We ate all the ice cream we wanted. We had butter pecan ice cream and it wasn't we're doing this instead of champagne. It was just... "everybody eats ice cream on New Year'ss Eve."
I didn't know about it. So the first people I learned about drugs and alcohol from were 14-year-olds getting drunk and getting high. And also I graduated from high school in 1973, which is the height of drug use in rural America. So I was seeing acid at 14 or 15—people eating LSD. And that's not the prettiest way to see it. I also... I looked up tremendously to Lenny Bruce, read all of his books, memorized big chucks of his routine. And in a simplistic view of the world, when I was young I kind of vilified drugs for killing Lenny. If Lenny Bruce hadn't died of drug overdoses I could have seen him live. I would have seen him live. I might have met him.
That upset me and then Hendrix. That upset me. Because I think most people if they were alive today wouldn't be doing great stuff. Bob Dylan is still doing great stuff. I think Hendrix would have been doing great stuff now, and I blame drugs for that. That's another answer. The other answer is I've always wanted to be smarter than I was. I've never been that smart and I've always wanted to much, much, much, much smarter and the people that I saw doing drugs and alcohol were getting stupider and I hated that.
Now, Christopher Hitchens is shitfaced a lot of the time and is a zillion times smarter than me. So as I've gotten older I've met people a zillion times smarter than me that are drunk and on drugs. But I'm afraid the die has been cast, you know. I'm afraid we're dealing with emotional decisions that I've made when I was 14 and 15 and I tried very hard to change my mind emotionally when given the different data... sorry, intellectually given different data. But I think that a lot of changing yourself emotionally is a harder thing or at least something I have less of a handle on. I've never been very good at changing my personality and my personality seems to include no alcohol and no drugs.
It's also something, you know, when I first was hitchhiking around and street shows, you know, I'd meet really tough guys, you know, bikers: tough, tough guys. And one of the ways I stood out was "This is my fucked-up friend Penn man, he's never had a drink of alcohol in his life and he doesn't believe in anything man. He's an atheist and he doesn't drink or do drugs. How crazy is that?" And that was a nice way for me to walk into a room. It gave me some parameters that said, "Okay this is the way he's a nut." And it was better for me than, you know, pissing on people or throwing up or some of the other techniques that people use to be noticed. It was a better technique for me than Johnny Rotten's would be.
Question: Explain your famous water tank trick.
Penn Jillette: We wrote the water tank for Saturday Night Live. We wanted to do something big, it was for the Madonna show, a kick off show the year we were on and we want to do something big. And we wanted to do something that... our favorite Penn and Teller stuff is the stuff that the big trick is ignored. When David Blaine does a water tank all he's talking about is, "I'm in the water. I'm going to drown. I might die." Our way of doing the water tank is "I'm going to do a card trick, the card trick is what matters, I have supremely skilled hands. I'll do the beautiful card trick and oh by the way Teller is holding his breath during it." That to me is much more interesting.
So we started with that and did it for the first time for "Saturday Night Live" and then it was the bit we did the most. We did it on just about every show. We did it on "Letterman." I mean, a bit that he did on "Saturday Night Live" and on "Letterman" and a lot of other shows and also we had our own show over in England called the "Unpleasant World of Penn and Teller." We brought John Cleese on as a guest and he played the audience member part in the water tank.
Question: What was the inspiration behind your “Looks Simple” trick?
Penn Jillette: Teller and I were fascinated by how stupid magic is, that magic is going through all these elaborate machinations to make something look one way that's really another. And it struck us as really funny to do a magic trick that accomplished reality.
And we went through many, many things. We were going to originally do it with cooking or something like that but after weeks of trying to write this bit we came up with the idea of how about taking out a cigarette, lighting it, putting a cigarette out, and then pulling out another cigarette and lighting it. How about if we did that trick exactly like that with all accomplished by trickery. Stuff you could do simply. And that seemed to have such a purely existential feel to us. Going through incredibly complicated machinations to get to a very simple end.
Question: As an atheist, how do you raise a family in a society that seems to condemn atheism?
Penn Jillette: Well with the kids it's really tough. Just the other day my daughter just turned five, you know, she was playing with her cousins and one of the cousins came to my wife and said, "Moxie said God is mean." Moxie.... that's my daughter did not say "God is mean." She said, "There is not God." One of the older children said, "Oh my God." And she said, "You shouldn't say that because there is no God." She's cobbled together "You shouldn't say that" from school with "There is no God" from us. And it's really hard. I think it's really tough because people understand atheism so poorly.
I mean, the number of people that say is atheism Satanism still is remarkable. I mean, atheism is as far from Satanism as you can get. Christianity is close to Satanism. At least they, some of them think they're Satan. Atheism couldn't be further away.
It's a little hard and I think that I am very sympathetic to people who are surrounded by Christian people - religious people, I'm sorry, surrounded by religious people, theists, and have to be a little more closeted. You know, I don't believe in... I mean, I believe the parallel to gay rights is exactly the same. I don't want to out anyone, you know, against their will. I don't even think it's immoral to be quiet about it. It's just not in my makeup to be quiet about it but my sympathy.
I just spent—I'm not going to go into it too much because it's very personal—but I just spent a wonderful dinner with there men who were Hasidic Jews, payos, the clothes, English was not their first language, although they were born in Brooklyn. Never read a book in English until they were 25 years old. And completely within this religious community—their wives, their children, the extended families. And they had become atheists, and were talking to me about how they were losing their whole community and their whole families. And I think they expected me to say, I think maybe they even wanted me to say, "Well suck it up there's no God, do what's right." And that was as far from my feelings as possible.
I said, "Oh man, you love your children. You love your family, you've got to keep loving 'em. And you got to make a lot of concessions for 'em. And I'm just glad I'm not going through it." And I think that's my answer to someone who says they're having a hard time. "I'm glad I'm not going through it." You know, my mom was an atheist at the end of her life. My dad died a Christian and I loved him with every part of my heart and I would never have let religion get in the way. Fortunately he felt the same way.
Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman
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Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.
In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.
But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?
In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?
Popularizing medical language
What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?
To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.
If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.
LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER
"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.
"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.
"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."
The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.
"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.
Too much reading causes... heat rashes?
But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.
Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."
In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."
"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.
"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."
Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."
Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.
"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."
Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?
People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.
JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW
There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.
For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.
"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.
"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."
In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.
"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.
"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."
Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.
"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.
"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."
This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.
"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.
The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'
"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."
So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?
"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.
Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.
"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.
But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.
For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.
The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.
- This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
- Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
- The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
Some countries value self-expression more than others.Credit: Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images
Question: On what map is Lithuania a neighbor of China, Poland lies next to Brazil, and Morocco and Yemen touch?
Answer: The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map. To be precise, the 2017 map. Because on the 2020 version, each of those pairs has drifted apart significantly.
These are not, strictly speaking, maps but rather scatterplot diagrams. Each dot represents a country, the position of which is based on how it ranks on two different values (discussed below). The dots are corralled together into geo-cultural groups:
- Catholic Europe, which comprises countries as diverse and far apart as Hungary and Andorra■ Protestant Europe, taking in both Iceland and Germany
- The Orthodox world, from Belarus all the way to Armenia
- The three Baltic states
- The English-speaking world, including both the U.S. and Northern Ireland
- The huge African-Islamic world, ranging from Azerbaijan to South Africa
- Latin America, which goes from Mexico to Argentina
- South Asia, which comprises both India and Cyprus
- The Confucian world, encompassing China and Japan.
The placement of the dots indicates cultural proximity or distance. Some countries from different groups can be more similar than other countries in the same group.
See the examples indicated above: cultural neighbors China and Lithuania belong to the Confucian and Baltic groups, respectively. Poland is part of Catholic Europe; its 2017 neighbor Brazil is in Latin America. Morocco and Yemen are closer culturally to Armenia, in the Orthodox group, than they are to Qatar, despite all belonging to the African-Islamic group.
The 2017 version of the map places Malta deep inside South America and lets Vietnam, Portugal, and Macedonia meet.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Creating a culture map
So, what exactly are the criteria used for plotting these dots in the first place?
These maps are part of the World Values Survey, first conducted by political scientist Ronald Inglehart in the late 1990s. With his colleague Christian Welzel, he produced an update in 2005. The WVS has been revised several times since, most recently in 2020.
The WVS asserts that there are two fundamental dimensions to cross-cultural variation across the world. These are used as the axes to plot the various countries on the diagram.
- The X-axis measures survival versus self-expression values.
Survival values focus on economic and physical security. There is not much room for trust and tolerance of "others." Self-expression values prioritize well-being, quality of life, and self-expression. There is more room for tolerating ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities.
- The Y-axis measures traditional versus secular-rational values.
Traditional values include deference to religion and parental authority as well as traditional social and family values. Societies that score high on traditions typically also are highly nationalistic. In more secular-rational societies, science and bureaucracy replace faith as the basis for authority. Secular-rational values include high tolerance of things like divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide.
As indicated by the significant changes on the 2020 map, the cultural values of nations are not static:
- Countries that move up on the map are shifting from traditional to more secular-rational values.
- Countries that move to the right on the map are shifting from survival values to self-expression values.
- And, of course, vice versa in both cases.
According to the authors of the map, changes in cultural outlook can be the result of socioeconomic changes — increasing levels of wealth, for example. But the religious and cultural heritage of each country also plays a part.
The world's cultural landscape is dynamic — you could even say promiscuous, producing new bedfellows every few years.Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Some notable features of the 2020 map:
- The Baltic group has been dissolved; Lithuania is now part of Catholic Europe, Estonia a lone Protestant island in a Catholic sea. More worryingly, Latvia seems to have dissolved completely.
- In general, survival values are strongest in African-Islamic countries, self-expression values in Protestant Europe.
- Traditional values are strongest in African-Islamic countries and Latin America, while secular values dominate in Confucian countries and Protestant Europe.
- The United States is an atypical member of the English-speaking group, scoring much lower on both scales (that is to say, lower and more to the left). In other words, the U.S. is more into traditional and survival values than the group's other members.
- Shifting attitudes don't just separate; they also unite. Belgium and the U.S. are now culture buddies, as are New Zealand and Iceland. Kazakhstan is virtually indistinguishable from Bosnia.
The Inglehart-Welzel map is not without its critics. It has been decried as Eurocentric, simplistic, and culturally essentialist (that is, the assumption that certain cultural characteristics are essential and fixed, and that some are superior to others). Which is, of course, a very self-expressive thing to say.
For more on these maps, on the WVS surveys, and on the methodology used, visit the World Values Survey.
Strange Maps #1098
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
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 study finds that baby mammals dream about the world they are about to experience to prepare their senses.
- Researchers find that babies of mammals dream about the world they are entering.
- The study focused on neonatal waves in mice before they first opened their eyes.
- Scientists believe human babies also prime their visual motion detection before birth.
Imagine opening your eyes for the first time as a brand new baby. The world is so mysterious, full of obstacles and strange shapes. And yet it does not take babies all that long to get their bearings, to latch on to their parents, and to start interacting. How do they do this so quickly? A new study published in Science proposes that babies of mammals dream about the world they are about to enter before being born, developing important skills.
The team, led by professor Michael Crair, who specializes in neuroscience, ophthalmology, and visual science, wanted to understand why when mammals are born, they are already somewhat prepared to interact with the world.
"At eye opening, mammals are capable of pretty sophisticated behavior," said Craig, "But how do the circuits form that allow us to perceive motion and navigate the world? It turns out we are born capable of many of these behaviors, at least in rudimentary form."
Unusual retinal activity
The scientists observed waves of activity radiating from the retinas of newborn mice before their eyes first open. Imaging shows that soon after birth, this activity disappears. In its place matures a network of neural transmissions that carries visual stimuli to the brain, as explained by a Yale press release. Once it reaches the brain, the information is encoded for storage.
What's particularly unusual about this neonatal activity is that it demonstrates a pattern that would happen if the animal was moving forward somewhere. As the researchers write in the study, "Spontaneous waves of retinal activity flow in the same pattern as would be produced days later by actual movement through the environment."
Crair explained that this "dream-like activity" makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, as it helps the mouse get ready for what will happen to it after it opens its eyes. It allows the animal to "respond immediately to environmental threats," Crair shared.
Retinal waves in a newborn mouse prepare it for vision www.youtube.com
What is creating the waves?
The scientists also probed what is responsible for creating the retinal waves that mimic the forward motion. They turned on and off the functionality of starburst amacrine cells — retinal cells that release neurotransmitters — and discovered that blocking them stopped the retinal waves from flowing, which hindered the mouse from developing the ability to react to visual motion upon birth. These cells are also important to an adult mouse, affecting how it reacts to environmental stimuli.
Graphic showing the origin and functionality of directional retinal waves.Michael C. Crair et al, Science, 2021.
What about human babies?
While the study focused on mice, human babies also seem to be able to identify objects and motion right after birth. This suggests the presence of a similar phenomenon in babies before they are born.
"These brain circuits are self-organized at birth and some of the early teaching is already done," Crair stated. "It's like dreaming about what you are going to see before you even open your eyes."