I recently posted an article by Burkhard Bilger, published in the The New Yorker, on David Eagleman. The following post by Betsy Mason for the Wired Science blog looks at aspects of Eagleman’s work, such as the structure of our brain as different competing aspects being involved in decision making, the role the illusion of time plays in schizophrenia as well as the legal ramifications arising from the fact that neuroscience suggests that we are not equal before the law.

Most people probably feel like they know their own brain reasonably well. After all, our thoughts form the core of who we are, or at least who we understand ourselves to be. But it turns out we know only a tiny portion of what our brains are doing and where our own thoughts come from.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman takes us on an enlightening tour of all that our brains are up to behind our backs in his new book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Get a preview in the audio excerpt and learn more about the book and Eagleman’s current research in the interview below.

Wired.com: Your book deals a lot with the idea that we are totally unaware of most of what goes on in our brains. Is this why we get hunches that seem to just materialize from nowhere?

David Eagleman: The main thing that inspired me to write this book is looking at all the ways the conscious is just the littlest bit of what’s happening in the brain. Your brain does these massive computations under the hood all the time. And a hunch essentially is the result of all those computations. So it’s exactly like riding a bicycle, the way you don’t have to be consciously aware, in fact you cannot be consciously aware. Your consciousness has no access to the operations running under the hood that allow you to ride the bicycle, or for that matter that allow you to recognize somebody’s face. you don’t know how you recognize somebody’s face, you just do it effortlessly.

In both of these cases, it’s very hard to write computer programs to do this stuff, to ride a bicycle or recognize somebody’s face, because there’s massive computation going on there that’s required. Your brain does this all effortlessly and the hunch is when it serves up the end result of those computations.

Essentially the conscious mind is like a newspaper headline in the sense that all it ever wants is the summary, it doesn’t need to know all the details of how something happened, it just wants to know, Obama’s in China or whatever it is. It doesn’t need to know every bit of the background of American history and Chinese history, it just wants to know what’s happening right now. And so a hunch is a way of summarizing vast quantities of data. And you may not have any conscious access to how the computation was made.

Wired.com: If our brains are working without us being consciously aware of it, how does that affect the choices we make?

Eagleman: When people go through marriage registries, they find that people are more likely to marry other people whose first name begins with the first letter of their own first name, so Alex and Amy, Joel and Jenny, Donny and Daisy, these kind of things. And if your name is Dennis or Denise you’re statistically more likely to become a dentist. This can be verified by looking in the dentist professional registries.

Also, people whose birthday is Feb. 2, are disproportionately more likely to move to cities with the number two in their name, like Twin Lakes, Wisconsin. And people born on 3/3 are statistically overrepresented in places like Three Forks, Montana, and so on.

Anyway, the point of all this is that it’s a crazy reason to choose a life mate or a city to live in or a profession, and if you ask people about why they made these choices, that probably would not be included in their conscious narrative. And yet it’s statistically provable that these things do have an influence in very subtle ways on our choices. People like brands, for example, that begin with the the same first letters as their first names, and they’ll be more likely to choose that brand just based on that, even though they’re not consciously aware they’re doing that.

Wired.com: So if we’re not consciously directing our own decision-making, how do our brains handle the process?

Eagleman: I make this argument about the brain being like a team of rivals. I synthesize a lot of data to show that you are not one thing, but instead your brain is made up of these competing networks that are all battling it out to control this single output channel of your behavior. And so your brain’s like a neural parliament, and you’ve got these different parties in there like the Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians, all of whom love their country and feel that they know the best way to steer the ship of state. But they have differing opinions on how to do it, and they have to fight it out.

This is why we can cuss at ourselves and cajole ourselves and get angry at ourselves, and this is why you can do behavior and look back and think, “Wow, how did I do that?” It’s because you are not one person, you are not one thing. As Walt Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

In the book I break down all these different competing parties in the brain. If you’re trying to understand yourself, and what kind of person am I, and why did I do that and so on, this gives you a much richer view of what’s actually happening under the hood so that you don’t suffer from the illusion that there’s a single “I” in there.

And once you start understanding this about yourself, then you can structure things so that you constrain your future behavior. For example, once you realize that your short-term instant-gratification circuits will be really tempted in a certain situation, you can then think about it in advance and make sure you don’t get yourself into that situation.

Wired.com: Besides short-term vs. long term interests, what are some of the other warring parties in your brain?

Eagleman: Another team of rivals is closely related to this issue of emotion and reason. You have certain parts of your brain that really care about essentially math problems and just adding things up and deciding on something in a purely logical way, and then other networks in your brain that are involved in what we generally summarize as emotion. And these largely have to do with monitoring your internal state, instead of the external world, and they have to do with judging how things will pay off for the system whether these things are good or bad.

And it turns out with neuroimaging you can see these things in competition when people are making a decision, let’s say a moral decision where logically you might feel like you want to go one way, but emotionally you feel like you want to go the other way. You see these battles in action.

I think an understanding of the teams of rivals in the brain allows us to really think more clearly about other people’s behavior. In the book I use an example of Mel Gibson, who made these antisemitic rants when he was drunk and then afterward wrote these letters of apology that seemed to be genuine. Everybody was arguing about whether he is an anti-semite or not an anti-semite. What I say in the book is, even though his behavior was despicable, are we obliged to think somebody is or is not something? Isn’t it possible for somebody to have both racist and non-racist parts of their brain that can be coexisting in a single person — where he might say things at one point and feel bad about it at another point?

To say that somebody has true colors — that there’s sort of one thing this person is — isn’t nuanced enough with our understanding of modern neuroscience. People are complex in this way. They contain multitudes.

Wired.com: How does the brain decide who wins?

Eagleman: One piece of advice that I give in the book is something that my mother advised me a long time ago: If you’re ever stuck between two options and you just can’t make a decision, flip a coin and then consult your gut feeling about whether you’re disappointed with the way the coin landed.

What you’re doing is a gut check on how the coin toss came out, and that immediately tells you what you need to know. You sort of pretend that you’re committing to it. And then if you go, “Oh shit!” then you know that you should just go with the other choice.

Wired.com: What does your current research about time teach us about how our brains work?

Eagleman: I study time perception and illusions of time, and one of the main questions that I look at is, as we understand time better, what does that tell us about how these systems can break?

One of the experiments we did a few years ago showed that if we inject a small delay between your motor act and some sensory feedback, then when we remove that delay, you’ll have the impression that the feedback happened before you did the act. So, if you press a button and that causes a flash of light to go off, you quickly learn that you are causing the flash of light. Now if we insert a small delay so that when you press the button, there’s a tenth of a second before the flash, you don’t notice that delay, but your brain starts to adjust for it. Then, if we suddenly remove that delay, you’ll hit the button, the flash of light will happen immediately, but you will swear the flash of light happened before you pressed the button.

This is an illusory reversal of action and effect. What people say in this situation is, “It wasn’t me. The flash happened before I pressed the button.” And that struck me as very interesting because this is something that we see in schizophrenia. Schizophrenics will do what’s called credit misattribution where they will make an act, and they will claim that they are not the ones responsible for it.

So that immediately got me thinking that maybe what’s happening in schizophrenia is fundamentally a disorder of time perception. Because if you’re putting out actions into the world and you’re getting feedback, but you’re not getting the timing correct, then you will have cognitive fragmentation, which is what schizophrenics have.

We always talk to ourselves internally and listen to ourselves — we have an internal monologue going on. Now imagine that the talking and the hearing that’s going on internally, imagine that the order got reversed. Well, you would have to attribute that voice to somebody else. That’s an auditory hallucination, and that’s another thing that characterizes schizophrenia.

I’ve been running studies now at the Harris County Psychiatric Center with schizophrenic patients, and it does appear that they have problems in the time domain. So I’m pursuing this hypothesis right now about whether schizophrenia is fundamentally a disorder of time perception. If it is, that’s a big deal because it means that we might be able to develop rehabilitative strategies that involve playing a little video game in front of a computer instead of a pharmaceutical approach.

Wired.com: You argue that brain science could improve our legal system. How would that work?

Eagleman: As part of my day job I direct the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. What I’m asking is, given the situation that much of what we do and think and act and believe is all generated by parts of our brain that we have no access to, what does this mean when we think about responsibility and blameworthiness when people are bad actors in society?

I’ve been working on this topic for years and it’s become clear to me that our legal system as it stands now is so broken and outdated. It essentially rests on this myth of equality, which says all brains are created equal. As long as you’re over 18 and you’re over an IQ of 70, then all brains are treated as though they have an equal capacity for decision making, for simulating possible futures for understanding consequences and so on. And it’s simply not true.

Along any axis that we measure brains, they are very different. There’s as much variation neurally as there is with people’s external physical characteristics. So an enlightened legal system, and one that’s also more humane and more cost effective, will instead of treating everybody equally and treating incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution, will do customized sentencing and customized rehabilitation. It will try to understand people better, in terms of what can be done with them and for them. It can have better risk assessment to understand, “How dangerous is this person?”

We still have to take people who break the law off the streets to have a good society, so this doesn’t forgive anybody. But what it means is we have a forward-looking legal system that just worries about the probability of recidivism, or in other words, what is the probability that this person’s behavior will transfer to other future situations? That makes a forward-looking legal system instead of a backward-looking one like we have now, which is just a matter of blame and saying, “How blameworthy are you and we’re going to punish you for that.”

What’s happening more and more in courtrooms is defense lawyers will argue that their client has bad genes, that he was sexually abused as a child or he had in utero cocaine poisoning, so it wasn’t really his fault. It turns out that’s the wrong question to ask, because the interaction of genes and environment is so complex that we will never be able to say how somebody came to be who he is now and whether he had any real choice in the matter of whether he behaved this way or that way. So the only logical thing is to have a forward-looking system that says, “We can’t know the answer to that, all we need to know is how dangerous is this person into the future?”

Beyond that there’s this issue that our prison system has become our de facto mental health care system. The estimates now are that 30 percent of the prison population suffers from some sort of mental illness. It’s much more humane and enlightened and cost effective to have a system that deals with the mentally ill separately, deals with drug addicts separately. and so on. Incarceration is the right solution for some people because it will be a deterrent. But it doesn’t work if your brain’s not functioning properly. If you’re suffering from a psychosis, for example, putting you in prison isn’t going to fix that.

Wired.com: So do we need, next to the jury of your peers, a jury of brain experts?

Eagleman: So here’s what I think. Trials have two phases. There’s the guilt phase, or the fact finding phase, and of course that should always remain with a jury of your peers, there are many reasons for that. But the sentencing phase should be done with statistics and sophisticated risk assessment instruments. And I should mention, these are already underway.

For example, with sex offenders, people have done very good studies where they have followed tens of thousands of sex offenders for years after they are released form prison, and they find out who recidivates and who doesn’t. Then they correlate that with all of these things they can measure about the person. And it turns out that that gives really good predictive power about who’s likely to recidivate and who’s not.

Now I need to specify here that we will never be able to know whether any individual will commit a crime again or not, because life’s too complicated and crime is often circumstantial. Nonetheless, it is the case that some people are more dangerous than others. And these statistical tests are incredibly powerful tools for understanding who on average is going to be more dangerous than whom and thereby how long we should sentence them for.

Betsy Mason is the editor of Wired Science.
Follow @betsymason on Twitter.

Go to the  Wired Science website  to listen to excerpts of David Eagleman’s latest book “The secret lives of the brain”.
Nice video edit – unfortunately the Sesame production team wouldn’t dare going into this territory.

– Liquid Stranger – Destroy Robots (g’iz-roc remix)
– Benny Benassi – Cinema (Skrillex Remix) (Renger’s Bootleg Edit)

Supplementing the previous post on the illusion of time, here are 10 examples of warped time provided by PsyBlog.

How time perception is warped by life-threatening situations, eye movements, tiredness, hypnosis, age, the emotions and more…

The mind does funny things to our experience of time. Just ask French cave expert Michel Siffre.

In 1962 Siffre went to live in a cave that was completely isolated from mechanical clocks and natural light. He soon began to experience a huge change in his experience of time.

When he tried to measure out two minutes by counting up to 120 at one-second intervals, it took him 5 minutes. After emerging from the cave he guessed the trip had lasted 34 days. He’d actually been down there for 59 days. His experience of time was rapidly changing. From an outside perspective he was slowing down, but the psychological experience for Siffre was that time was speeding up.

But you don’t have to hide out in a cave for a couple of months to warp time, it happens to us all the time. Our experience of time is flexible; it depends on attention, motivation, the emotions and more.

1. Life-threatening situations

People often report that time seems to slow down in life-threatening situations, like skydiving.

But are we really processing more information in these seconds when time seems to stretch? Is it like slow-motion cameras in sports which can actually see more details of the high-speed action?

To test this, Stetson et al. (2007) had people staring at a special chronometer while free-falling 50 metres into a net. What they found was that time resolution doesn’t increase: we’re not able to distinguish shorter periods of time when in danger. What happens is we remember the time as longer because we record more of the experience. Life-threatening experiences make us really pay attention but we don’t gain superhuman powers of perception.

2. Time doesn’t fly when you’re having fun

We’ve all experienced the fact that time seems to fly when we’re having fun. Or does it? What about when you’re listening to a fantastic uplifting piece of music? Does time seem to fly by, or conversely, does it seem to slow down?

When this was tested by Kellaris (1992), they found that when listeners enjoyed the music more, time seemed to slow down. This may be because when we enjoy music we listen more carefully, getting lost in it. Greater attention leads to perception of a longer interval of time.

The same thing happens when you have a really good, exciting day out. At the end of the day it can feel like you ate breakfast a lifetime ago. You enjoyed yourself enormously and yet time has stretched out.

The fact that we intuitively believe time flies when we’re having fun may have more to do with how time seems to slow when we’re not having fun. Boredom draws our attention to the passage of time which gives us the feeling that it’s slowing down.

Or—prepare yourself for a 180 degree about-face—it could all be the other way around. Perhaps you’re having fun when time flies. In other words, we assume we’ve been enjoying ourselves when we notice that time has passed quickly.

There’s evidence for this in a recent experiment by Sackett et al. (2010). Participants doing a boring task were tricked into thinking it had lasted half as long as it really had. They thought it was more enjoyable than those who had been doing exactly the same task but who hadn’t been tricked about how much time had passed.

Ultimately it may come down to how much you believe that time flies when you’re having fun. Sackett and colleagues tested this idea as well and found it was true. In their experiments, people who believed more strongly in the idea that time flies when you’re having fun were more likely to believe they were having fun when time flew. So, the whole thing could partly be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

3. The stopped clock illusion

The stopped clock illusion is a weird effect that you may have experienced. It happens when you look at an analogue watch and the second-hand seems to freeze for longer than a second before moving on.

I always thought this was because I just happened to look at it right at the start of the second, but this is actually an illusion.

What is happening is that when your eyes move from one point to another (a saccade), your perception of time stretches slightly (Yarrow et al., 2001). Weirdly, it stretches backwards. So your brain tells you that you’ve been looking at the watch for slightly longer than you really have. Hence the illusion that the second-hand is frozen for more than a second.

This happens every time our eyes move from one fixation point to the next, it’s just that we only notice it when looking at a watch. One explanation is that our brains are filling in the gap while our eyes move from looking at one thing to the next.

4. Too tired to tell the time

When things happen very close together in time, our brains fuse them together into a single snapshot of the present. For vision the shortest interval we can perceive is about 80 milliseconds. If two things happen closer together than that then we experience them as simultaneous.

The shortest possible gap in time we can distinguish across modalities (say visual and auditory) is between 20 and 60 milliseconds (Fink et al., 2006). That’s as little as a fiftieth of a second.

When we’re tired, though, our perception of time goes awry and we find it more difficult to distinguish between short spaces of time. This fact can be used to measure whether people are too tired to fly a plane, drive a truck or be a doctor. Indeed just such simple hand-held devices that quickly assess your tiredness are already being developed (Eagleman, 2009).

5. Self-regulation stretches time

The effort of trying to either suppress or enhance our emotional reactions seems to change our perception of time. Psychologists have found that when people are trying to regulate their emotions, time seems to drag on.

Vohs and Schmeichel (2003) had participants watch an 11 minute clip from the film Terms of Endearment. Some participants were asked to remain emotionally neutral while watching the clip and others were told to act naturally. Those who tried to suppress their emotions estimated the clip had lasted longer than it really had.

6. Altered states of consciousness

People report all sorts of weird experiences with time when taking drugs like psilocybin, peyote or LSD. Time can seem to speed up, slow down, go backwards, or even stop.

But you don’t need drugs to enter an altered state of consciousness, hypnosis will do the trick. People generally seem to underestimate the time that they’ve been under hypnosis. One study found this figure was around 40% (Bowers & Brenneman, 1979).

7. Does time speed up with age?

People often say the years pass more quickly as they get older. While youthful summers seemed to stretch on into infinity, the summers of your later years zip by in the blink of an eye.

A common explanation for this is that everything is new when we are young so we pay more attention; consequently it feels like time expands. With age, though, new experiences diminish and it tends to be more of the same, so time seems to pass more quickly.

Whether or not this is true, there is some psychological evidence that time passes quicker for older people. One study has found that people in their 20s are pretty accurate at guessing an interval of 3 minutes, but people in their 60s systematically overestimate it, suggesting time is passing about 20% more quickly for them (Mangan & Bolinsky, 1997).

8. The emotional experience of time

The emotions we feel in the moment directly affect our perception of time. Negative emotions in particular seem to bring time to people’s attention and so make it seem longer.

Research on anxious cancer patients, those with depression and boredom-prone individuals suggests time stretches out for them (reported in Wittmann, 2009). Just like life-threatening situations, negative emotions can concentrate our attention on the passage of time and so make it seem longer than it really is.

This effect may be made worse by our efforts to regulate these negative emotions (see number 5), which also has the effect of stretching time.

9. It’s getting hot in here

If you’ve ever had a fever then you’ll know that body temperature can have strange effects on time perception.

Experiments have found that when body temperature is raised our perception of time speeds up (Wearden & Pento-Voak, 1995). Conversely when we are cooled down, our sense of time also slows down.

10. What’s your tempo?

Setting aside emotions, age, drugs and all the rest, our experience of time is also affected by who we are. People seem to operate to different beats; we’ve all met people who work at a much slower or faster pace than we do. Psychologists have found that people who are impulsive and oriented towards the present tend to find that time moves faster for them than others (from O’Brien et al., 2011).

There’s little research on this but it’s likely that each of us has our own personal tempo. Research has found that when different people listen to metronomes the number of beats per minute they describe as comfortable ranges from as slow as 40 bpm up to a high of 200 bpm (Kir-Stimon, 1977). This is a large range and may help to explain why some people seem to operate at such a different pace to ourselves.

Time is relative

The last words on time come from two great thinkers; first Albert Einstein:

“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

And finally, Douglas Adams:

“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”

Image credit: Alice Lucchin

Source: Peter Murray, Singularity Hub

Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town will be built from the ground up with the latest green technologies, including solar panel roofing, smart household appliances, and shared usage of electric cars and bicycles.

Panasonic has just partnered with eight other companies to build an eco-friendly town that uses the latest energy-saving and generating technologies. The houses populating the new town are expected to have virtually zero carbon emissions. It is Panasonic’s hope that the new city, expected to be completed by March 2014, will change the way cities are built in Japan and, eventually, across the world.

Unfortunately, it won’t.

I have no doubt the new city, to be named Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town (SST), will be the greenest on Earth. But Panasonic should know that, in the end, the town will be more pipe dream than prototype. More helpful than creating a city with the latest in green technologies would be finding ways to incorporate those technologies in already existing city infrastructures. It’s a daunting task, and it’s an expensive task. Until we find cheap ways to replace shingles with solar panels, for example, we’re simply not going to do it.

That being said, you have to start somewhere.

Fujisawa SST will be built on a 47-acre vacant lot where a Panasonic factory once stood about 50 km west of Tokyo and will include aout 1,000 houses. Most of the technologies that will be on display at the town won’t be new, but their multi-layered incorporation will be.

By taking a ground up, green energy approach, Panasonic will be able to optimize the functionality and energy use of all the town’s equipment. Their energy management system will synergistically incorporate created energy, stored energy, and saved energy for maximal efficiency. The created energy will come from solar paneled roofing that will adorn all of the houses as well as public facilities. The energy harvested by the solar panels will then be stored in a new type of home-use lithium-ion storage battery that Panasonic developed itself. According to Panasonic the battery will be able to store enough electricity to power a house for a week. Efficient use of that energy will come from Panasonic’s ECO NAVI range of smart household appliances that sense their surroundings and adjust usage accordingly to reduce wasted electricity. The ECO NAVI refrigerator, for example, has four sensors: a door sensor to detect when it is open, an ambient light sensor that tracks the time of day the refrigerator is accessed, and ambient and interior heat sensors for optimal control of internal temperature. The refrigerator also learns the eating schedule of the household. In times of low access, such as during the workday or at night, it maintains a less cool temperature. Compared to conventional refrigerators, the ECO NAVI fridge reduces energy usage by up to 10 percent.

The developers aim to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the town by 70 percent compared to 1990 levels.

The layout of city blocks will be planned with the surrounding landscape in mind. A “green axis” of parks and vegetation will line the main roads and form wind paths. Solar panel design will be artistically rendered to blend with the town’s lush green landscape. And, of course, the car of choice for Fujisawa SST residents will run on electricity. Because they will require some electricity from an outside source when enough can’t be generated from solar energy within the town, the cars won’t be completely free of emission. But a city of electric cars well definitely minimize the carbon footprint compared to their gas-guzzling counterparts. Home garage and public facilities will be equipped to promote electrical vehicle ownership and sharing in Zipcar fashion. Currently under consideration is an alternative plan that does away with garages altogether. In their place would be sprawling yards and separate parking areas would hold the cars to be shared by the families in 10 to 20 homes. Electric bicycles will also be available for sharing among residents in an effort to further decrease the town’s carbon footprint.

In an effort to make Fujisawa SST both energy-efficient and safe, many of Fujisawa SST’s public spaces, such as parks, will have storage battery systems accessible by the public in the event of a catastrophe. Given Japan’s high risk of earthquakes, publicly available energy would be crucial in the event residential energy stores were destroyed.

Fujisawa SST’s optimally designed infrastructure will be connected by a power and information network, part of Panasonic’s comprehensive solutions. A Smart Energy Gateway system will connect the energy creation and storage devices as well as appliances on a single network for easy control at in-home displays. Field testing is currently underway for energy-saving technologies to be used in the town’s stores. Energy saving and storage equipment is being developed for efficient use of wind, light, heat and water. Check out the idyllic artistic renderings of the town in the computer-generated tour below.

Fujisawa SST’s timing couldn’t be better for Japan. March’s devastating earthquake knocked out one of Japan’s major sources of energy: the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Another plant, the Hamaoka plant near central Japan is also being shut down due to safety concerns, further pinching energy resources. To minimize energy demands, the Japanese government has urged its people to save as much as it can. Companies were asked to cut their electricity use by 15 percent. At home, people are being asked to maintain a room temperature of 28 degrees Celcius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), use fans rather than air conditioners and to not leave gadgets plugged in.

Spurred largely by the earthquake, Japan’s Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, recently outlined a new future energy policy for his country. The policy calls for increased emphasis on solar and wind power. In addition the government plans to invest in future, as yet unrealized innovative technologies. In light of the country’s new green initiative, Panasonic is aggressively moving to position itself at the forefront of a market they expect to flourish in the coming years. The company acknowledges that if they stay exclusively in the business of audiovisual and white goods then their future growth will be limited. In the Fujisawa SST spirit of combining capabilities into a single multi-faceted toolset, Panasonic last year acquired Sanyo, one of Japan’s leading electronics companies. The acquisition turned Panasonic into Japan’s second largest electronics company after Hitachi, Ltd. The acquisition enabled Panasonic to develop the lithium-ion batteries planned to be used in the Fujisawa SST homes.

The Fujisawa SST project is a breath of fresh air in a world where efforts to go green are sadly limited. Unfortunately, the main impetus for a new city is the same reason green technologies are slow to take hold in old cities: it is much more feasible to incorporate green technologies into new infrastructures from the start than it is to retrofit old ones. For most buildings and houses, the cost of major remodeling with an already expensive technology is prohibitive. Panasonic’s “ground up” idea is a great one, but the world needs something better. I don’t think New York is going to be rebuilt anytime soon.

[image credit: Panasonic]

image: Fujisawa SST
video: Fujisawa SST

Here’s something to my liking: film director Michael Haneke commenting on his way of film making:

My films are intended as polemical statements against the American ‘barrel down’ cinema and its disempowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent question instead of false answers; for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness; for provocation of dialogue instead of consumption of consensus.

That’s a refreshing approach to film making, one that provokes critical thought and active engagement with the content of the film. It makes intelligence grow rather than shrivel away into into stupidity and ignorance.

Michael Haneke (born 23 March 1942) is an Austrian filmmaker and writer best known for his bleak and disturbing style. His films often document problems and failures in modern society. Haneke has worked in television‚ theatre and cinema. He is also known for raising social issues in his work.[1] Besides working as filmmaker he also teaches directing at the Filmacademy Vienna.

At the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, his film The White Ribbon won the Palme d’Or for best film, and at the 67th Golden Globe Awards the film won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film. He has made films in French, German and English.

His films include Benny’s Video (1992), The Piano Teacher (2002) which won the Grand Prix (Cannes Film Festival), Caché (2005) (Hidden) which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival and The White Ribbon (2009) which won the Palme d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival[8] and 2010 the Golden Globe in the category “Best Foreign Language Film”.

Illustration: Edd Aragon

Cane toads of the air thrive on stupidity

Elizabeth Farrelly, Sydney Morning Herald

I’m always amazed by how readily we let our buttons be pushed. It’s almost as though we want them to manipulate us. As though we like it. “Them”, here, obviously includes politicians, advertisers and spin merchants, but the worst offenders, partly because they’re the least explicit, are “shock jocks”.

They are the cane toads of contemporary culture: ugly, ubiquitous, toxic to most other life forms and adept at using their peculiar behaviour to force change in ours.

It’s not so much that they’re rude, lowbrow or just plain wrong, although these, too, are often the case. The most destructive effect of the shock-jockariat is the poisoning of the logic-well itself; followed by the incremental death of the argument tree that is root and branch of intelligent civilisation.

Take Alan Jones. Though it pains me to say it, he is forcing me to change my mind. Not on climate change, or cycling, or the right to public protest, all of which he opposes, but on censorship.

Foucault argued that unreason died with the enlightenment. But the shock-jock phenomenon proves repeatedly that if you make an argument sufficiently idiotic, the sheer scale of stupidity makes it hard to defeat. It was highlighted for me this week by a letter that argued, as Jones does, that anything so small as 0.04 per cent – the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere – couldn’t possibly matter. “Please let me know,” concluded my correspondent, “how anyone could believe that CO2 is responsible for climate change?”

It’s like arguing that a virus is too small to give you AIDS. Or that a lethal dose of heroin, at about 0.0007 per cent of your body weight, couldn’t possibly kill.

Never mind that applying the same logic to asylum seekers would make you wonder what all the fuss was about (our total asylum applications – 8150 last year, including dependants – being a mere 0.04 per cent of the population.)

These climate-change rants deliberately ignore everything about eco-balance, homeostasis, the greenhouse effect and tipping points we’ve all been taught since primary school and instead raucously promote a red herring.

Yet it’s neither stupidity nor ignorance on Jones’s part. Quite likely he’s read Robert Thouless’s list of dishonest tricks in argument, including caricature, anecdote and non sequitur. Or even Schopenhauer’s list. Bombast, hyperbole, personal insult; certainly he employs most of them.

No, Jones’s position is more cynical. It’s a deliberate appeal to (our) stupidity by (his) intelligence. And it’s not just Jones, or just Sydney, or just climate change.

What’s truly alarming is how accepted it has become that these popular voices deliberately flout the rules of argument. And that, in doing this, they so manipulate the vote that politicians move to appease.

The Adelaide author Ruth Starke has written of her encounter with a South Australian shock jock, Ray Fewings. At issue was a book – Nicki Gemmel’s Cleave. Written for adults, it contained sexuality and was selected by a 12-year-old from the school library. Mother appalled. Controversy ensued.

“Porn!” screamed the jocks. When Starke suggested the mother might have discussed the book with her daughter, Fewings cut her short for “attacking the mother” and accused her of wanting “open slather” so that “12-year-olds could read filth”.

Fewings then twisted this into “What gives Ruth Starke the right to dictate to parents what they should discuss with their children?” and “You heard from a writer who wants open slather to write whatever she wants”. Caricature, insult, emotive language; all core shock-jock stock.

Jones’s infamous carbon tax interview with Julia Gillard in February was scarily similar. First he repeatedly reprimanded the Prime Minister for being 10 minutes late. “I’ve got my job and you’ve got your job . . . 7.10 is 7.10 isn’t it? . . . We’re all busy.” This was followed by dozens of cuttings-in and talkings-over, plus an outright accusation of lying: “There are people now saying your name is not Julia but Ju-liar, and . . . we’ve got a liar running the country.”

Ditto with Clover Moore last May. As the lord mayor arrived Jones was already in a lather, voice raised, epithets at the ready, describing Sydney’s new cycleway as “the virtual destruction” of the city. “Thirty-four thousand votes,” he told her, “you virtually speak for nobody . . . Clover, you haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about . . . For godsake, Clover Moore, can’t you read?”

If all else fails, Schopenhauer recommends clouding the issue through bluff, confusion and induced anger. But beneath the barrage of emotion and insult, the technique here is to make scapegoats of cyclists as the cause of all that angers motorists (when in truth, every bike is a car taken off the road).

Why do politicians tolerate it? Why do we? My theory is this. Most shock jocks, and their audiences, are pretty long in the tooth. Perhaps there’s just a certain kind of person who, as the hormones start to recede, needs this pseudo-emotion to feel alive.

Yet it’s dangerous. We’re used to arguments about civilisation but seldom do we notice just how deeply argument itself underpins civilised life. In the classical tradition, this – rhetoric – was taught in schools. As a basic thinking skill, it came to govern public discussion and debate.

We could do the same. The rules of logic are not difficult. As taught to philosophy sophomores, they cover deductive and inductive reasoning, true and false syllogisms, building arguments with consistency, validity and soundness and – crucially – how to spot a fallacy. Pretty basic.

Without them, however, parliamentary democracy would be impossible. We’d never have risen from the yah-boo of the playground or the might-is-right jungle of silverback tribalism.

You don’t have to look far to see what happens without logic’s civilising structures; it’s the cultural equivalent of those Indonesian abattoirs. Yet this is where shock jocks are coming from and where, if they had their way, they would take us, forcing me to wonder whether censorship mightn’t be reasonable after all.

But there is hope.

Last week, after my cane toads column, several Queenslanders wrote in to say they hadn’t actually seen serious toad numbers for some time. Something, they inferred, is killing them off.

Maybe it’s the same with shock-jockery. We can only hope it happens before it irreparably harms our civilisation, as well as our climate.

Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author and architect
More Elizabeth Farrelly articles

What Sugar Actually Does To Your Brain And Body

Source: Adam Dachis on Lifehacker

We consume an enormous amount of sugar, whether consciously or not, but it’s a largely misunderstood substance. There are different kinds and different ways your body processes them all. Some consider it poison and others believe it’s the sweetest thing on earth. Here’s a look at the different forms of sugar, the various ways they effect you, and how they play a role in healthy — and unhealthy — diets.

Of course, if you already know how sugar works and how your body uses it, feel free to skip down to the final section about healthier sugar consumption.

The Different Types of Sugar

There are too many types of sugar (and, of course, sugar substitutes) to tackle in a high-level overview like this one, so we’re really only going to look at the two (and a half) that you regularly encounter: glucose and fructose.


Glucose is a simple sugar that your body likes. Your cells use it as a primary source of energy, so when you consume glucose, it’s actually helpful. When it’s transported into the body, it stimulates the pancreas to produce insulin. Your brain notices this increase, understands that it’s busy metabolising what you just ate, and tells you that you’re less hungry. The important thing to note here is that when you consume glucose, your brain knows to tell you to stop eating when you’ve had enough.

But glucose isn’t perfect. There are many processes involved when you consume glucose, but one that occurs in your liver produces something called http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Very_low_density_lipoprotein (or VLDL). You don’t want VLDL. It causes problems (like cardiovascular disease). Fortunately, only about 1 out of 24 calories from glucose that are processed by the liver turn into VLDL. If glucose were the only thing you ate that produced VLDL, it would be a non-issue.

Sucrose and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

For our purposes, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and sucrose are the same thing because they’re both highly sweet and they both contain a large amount of fructose. Sucrose is 50 per cent fructose and HFCS is 55 per cent fructose (which is high compared to normal corn syrup, but pretty normal when compared to cane sugar). The remainder of each is glucose, which we discussed above. In most cases, fructose is bad for you because of how it’s processed by the body. Fructose can only be metabolised by the liver, which is not a good thing. This means a greater number of calories — about three times more than glucose — are going through liver processes and that results in a much higher production of VLDL (the bad cholesterol mentioned earlier) and fat. It also results in a higher production of uric acid and a lot of other things you don’t want, which is believed to lead to fun stuff like hypertension and high blood pressure.

On top of that, fructose consumption negatively changes the way your brain recognises your consumption. This is because your brain resists leptin, the protein that’s vital for regulating energy intake and expenditure (which includes your keeping your appetite in check and your metabolism working efficiently). As a result, you keep eating without necessarily realising you’re full. For example, a soda containing high amounts of fructose (which is most non-diet sodas) will do little to make you think you’re full even though you’re taking in large amounts of calories. Your brain doesn’t get the message that you really consumed much of anything and so it still thinks you’re still hungry. This is a very, very basic look at part of how fructose is processed and doesn’t even touch upon many of its other problems, but identifies the issue most people care about: fat production.

This isn’t to say fructose is all bad. It does have a practical purpose. If you’re a professional athlete, for example, it can actually be helpful. HFCS actually repletes your glycogen supply faster, which is useful when you’re burning it off, so the use of HFCS in sports drinks actually has a practical purpose for those who can quickly burn it off. It’s not so helpful for those of us whose life focus is not physical activity — unless we find ourselves in a situation where we need fast energy that we’re going to quickly burn off.

Processed vs Unprocessed Foods

Fruit contains fructose, but as any food pyramid or suggested intake ratios will tell you, fruit is OK. How is that possible if fructose is almost always bad? This is because fruit, in its natural form, contains fibre. Fructose doesn’t provide a satiety alert to let your brain know to tell you to stop eating, but fibre does this to a high degree. This is why you can eat fruit — despite the fructose content — without experiencing the same problems as, say, drinking a sugary soft drink. This is why fruit can actually be beneficial. The same goes for processed sugar. Sugar doesn’t exist naturally as sparkly white crystals, but as a really tough stick called sugar cane. It isn’t until you process the sugar can that you lose all the fibre it contains. Without the fibre, you only have the tasty but problematic part of the original food. That’s why processed sugars can cause problems.

So why not keep the fibre (or at least some of it)? Because when you process food, you’re not processing it for the purpose of eating immediately. Instead you’re processing it to ship all over the country, or even the world. To do this, you obviously can’t let the food expire or it will be useless when it arrives. Because fibre causes the food to go bad much faster, it needs to be removed.

Photo by Dee’s Illustrations

Additionally, many processed foods are even worse off because of their low fat content. Sure, low fat content sounds good, but just because you eat fat doesn’t mean you retain it. Your body can efficiently process and excreted fat, so fat intake isn’t a huge issue by default. Nonetheless, the past 40 years brought us a low-fat craze. Fresh food can still taste good without a higher fat content, but processing low-fat food makes it taste like crap. Companies understand this, and so they add a bunch of sugar (and often salt) to fix that problem. This process essentially exchanges fat your body can actually use for fructose-produced fat that it cannot.

These are the main reasons why processed food is often an enemy if you want to stay healthy. This isn’t always the case, but it is far more likely than not. Check the sugar content on the back of every package of processed food you own or see at the supermarket and you’ll see it for yourself.

Healthier Sugar Consumption

OK, so some sugar isn’t really bad for you but some sugar, like fructose in high amounts, is unhealthy. Since fructose is plentiful in many processed foods, how can you eat better and still enjoy the sweet things you like? What follows are some suggestions. Some require a bit of sacrifice and will be difficult — but more effective — and others are easy enough for anyone to incorporate in his or her diet. If you want to try and curb your sugar intake, be reasonable about what you can accomplish. Failure is a lot more likely if you try to pack in large amounts of change at once . When you cut back on anything slowly, it feels much easier and is more likely to stick.

Stop Drinking Sugared Beverages
Of anything you can do, this is the most important. Fructose-heavy soft drink is remarkably problematic because, for reasons discussed above, you can keep drinking it while your body isn’t recognising your sugar intake — so your body remains hungry. On top of that, a lot of soft drink (Coke is a great example) contains high amounts of sodium. Why would you want salt in your soda? You wouldn’t, but it makes you thirsty and prompts you to buy more soft drink, so it’s great for the companies that make it. It also makes you pee (as does caffeine if your drink of choice has that) so you’ll feel the need to drink more as well. This is masked by simply adding more fructose to the drink, which is another obvious problem.

All of that is bad, but what makes it so important to stop drinkingsoft drinks is that you get absolutely nothing else with it. While other sugary items — such as a slice of cake or a doughnut — are no shining examples of nutrition, they at least contain some nutrients that will help to alert your brain that you’re actually eating. Fructose-heavy soft drink won’t do this, so it’s best to just cut it out entirely. This is the hardest thing but the most important. Cutting it out will make it easier to stop eating too much sugar (or anything, really), because you’ll be taking in far fewer calories that will go unnoticed by your brain.

What can you drink without issue? Water.

This may sound horrible to some people, but pretty much every other drink you can buy is a processed drink. This isn’t to say you can never have another sugared beverage again, but the more you drink them the harder it will be to control your appetite. If you want to incorporate sugared drinks and alcoholic beverages into your diet, try consuming them 20 minutes after you’ve eaten. You can use this same trick for desserts. (More on this in a minute.)

Eat Fibre with Your Sugar
As previously mentioned in the section about processed and unprocessed foods, fibre is very necessary in curbing sugar intake. It does what fructose can’t do, and that’s alert you that you’ve consumed calories and you don’t need to eat anymore. Basically, fibre and fructose need to work together. Fibre is fructose’s unattractive but brilliant friend. Fructose makes up for fiber’s lack of sweetness while fibre makes up for fructose’s uselessness.

So how do you eat fibre with your fructose? Don’t eat processed foods. Get your fructose from fruit or other sources that contain built-in fibre.

Avoid Processed Foods with High Amounts of Sugar
Cooking your own meals from unprocessed foods is almost always going to be a better option, but our busy lives make that difficult to accomplish for every single meal we eat. While avoiding processed foods altogether is a nice thought, it’s not very realistic. If you’re going to eat something processed, be sure to check the label for sugar content. If it is not a dessert food and the sugar count isn’t negligible, you should probably avoid it. If it contains HFCS early on in the ingredient list (or at all, really), you should probably avoid it. Buy whole wheat breads that are actually whole wheat. Avoid pre-packaged dinners whenever you can. Buy foods with more fibre. They’re likely to expire faster, which means more frequent trips to the grocery store, but that’s a pretty minor sacrifice to make.

Keep Sugar Products Out of the House
If you like dessert, don’t keep it at home. This is obvious, but it’s also one of the most effective options (you can’t eat something you don’t have). If you really want it, make yourself do a little work. Have dinner, and if you have a craving for dessert afterwards then go out and get some. Chances are it won’t take more than 20 minutes for that craving to die, as you’ll fill up and won’t want to eat anything else. In the event it doesn’t, go out and buy a reasonably sized dessert. As long as you’re not inclined to do this regularly, prolonging the decision to eat dessert should help you out.

Don’t Cut It Out Entirely

Photo by Nick Depree

If you’re currently eating quite a bit of sugar, or you really like it, cutting it out entirely is a bad idea. Not only is comfort food possibly good for your mental health, but it’s also believed that you can develop a dependency to sweet foods. As an experiment I cut out sugar for a month before writing this post. While the physical cravings were easy to curb, the psychological ones were much more challenging. Angela Pirisi, writing for Psychology Today, points to a study conducted by psychologist Dr Bart Hoebel, who believes sugar creates an actual dependency:

Laboratory experiments with rats showed that signs of sugar dependence developed over the course of 10 days. This suggests that it does not take long before the starve-binge behaviour catches up with animals, making them dependent. There is something about this combination of heightened opioid and dopamine responses in the brain that leads to dependency. Without these neurotransmitters, the animal begins to feel anxious and wants to eat sweet food again.

Artificial sweeteners didn’t change the dependence, leading Hoebel to believe that the sweetness was the main factor and not the calories. While the study couldn’t identify why these cravings exist, it could identify a dependency. If you’re cutting down on sugar, take it slowly.

Get Moving
Your metabolism pretty much goes in the toilet when you don’t move around at all, making sitting the harbinger of death. We’re big on standing desks, which, for starters, helps your burn far more calories than sitting. It’s just good for you all-around. As with any level of physical activity, from standing to walking to running, calorie burn is a poor focus to have. Going for a 20-minute run is about equal to two thin mint cookies (unless you’re really fast, in which case you might get a third cookie). Burning off a fast food meal would require exercising for most of your day. It’s just not feasible for anyone. Physical activity helps because it reduces stress (which reduces appetite) and improves the way your metabolism functions (so less fat is produced when processed by your body). These things are much more important than calorie burn.

Standing up is a good way to negate the effects of sitting down but you might not be able to do it all the time. If you can’t, make sure you get up and walk around at least every 30 minutes. If you just don’t want to stand up while you work, try doing it for only an hour a day. It’s a short amount of time and is better than nothing. Regardless of how much you sit, keep track of the time and try to engage in physical activity — even if it’s as mild as walking around — for as close to that amount of time as possible. Go for walks (or walk instead of drive), play a sport, exercise, clean the house, or do anything that keeps you moving around. Generally the entertainment you consume while sitting (television and movies) can still be consumed while you’re standing or moving around. This may not be your ideal situation, but it’s a good way to increase your physical activity without giving up a normally sedentary activity you enjoy.

Like with anything, sugar isn’t all that bad for you in moderation. The problem with sugar these days is that there’s a lot more of it in everything and it’s in practically everything. So long as you pay attention to what you’re eating and you don’t overdo it, sugar can be a pleasant part of your life few to no issues. The important thing is that you know what you’re consuming and make good choices as a result. The answer to this problem isn’t groundbreaking, but just a matter of paying attention.

Want to learn more about sugar and how it works? You’ll find a lot of links within this post to other studies and additional information that’s worth reading, but you also should check out Dr Robert H. Lustig’s lecture on sugar (which was the initial reason for writing this), as well as Sweet Surprise, which is an HFCS advocacy website that argues against the claims that it is bad for you.