When you remember a scene from the past, you are not remembering the past. You are remembering a memory of the past. Your brain works in a very funny way where it does not record memories like film. Instead, it seems to remember things as a collage. Everytime you recall a memory - whether it be a happy memory of your first love, or a sad memory of lost love - your brain recalls your last recollection of the event. Simply put, every time you “remember” something, you are merely remembering the latest memory of the event. Each time you replay an event in your mind, it is rewriting a version of the memory over itself.
This means that the more you dwell on a memory, the more it is distorted. You romanticise the good parts and dramaticise the bad parts. The memory is ultimately warped beyond the point of telling the true story. Instead, it becomes something akin to a movie script or a fairy tale. But if it truly is a memory you deem special and hold dear, then maybe it isn’t too bad keeping a romanticised, “perfect” version of it somewhere in your heart to look back on every now and then.
From a very young age, goals are set for us by others. As babies we are encouraged to walk and talk, as children we are encouraged to do well in school, as teenagers we are encouraged to get a good degree and as adults, we are encouraged to be a model member of society. Advertisements put forward money, fame and power as models of success. Motivational speakers give speeches telling us paths we should follow to succeed. Parents tell children that they should listen to their advice if they wish to lead a comfortable life in the future. Amongst all of this external pressure, sometimes it seems difficult to have a say in what direction your life should go in.
The word autotelic is derived from the Greek words auto, meaning “self”, and telos, meaning “goal”. An autotelic is one who does not need external reminders to tell them who they are. They have a purpose in and not apart from themselves. They are driven by their own goals, curiosities and motivation. An autotelic does not live life like a connect-the-dots puzzle drawn by society, but chooses to paint their own life on a blank canvas.
The defining feature of autotelic personalities is that they are not driven by the want to be successful, but by the desire to seek challenges and be in flow state. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who coined the term flow, defined the mark of the autotelic personality as “the ability to manage a rewarding balance between the “play” of challenge finding and the “work” of skill building”. They are far less interested in external rewards, such as a gold star from a teacher or a raise from a employer. Their reward is the flow state they enter while they work on their goal and the satisfaction that comes with knowing that they completed a challenge.
Some of the greatest achievers in history were autotelics. They did not achieve amazing feats because of the promise of money and fame, but because they were internally driven by the thirst for flow. When questioned why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, famous mountaineer George Mallory replied: “Because it’s there”. An autotelic personality is not necessarily something you have to be born with. All you need is to constantly challenge yourself, discover whatever brings you to flow state and not let outside forces sway you from your own goals. For the only judge of your life that matters is you.
(If you don’t get the reference, go watch some How I Met Your Mother, coz it’s awesome :P Barney Stinson always sets new challenges for himself, always pushing himself to the limits of awesomeness. Examples: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iOi_iPNC50)
Death by lava is an often-used trope in films, most likely because of its slow, dramatic nature and the poetic beauty of being engulfed by liquid fire. But unfortunately as with so many things in the film world, most movie scenes depicting a person slowly sinking into lava until they are completely submerged is completely unscientific.
Lava is essentially molten rock. Just as ice and rock have different densities (try smashing two together for comparison), water and lava have completely different densities. In fact, lava is just over three times denser than water and somewhere between 100,000 to 1,000,000 times thicker (viscosity). The extremely high viscosity is why lava does not flow well, much like thick syrup and pitch. Density matters because less dense objects float when placed in a denser substance. Human beings are slightly denser than water (1010kg/m³ vs 1000kg/m³), meaning we can float if we have enough air in our lungs to provide the buoyancy. However, we are far less dense than molten lava. Even if we were as dense as lava, the extreme viscosity would make it very difficult for us to sink as the lava would not flow away from you that quickly. Ergo, if you were thrown into a pool of lava, you would not sink into a dramatic death.
Instead, you would most likely experience an even more horrific death as you stay afloat on the lava, as the surface of your body touching the lava is burned. Typical lava is between 1100~1200°C - well beyond the ignition point of human flesh. Not only will the skin, fat and muscle melt and peel away, but it will light up like a wick. The flame will soon cover the entire person and they will not only burn, but combust. Ultimately, only ash and completely dried up bone will be left floating on the lava, which will also end up igniting eventually.
Unfortunately, objects made of material such as steel and most other metals are denser than lava. This means that the Terminator would actually sink as dramatically as it did in the ending of Terminator 2 if he were to descend into a pool of lava.
(NB: It is important to note that in the movie, he descends into a vat of molten steel, not lava. Therefore, the accuracy of that scene hinges on whether the Terminator is made of a metal alloy denser than molten steel)
The Ouroboros is a symbol that depicts a serpent or a dragon biting its own tail, forming a ring. It is the symbol of cyclicality - something that is in a constant cycle of rebirth through the three steps of creation, maintenance and destruction.
The concept of a serpent devouring itself likely stems from the ancient belief that a snake shedding its skin is the act of leaving an old, inferior body to be reborn into a better, new body. The ancient Greeks explained that the Ouroboros connects its beginning (mouth) and end (tail) to form a metaphor for the link between life and death. By forming a circle, the Ouroboros has no beginning and no end; it is an infinite, linear path that cycles endlessly. Because of this, the Ouroboros is also the symbol of infinity, immortality and the cycle of time. An alternate ancient explanation for the Ouroboros is that because it eats itself, it will ultimately end up as nothing.
The Ouroboros was an important symbol in medieval alchemy. Alchemists used the symbol “O" to represent the Ouroboros. To the alchemists, the Ouroboros was an entity that did not place importance in the two natural processes of creation and destruction, but the often-neglected third force - maintenance. This neutral process is the connection between the start and end of anything. Alchemists knew that in any chemical reaction, the process is just as important as the starting ingredients and the final product. The Ouroboros also represented “everything” and “perfection” to alchemists as it connected its own beginning and end. Because of this, the Ouroboros came to represent the Philosopher’s stone.
Perhaps the most relevant application of the Ouroboros to us is the concept of rebirth and cycling. Nothing in nature is permanent. Matter changes states, chemicals react and species evolve. We too are never permanent. There is always room for change - to destroy what you do not like about yourself, create something better and then maintain that state until the next cycle comes. As much as it is important to know to love who you are, it is vital that you continuously recycle, refine and develop yourself to become the person that you are truly happy to call “me”.
Imagine, if you will, a very long piece of ropethat loops around the Earth, fitting it tightly around the equator like a belt. If you wanted to raise this rope off the surface by one metre all around, how much more rope will you need?
The length of rope is the same as the circumference of the Earth which is 40,075km (24,901 miles). Ergo, it is easy to think that you would need kilometres of rope to extend it enough to float a metre off the Earth’s surface. However, in reality you need a mere 6.28m of extra rope to achieve this.
The reason is extremely simple, mathematically speaking. The circumference of any given circle is given by the equation 2πr, where r is the radius of the circle. Therefore, if you increase r by 1 unit (e.g. 1m), then the circumference increases by 2π x 1 = 2π = 6.28. No matter how large the circle may be, this rule does not change.
(This is a famous maths riddle, but here’s a much more interesting application of the concept in this What If? article. God I love that blog! http://what-if.xkcd.com/67/)
One of the great questions in science is “could intelligent life develop on planets other than Earth?”. Even the general populace has heard of programmes such as SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life) and mathematical models such as the Drake equation that attempt to predict the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligent civilisations. But an equally intriguing question we seem to neglect is: “could intelligent life develop on Earth?”.
The definition of “intelligent life” is hugely varying, but nonetheless attempts have been made to compare our intelligence level to other animals. From the pool of research throughout the decades, the most “intelligent” non-human animals appear to be chimpanzees, bonobos, great apes, dolphins, elephants, certain parrots, ravens and rats. There is much research on the intelligence of cephalopods (e.g. the octopus) that has shown promise. If we were to shift the focus from individual intelligence, we could also consider “civilised” animals such as ants, as they are capable of building vast cities with intricate societies. All of this shows that intelligence is not exclusive to our species. We have simply walked down the path of evolution where the trait of ever-increasing intelligence, knowledge and wisdom have allowed us to adapt to and survive our environment. Ergo, it is fair to consider the possibility that other animals are walking a similar path that may lead to the making of a species with intelligence comparable to us.
However, this only raises the theoretical possibility of intelligent life. What is the realistic, practical possibility of intelligent life developing on Earth in the near future? Put another way, could intelligent life develop in the presence of a higher intelligent life (e.g. humans)? The road that brought us to throne of “the most intelligent species on Earth” was not an easy one. We are but one of many other hominid (human-like) species that evolution produced while tinkering with the concept. For example, there was a time when we (Homo sapiens) shared the Earth with other intelligent hominids such as the Neanderthals. The Neanderthals are commonly pictured as simple, knuckle-dragging apes but in reality they were just as intelligent as Homo sapiens during that time. They had a culture similar to our own, developed stone tools just as complex and even made cave paintings in a display of art. The reason why we are not breaking bad with Neanderthal neighbours now is that (according to one theory) we successfully outcompeted them, driving them to extinction (there is debate whether genocide and cannibalism was involved).
Evolutionarily speaking, it makes sense for an intelligent species to wipe out another species trying to compete with the ecological niche of intelligence. This has been discussed in many works of science fiction, such as Planet of the Apes where the emergence of intelligent apes leads to the destruction of human civilisation. Arthur C. Clarke discussed this as a side plot in his novel The Songs of Distant Earth. Upon discovering a species of sea scorpions that show signs of intelligence such as social hierarchy and metal collecting, the scientists suggest that they should allow it to develop, but ultimately the government decides to eradicate them as soon as they attempt to migrate to land.
Suffice to say, given our track record in history involving the countless times colonists wiped out other civilisations to serve their purpose, there is a good chance that any new intelligent life would immediately be removed by us if they had the misfortune of arising during our time.
The belladonna flower has a name that means “beautiful lady" in Italian. However, its other common name has a completely different meaning - the deadly nightshade. Both names can be explained by the uses of the flower throughout history. The deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is a small shrub with purple bell-shaped flowers and shiny black berries. All parts of the plant contain various toxins such as atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine. These alkaloid toxins are included in a group of chemicals called anticholinergics, because they act on cholinergic receptors on neurons, which are involved in activating the parasympathetic nervous system. As cholinergic receptors are widely utilised throughout the body, anticholinergic toxicity causes a wide range of symptoms.
The main symptoms of anticholinergic toxicity are best remembered using the following mnemonic:
Hot as a hare (increased temperature - reduced temperature regulation)
Blind as a bat (blurred vision - dilated pupils)
Dry as a bone (dry skin, eyes and mouth - decreased secretions)
Red as a beet (flushing - dilation of blood vessels)
The name deadly nightshade is obvious as severe toxicity leads to seizures, coma and death. The reason why the deadly nightshade is also called belladonna is that the diluted extract from the plant was used as an eye drop to dilate women’s pupils - a look considered beautiful then (nowadays the effect is used to examine the eye). The toxins extracted are used in other fields of medicine too. Although not used now, anticholinergics were used as an anaesthetic for surgery due to its neuropsychiatric effects. However, atropine is still used in the emergency setting to reverse bradycardia (excessively slow heart rate), as anticholinergics speed up the heart rate. This highlights the fundamental principle of medicine that “the dose makes the poison”. For the only difference between medicine and poison is the dose… and intent (Oscar G. Hernandez, MD).
I have two coins in my pocket that add up to the value of 30 cents. One of them is not a quarter. What two coins do I have in my pocket? (This riddle uses US currency, which means that the only coins available for the riddle are: penny (1c), nickel (5c), dime (10c) and quarter (25c))
The answer is a quarter and a nickel. Some might angrily retort that one of them should not be a nickel and that is correct. One of them is not a nickel, the other one is. We commonly place such simple yet seemingly unbreakable barriers in our minds. If you cannot solve a problem, take a step back and try to look past the barriers.
August 23, 1973 - Stockholm, Sweden. Two men entered a bank and took four bank workers hostage by gunpoint. The police quickly responded by surrounding the bank but could not act due to concern for the safety of the hostages. The stand-off lasted six days until the police finally negotiated the release of the hostages. During this ordeal, a very strange phenomenon was observed. The hostages had grown emotionally attached to their captors, rejecting rescue attempts and even defending their captors after their freedom. It was clear in subsequent interviews that the hostages had bonded with the criminals, supporting their cause and not minding the fact that they were threatened, abused and were made to fear for their lives. In fact, one woman later became engaged to one of the criminals, while another funded the legal fee for their trials.
Psychiatrist and criminologist Nils Bejerot studied this case and coined the phrase Stockholm syndrome to describe the phenomenon of hostages expressing empathy and sympathy to their captors, leading to bonding with and having positive feelings for them. This seems irrational as bonding is perceived as the product of a positive relationship where two people are loving and caring for each other, not threatening their life. This phenomenon has been well-documented throughout history in hostages, domestic abuse victims, prisoners of war and cult members. One study showed that up to 27% of hostage victims showed evidence of Stockholm syndrome in the U.S.
There are a few explanations for the Stockholm syndrome. The Freudian explanation is that the bonding is an individual’s response to the trauma of being threatened. By rationalising that they are in fact on the same side as the captors, the effect of the trauma is reduced as the victim feels less victimised. Evolutionarily speaking, human beings have always been under the threat of being invaded by a neighbouring tribe or country. This often involved the raping and abduction of women by the aggressors. Victims who would resist and fight back would have more likely been killed (along with their children), while those who responded as per the Stockholm syndrome would have been more likely to survive. It has been observed that the Stockholm syndrome is found more commonly in women.
Stockholm syndrome is a very common feature of human society, found in households in the form of battered-wife syndrome, in groups in the form of hazing and basic military training and in the bedroom in the form of bondage and masochism.
We are often reminded of how insignificant we are as individuals (or even as a race for that matter) in the grand scale of time and space in the universe. We are but a tiny, invisible dust particle on the map of the universe and we make up a sliver of time in the history of everything. This is a reminder that we should be humble, that no matter how great we think we are, we are nothing in the eye of the universe.
Then again, sometimes it is nice to remember that we are significant. Consider this. For you to have been born, generations after generation of couples have had to produce a child. You are the product of 4 billion years of evolution. 4 billion years of unbroken lineage, from the primordial ooze to bacteria to fish to amphibians to reptiles to rodents to primates. If even a single couple in that chain decided not to have an offspring, you would not be here reading this. Of course, this also puts you under the pressure that you may be the last one in that 4 billion-year chain not to reproduce, but let us ignore that for now.
Now consider the stars. When you look upon the night sky and see the twinkling of a star, what is happening is that photons (light particles) are hitting your retina and triggering a signal that is sent to your brain and interpreted as twinkling. Those photon generated by the star you see have travelled light years through the vast universe until your retinas rudely interrupted its journey. The closest star to us (excluding the sun) is Alpha Centauri, located 4.37 light years away. 1 light year (distance travelled by light in a year) is just under 10 trillion kilometres, meaning that those photons you blocked had travelled at least 41 trillion kilometres - or 41,343,392,165,178,100 metres. All you had to do was exist in a certain location and look up at the sky.
Some might say that you are puny and insignificant compared to this astronomical scale. But another way to think of it is that you effected real change in the universe (even if it was blocking a particle of light). No matter how small you are, no matter how short your life is compared to the history of the universe, you are not insignificant. Chaos theory (better known as the butterfly effect) dictates that even the smallest change in initial conditions can lead to unpredictable, widely diverging outcomes. For all you know, your existence is the difference between the existence of life on a distant planet somewhere.
So never say that you are insignificant. And if evolutionary biology and astrophysics is not enough to convince you, then look around you. The people you have met and interacted with throughout your life are affected by you in one way or another. For example, a compliment you paid in passing might completely change the person’s day. A simple act of kindness you thought nothing of could be recorded in someone’s life book as a life-changing event. Even a smile can make a difference. You are significant.
"If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person." ~ Mr. Rogers
Why do we feel sleepy after we eat? There are two components to the so-called “food coma”: neurological and hormonal. When we eat, the food mashed up by your teeth is swallowed down the oesophagus and into the stomach, where it is churned in a vat of very strong hydrochloric acid. The acid dissolves the food into liquid form, which is then sent to the small intestines. Here, the chemical components of the food such as carbohydrates is broken into simpler blocks, such as glucose. This is then absorbed into the bloodstream.
The body can actually sense when you have swallowed food, as your stomach stretches and sends signals to the brain. This triggers the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (opposite of the sympathetic nervous system, which is the “fight or flight” system). The parasympathetic nervous system is involved in digesting and rest. It stimulates stomach acid production, gut movement and even reduces your energy level so that digestion can happen smoothly. In old people, it can even decrease blood pressure enough to a point that they feel dizzy (much like head rush). This is the neurological component.
The hormonal component is linked with the absorption phase of digestion. To deal with the increasing level of glucose in your blood, the pancreas secretes insulin. Insulin rounds up the glucose in the blood and stores it away in cells to normalise the blood glucose level. In this process, it also stimulates the uptake of certain amino acids (building blocks of protein) into cells. However, it leaves out one type of amino acids called tryptophan. Because there is more tryptophan in the blood compared to the other amino acids, your brain decides to use this to build more proteins. Tryptophan is converted in the brain into a very important neurotransmitter called serotonin, which is then converted into melatonin. Melatonin is a neurotransmitter involved in triggering sleep. Therefore, through this extremely complicated pathway, food causes sleepiness.
At face value, this makes it look like increasing intake of tryptophan may help induce sleep. It is commonly said that turkey meat and bananas help you sleep because of tryptophan. But this is an urban myth as neither of these foods are particularly high in tryptophan and there is no evidence to suggest that tryptophan itself helps you sleep. Then again, melatonin supplements have some evidence supporting it as a sleep aide. This shows just how complicated the human body can be.
A tiny wound like a paper cut or pin prick takes about one week to heal. A cut from a sharp object like a knife takes 2~4 weeks to heal. Broken bones take 6 weeks to heal. Even after a heart attack (myocardial infarction), with proper medical care and rehabilitation you will return to living a relatively normal life 3~4 months later (assuming you survive). But there is no concrete figure of how long it takes to heal the aches of a broken heart.
The time it takes to get over a broken heart is extremely variable from person to person, case by case. Even so, ultimately the wound will heal and you will be able to move on with your life. Sure, the healing process will leave a scar that may cause you to wince every now and then, but you will come to accept and become okay with things. People do all sorts of things to hasten this process, from harmless things such as demolishing a tub of ice cream to acts such as rebounding or walking down a self-destructive path. But there is nothing that will heal a broken heart like the best medicine - time.
Time has an incredible effect on the body, mind and heart. It is like fertiliser for good memories, letting it bloom and flourish over time, while acting as pesticide for bad memories, slowly weeding them out until it is out of sight. So if you are in pain from a wound - physical or emotional - let time do its job and work its healing magic. And remember that just like a cut, poking at the wound in your heart will only delay the healing process. While time does all that, all you have to do is survive.
Body heat is a vital condition that animals need to survive. It is so vital that when you are hypothermic, your body will override almost everything else to conserve heat as much as possible. Without enough heat, the chemical reactions that fuel your cells will grind to a halt and you will die. To solve the issue of getting heat, nature came up with two answers: endotherms and ectotherms. Endotherms are organisms that produce their own heat (e.g. mammals) by trapping the heat produced by metabolism and through extra mechanisms such as shivering. Ectotherms rely on absorbing environmental heat (e.g. reptiles), usually through the sun. Because of this, ectotherms suffer a much greater range in body temperature. This means that animals such as lizards will be slower and more sluggish when it is cold.
Being in a cold environment quickens the process of heat loss, robbing you of the precious heat you generate. A solution to this is shared bodily warmth. Also known as kleptothermy, this is a common thermoregulation strategy where a group of animals huddle together to share the heat generated by each other. This increases the efficiency of heat generation (thermogenesis) and the group as a whole can stay warmer for longer. This behaviour is commonly seen in communal animals such as mice, who huddle together even when they are newborns (newborns lose heat much quicker than adults due to the difference in weight to surface area ratio). Some ectotherms such as snakes and lizards also engage in kleptothermy, where by huddling together they increase their effective mass and reduce heat loss.
An interesting case of kleptothermy is seen in Canadian red-sided garter snakes, where the heat is not shared, but stolen. A male snake will sometimes emerge from hibernation and begin to produce fake pheromones to attract other males as if it were a female. Other males are fooled into thinking that the snake is female and approach it to mate. Through this strange process, the snake is able to steal the heat from its rival males and use the extra energy to mate with an actual female (or lose it to an even more cunning male snake).