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I still remember my freshman year Philosophy 101 professor asking the class to define reality. There were frosh in the class but also upper class students fulfilling some missed requirement. Some of those juniors and seniors chuckled quietly. I looked around and thought “Don’t call on me.”

It is still a difficult or silly question for most people. How would you answer? “It is everything out there,” you might say as you gesture in front of you. “It’s the things you can see and touch and hear.”

I had a lot of problems accepting the theory of solipsism presented in the class that says that I am the only person that exists. Knowledge of anything outside one’s own mind is uncertain and I can’t know the external world or other minds, so nothing might exist outside my mind.

I think I might have told the professor that I didn’t believe that to be true, and he said that it’s irrefutable, and that as a solipsist I would believe that I was the only true authority, I can only know my own reality. I can’t step inside another person and experience their reality.

I didn’t want to be a lonely solipsist.

Most of those views haven’t changed over the years and I read online that in considering the nature of reality some people will say that reality is all in your mind. What does that mean? This is not easy to conceive, but perhaps there are no actual things, colors, sounds or smells outside of your brain. It’s not philosophy; it’s science.

Consider that we do know that color consists of electromagnetic waves. Those colors we see depends on the length of those waves.

And sound? Sound is compressed airwaves.

Those smells are just pungent air molecules.

It is our brain that interprets these things as color, sound and smell. And we don’t all even interpret them exactly the same way. And I am not even getting into how dogs or bats or other creatures perceive their reality which certainly is not our reality. Bats use sound to navigate and dogs have a much keener sense of smell but poorer eyesight than us.

Reality is billions of neurons firing in your brain.

I know that the surface in front of my home that is green and keeps growing in warm weather is grass. I know this from repeated experiences. These experiences allow me to categorise and catalogue things.

This is what is known as our “internal model of reality” and we all need that model to navigate through the world and our lives.  But can our senses deceive us? Not only do animals have a different reality, but different people perceive reality differently.

That philosophy professor gave us readings about reality, and he told us that there were also scientists that believe that what we call reality is an illusion.

The article I read reminded me of the “thought experiment” (so far thankfully not duplicated except in films) where a brain is removed from a person and somehow kept alive and operating and is connected to a powerful computer that can act as its senses. Would the brain know the difference in its reality?

That is the premise in stories and films like The Matrix where Neo discovers that he is living in a computer-simulated reality.

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one,” said Albert Einstein. Quantum physics (which Einstein had some issues with accepting) suggests that particles do not exist until they are observed. Without perception, we cannot exist. If we fall in a forest and no one is there to perceive it, did we fall?

“What we observe as material bodies and forces are nothing but shapes and variations in the structure of space. Particles are just appearances.” Erwin Schrodinger

Well, I think that I exist, so that must constitute some kind of reality.

Clock-pendulum

seconds ticking away

Where did the weekend go? I looked here and it was Sunday night. No posts on Friday or Saturday. No drafts. Nothing in the queue.

It was not a overly busy weekend, but I did go out Friday night, and Saturday was an all day film conference. And then today I fixed the pump on the dishwasher (just clogged), went with a friend to a movie, and then had dinner, sat on the couch and looked at my laptop. Here I am.

Something happened to my perception of time this weekend. I have read that fear can make time seem to slow down. Is that a defense mechanism or it just that a fearful situation makes each moment unbearably long.

So would positive emotions make time speed up? Maybe, but stress is a negative emotion and it can speed up our perception of time.

So, I looked for some research and it seems that humans have no actual sensory instrument for receiving information about time. I mean we our brain is able to process time, and we have some kind of internal body clock.

I found that research often looks at emotion and time perception, but one study I found  has been designed to study the time perception of emotional events. Participants watched three emotional films: one eliciting fear, another sadness, and a neutral control film.

This seems all very clinical. Not at all like what I felt this weekend, but I don’t doubt that time perception is dependent on a number of factors, psychological and external.

Einstein

The story is told that Albert Einstein’s secretary was often asked tt explain to reporters and others the meaning of his scientific work and Einstein devised the following explanation for her to give when asked to explain relativity: An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour.

That feels like a better explanation, though it doesn’t explain the why of it.

Wikipedia says that “Time perception is a field of study within psychology, cognitive linguistics and neuroscience that refers to the subjective experience, or sense, of time, which is measured by someone’s own perception of the duration of the indefinite and unfolding of events. The perceived time interval between two successive events is referred to as perceived duration. Though directly experiencing or understanding another person’s perception of time is not possible, such a perception can be objectively studied and inferred through a number of scientific experiments. Time perception is a construction of the sapient brain, but one that is manipulable and distortable under certain circumstances.”

Ah yes, subjective time and objective time.

Maybe this is more like the question of “Where did the time go?” that hits middle-aged and older adults. Does time pass more quickly as we age? Of course not, but it seems that way and that is a time perception that can lead to regrets.

Another study that focused on this aspect concluded that our brain encodes new experiences, but not familiar ones, into memory, and our retrospective judgment of time is based on how many new memories we create over a certain period.

In simpler terms, the more new memories I built this weekend, the longer the weekend will seem in hindsight.

The author of the study dubbed this phenomenon the Holiday Paradox. Our childhoods and young adult years tend to be filled with more fresh experiences, but as we age our lives become more routine. There are fewer unfamiliar moments. This weekend went fast because it wasn’t filled with fresh experiences.

Is that it? I thought the film conference exposed me to new things. I have never taken apart a dishwasher pump before. Not fresh enough? Or was it that my Friday night to tonight was just crowded with one thing that went to another and I didn’t have time off to process the experiences?

My mother would have said when I was a kid that “Time flies when you’re having fun.” She and Einstein had that in common.

 

Prometheus

L’Homme formé par Prométhée et animé par Minerve (Prometheus creating man in the presence of Athena, detail), 1802 by Jean-Simon Berthélemy

According to the ancient myth, Prometheus risked eternal torment to bring mankind the gift of fire that would unlock the secrets of civilization.

That myth supplies the title for Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal.

I think the authors actually see themselves as modern day Prometheus bringing us a new secret knowledge. I think of the subtitle to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus.  The doctor also believed that The title and subtitles doesn’t really let you know where they are headed 

The recurring theme or word in the book is ecstasis. This is an elevated mental state of flow and transcendence. In the book, they examine people who achieve it through various paths from taking controlled substances, to participating in extreme sports.

It is an elusive state of mind. You may have had moments of ecstasis. Have you ever been so engrossed in a task (not in a movie or book) that everything around you, including time, disappears? Performing artists, athletes, writers, scientists report a highly creative state that we might casually call being “in the zone” where their consciousness reaches another plane.

The philosophy of ecstasy is not new. Ecstasy, from the Ancient Greek ekstasis, meant “to be or stand outside oneself, a removal to elsewhere” coming from ek– “out,” and stasis “a stand, or a standoff of forces.” It is a word that occurs in Ancient Greek, Christian and Existential philosophy, though different traditions using the concept have radically different perspectives.  

Plato described ecstasis as an altered state where our normal waking consciousness vanishes completely, replaced by an intense euphoria and a powerful connection to a greater intelligence. The final characteristic of ecstasis is “richness,” a reference to the vivid, detailed, and revealing nature of non-ordinary states. The Greeks called that sudden understanding anamnesis. Literally, “the forgetting of the forgetting.”

In our time, it has also become a buzzword philosophy. The authors mention that billionaires “in Silicon Valley take psychedelics to help themselves solve complex problems.” 

It has even entered the business world, as one Forbes article points out, as the result of “finding your natural fit” in the world or in the world of work. 

It is not surprising that ecstasis is associated with drugs because the state, even if not induced by chemical substances taken, sounds like a drug-induced state. There is even a drug called Ecstasy (MDMA). Certainly, there are naturally occurring neurochemicals in the brain released when people report ecstasis. And so, with a kind of logic, people believe they can gain a shortcut to this state by taking these or similar chemicals. 

Though some turn to microdosing mind-altering drugs, others turn to meditation. The book, in its attempt to be comprehensive, looks at many methods and related approaches that have their own buzzwords, like grit, flow and tipping point:.

You have to accept a modern premise that human achievement, discovery, success and enlightenment have some algorithm that can be found and used.

One review of the book that I read suggests that it is a kind of self-help book, but rather than just offering self-improvement, ecstasis looks to improve the nature of humanity and transform the world.

The examples in the book of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, or Bill Gates or Navy SEALS seem to be outliers who have assets that almost none of us can access.

It is a bit frightening to me that this philosophy has had the most research into generating “flow” and getting “into the zone” has become the domain of elite organizations and individuals, including the military. The book was a bestseller and was CNBC and Strategy + Business Best Business Book of 2017.

Kotler’s earlier book The Rise of Superman, was more about the concept of flow, but there is definitely crossover. In Stealing Fire’s middle section, they examine four ways in which people are finding ecstasis: psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology.

The last section of the book that interested me the most, but was ultimately most disappointing. It considers how ecstasis can be sustainable, and bridge the extreme (and sometimes dangerous or illegal) examples, and the mainstream.

Another esoteric term I picked up in reading the book is umwelt. This is a technical term for the piece of the data stream that we normally apprehend. It’s the reality our senses can perceive. It’s just a sliver of the world around us.

The authors note that studies of people who did eight weeks of meditation training measurably sharpened their focus, cognition and flow. Not necessarily a state of ecstasis, but on that path.

Some believers say that in addition to our three basic drives (food, water, sex), we should consider this drive to “get out of our heads” as a fourth drive.

Because ecstasis seems to arise when attention is fully focused in the present moment, the immediate connection is to meditation of practices such as Buddhism that also contain that philosophy.

A kind of equation – Value = Time × Reward/Risk has been used as one way to explain the path, where “time” refers to time needed to learn a particular technique until it can reliably produce ecstasis.  They also point to those who do not use one technique but use many; the person who does extreme skiing and psychedelics, along with meditation and yoga, living in extremes. This contrast is thought to make it easier to spot patterns.

Is ecstasis making it into the mainstream? The authors would say yes, as evidenced by a trillion dollar underground economy of exploration. Are you on the path?

 

bigbang

How did it all begin? The Big Bang Theory is well known enough to be a TV sitcom, but we don’t even know if that is the answer.

String theory gets some attention (even on that TV show). If staring up at the near part of the universe on a clear night makes you think we are just a grain of sand on a gigantic beach, then string theory should make you feel even smaller. It posits that our universe is just a tiny part of a much larger multi-universe that nine-dimensional. We see three of those dimensions.

Our little universe would appear flat in string theory. Like a sheet of paper, our universe can have other universes below or above us. And those other universes might have different rules of time, space, and size. If we travel far enough into these universes, we could meet parallel versions of ourselves.

Far more controversial is bubble theory of a universe in a vacuum of energy. Bubble theory came out of what we know about the rate by which the universe is expanding. Imagine a pot of water heating on a stove: the energy is the bubbles. Some bubbles pop, some bump into one another, some grow bigger, some get smaller. Each one is a universe.

No, I can’t imagine that.

I am feeling more comfortable these days with a holographic universe. You often hear this explained with a reference to the Matrix films. That makes it seem like a horrible universe.

Astrophysicists looking into anomalies in the cosmic background noise left after the Big Bang think there is evidence to support a holographic universe. You think you know that you exist in three dimensions. What about if we actually live in two dimensions?

How can we be in a 2D state in a 3D universe? That hologram on your credit card is a 3D image on a 2D surface. You can watch a 3D film on a 2D movie screen or on a 2D TV. You watch that 2D flat image but your brain sees 3D. Maybe everything you are looking at is 2D but our brain processes it as having three dimensions.

But our universe is not a movie. We can touch and smell objects.

“Reality as a simulation or hologram is no longer a fringe theory – with Nobel Prize winners and other thought leaders believing in it. All scientific discoveries start out as theories; some ultimately proven, some not. There is still the question of whether our universe actually exists? We may be simply living in something’s virtual reality simulation; very hard to prove one way or the other but we are getting closer.”       source

tv noiseUsing more recent advances in sensing equipment, scientists have detected a vast amount of data hidden in the white noise left over from the moment the universe was created. What is its “purpose”?  What is it “doing”?  (That white noise data even accounts for some of the random black and white dots you see on a TV that is not tuned into a station.)

And there are some people who take the physics of this theory of reality and use it to explain the paranormal abilities of the mind and other riddles of the brain and body.

  1. Scientific American editor Michael Moyer explains why some think our universe a hologram. Prepare. Black holes ahead.
  2. Brian Greene explains why space is not nothing. Space is a dynamic fabric.
  3. And then, from the world of fiction, Philip K. Dick explains why he now sees scientific evidence for the artificial worlds he created in his novels and stories – and when he had a glimpse of another holographic world. But who changed the programming code?

I love reading stories about brain research. Exploring the brain is like exploring outer space. I’m not sure that we will ever figure everything out about either of them.

Go back a hundred year or more and scientists didn’t know anything about which parts of the brain did cognitive functions where the senses were located.  It was still considered legitimate for doctors to use phrenology. That was measuring bumps on someone’s head as a way to detect mental illness.

And then came Phineas Gage. Poor Phineas had a tragic accident.

In 1848, Phineas Gage was a 25-year-old foreman of railroad crew that was cutting a railroad bed into rock for a new rail line in Cavendish, Vermont.

It was dangerous work. They would pack explosives into a hole, pack it down with a tamping iron, top it with sand and then stand back and blow it up.

September 13 was not a lucky day for Phineas. He was packing a hole and probably was distracted. looked away while he was tamping and the metal pole hit rock, set off a spark and ignited the explosive.

The explosion shot his tamping iron into Gage’s skull just under his eye socket and it came out the back of his head.

That tamping iron was 3 feet long, 1.25 inches round and it weighed 13 pounds. It did not kill him.

skull

Animation of Gage’s injury in the frontal lobe.

But it did change him. I don’t mean that he looked different, but he did. It was his personality that changed.

His friends and workers described the pre-accident Gage as being “amiable, with a well-balanced mind… shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation.”

But Gage after the accident swore at everyone, was constantly drunk, became a lousy worker and was no longer much of a friend.

He lost his railroad job could only get menial work.

But his injury showed doctors that there was a link between the brain and our personalities. With our current knowledge, we can map where the tamping iron passed through his brain and the function of the temporal lobe. We now know that the temporal lobe is responsible for processing information we see and hear. But it also is responsible for long-term memory, behavior and personality and processing language.

Phineas Gage moved to San Francisco to be near his mother and sister, but after suffering from a number of seizures, he died 1860 at age 36.

MORE
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
https://www.learning-mind.com

Did you see in the news that Canadian astronomers have revealed some details about mysterious signals emanating from a distant galaxy. They don’t really know the exact nature and the origin of the radio waves. But don’t they pick up these signals all of time?

Actually, they don’t get these kinds of signals. This has only been reported once before.The 13 FRBs (fast radio bursts) had a very unusual repeating signal. They were all coming the same source about 1.5 billion light years away. Let’s repeat that – 1.5 billion light years away.

These cosmic puzzles were picked up by the CHIME observatory, located in British Columbia. It has four 100-metre-long, semi-cylindrical antennas, which scan the entire northern sky each day. The telescope only went into operation last year and almost immediately detected the radio bursts.

x files

At least a quarter of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy have a planet with surface conditions very similar to Earth and the chemistry of life as we know it could develop. With tens of billions of stars in the Milky Way, it is quite likely we are not alone.

Are the aliens trying to contact us? Contact? They may already be visiting.

The solidly unscientific The New Yorker asks “Have Aliens Found Us?” in an interview with a Harvard astronomer about a mysterious interstellar object.

This story starts back in October 2017 when astronomers at the University of Hawaii spotted something strange out there in our solar system. They named it ‘Oumuamua which is the Hawaiian word for a scout or messenger. They described it as “a red and extremely elongated asteroid.”

Big deal. I write about asteroids all the time. Ah, but this was the first interstellar object to be detected within our solar system.

The interview was with Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard’s astronomy department, who was co-author on a paper about ‘Oumuamua’s “peculiar acceleration.” That is, it wasn’t moving like most asteroids.

Loeb suggested that the object “may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth’s vicinity by an alien civilization.” Whoa.

Headline #2: He later said that we might communicate with the civilization that sent the probe, and “If these beings are peaceful, we could learn a lot from them.”

I’m a bit suspicious of those scientists who detected ‘Oumuamua said that they saw it “too late” in its journey to photograph it.

There is no photo of the object, but based on how it spins and how its brightness changes, it is assumed to look like a cigar. Or a pancake.

It was the deviation from the expected orbit that interested Loeb and some others.  Where is it getting the extra push in acceleration? Maybe it is the light from the sun. That would happen with a solar sail. But that would mean it would have to be less than a millimeter thick in order for that to work. And that would be mean that someone had made it.  A scout from a technological civilization?

Loeb admits that if some other distant civilization sent out ‘Oumuamua, they might not exist any more. We have sent out lots of stuff from the Voyager spacecrafts to episodes of I Love Lucy and by the time those aliens outside our solar system discover our stuff and figure out how to play that Voyager record and why Lucy always wanted to be in Ricky’s shows, we may not exist.

I hope one of us makes contact before it’s all over.

Sources
cbsnews.com/news/fast-radio-burst…
newyorker.com/news/…oumuamua

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