Curiosity and Neoteny

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Why are we so curious?

Evolution made us the ultimate learning machines, and the ultimate learning machines need to be oiled by curiosity.

Our curiosity has us doing utterly unproductive things like reading news about people we will never meet, learning topics we will never have use for, or exploring places we will never come back to.

We humans have a deeply curious nature, and more often than not it is about the minor tittle-tattle in our lives. Our curiosity has us doing utterly unproductive things like reading news about people we will never meet, learning topics we will never have use for, or exploring places we will never come back to. We just love to know the answers to things, even if there’s no obvious benefit.

Child’s play
The roots of our peculiar curiosity can be linked to a trait of the human species call neoteny. This is a term from evolutionary theory that means the “retention of juvenile characteristics”. It means that as a species we are more child-like than other mammals. Being relatively hairless is one physical example. A large brain relative to body size is another. Our lifelong curiosity and playfulness is a behavioural characteristic of neoteny.

Neoteny is a short-cut taken by evolution – a route that brings about a whole bundle of changes in one go, rather than selecting for them one by one. Evolution, by making us a more juvenile species, has made us weaker than our primate cousins, but it has also given us our child’s curiosity, our capacity to learn and our deep sense of attachment to each other.

And of course the lifelong capacity to learn is the reason why neoteny has worked so well for our species. Our extended childhood means we can absorb so much more from our environment, including our shared culture. Even in adulthood we can pick up new ways of doing things and new ways of thinking, allowing us to adapt to new circumstances.

Or, as Kurt Vonnegut said, “We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

Exploration bonus
The implication for the evolution of our own brain is clear. Curiosity is nature’s built-in exploration bonus. We’re evolved to leave the beaten track, to try things out, to get distracted and generally look like we’re wasting time. Maybe we are wasting time today, but the learning algorithms in our brain know that something we learnt by chance today will come in useful tomorrow.

Obviously it would be best if we knew what we needed to know, and just concentrated on that. Fortunately, in a complex world it is impossible to know what might be useful in the future. And thank goodness – otherwise we would have evolved to be a deadly-boring species which never wanted to get lost, never tried things to just see what happened or did things for the hell of it.

BBC – Future | Why are we so curious?

Social status: Why all men are not created equal

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Social status: Why all men are not created equal

Research suggests social hierarchies could be a law of nature and bring big benefits to communities.

Indeed, if there’s one characteristic shared by almost every human society, it is inequality: the existence of a social hierarchy.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”, declared the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence, but the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson did not seem to think they need stay that way. Indeed, if there’s one characteristic shared by almost every human society, it is inequality: the existence of a social hierarchy.

Humans aren’t alone in that. But in an ant society, at least you know where you stand: you’re either a queen, a worker, or a male, fit for nothing but reproducing. Humans, in contrast, have complex, many-tiered and overlapping hierarchical structures: only we seem to have developed the exquisitely nuanced caste of the local government officer. And though some might dream of utopias in which no one has any more power or importance than another, these social hierarchies always rear their head eventually.

BBC – Future | Social status: Why all men are not created equal

Linchpin

Linchpin

Are You Indispensable?
Seth Godin

Linchpin

These days, I’m reading this book like it’s the holy scripture. I’m taking down notes at every turn, nodding as I go along, reciting it word-for-word for anyone who cares or not cares to listen. I’m the manic street preacher. It first goes to why we are unhappy at work and why it’s all our fault that we are not doing anything about it.

I only I could highlight the hell out of this book like a secondary student cramming for exam. But I’m 32 now and social decorum dictates that I do no such thing to a library book.

“The only way to get what you’re worth is to stand out, to exert emotional labour, to be seen as indispensable, and to produce interactions that organizations and people care deeply about”

In Bestsellers such as Purple Cow and Tribes, Seth Godin taught readers how to make remarkable products and spread powerful ideas. But this book is different. It’s about you—your choices, your future, and your potential to make a huge difference in whatever field you choose.

There used to be two teams in every workplace; management and labor. Now there’s a third team, the linchpins. These people invent, lead (regardless of title), connect others, make things happen, and create order our of chaos. The figure out what to do when there’s no rule book. They delight and challenge their customers and peers. They love their work, pour their best selves into it, and turn each day into a kind of art.

Linchpins are the essential building blocks of great organisations. Like the small piece of hardware that keeps a wheel from falling off its axle, they may not be famous but they’re indispensable. And today’s world, they get the best jobs and the most freedom.

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Carbon Monoxide Haunting


image source: Wikimedia | Beware of carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide poisoning has also been implicated as the cause of apparent haunted houses. Symptoms such as delirium and hallucinations have led people suffering poisoning to think they have seen ghosts or to believe their house is haunted.

Wikipedia | ^ Albert Donnay (October 31, 2004). “A True Tale Of A Truly Haunted House”. Ghostvillage.com. Retrieved 2008-12-16.

The American Journal of Emergency Medicine that reported an investigated case of a young woman found in her home with carbon monoxide poisoning who was dealing with paranoid feelings as well as hyperventilation.

Nevertheless, could it be that many of the haunted houses in America to this day are the result of people breathing carbon monoxide from a heating source and then experiencing strange sensations from the complex world of the brain? To prove more of what’s possible, a medical report was written up just three years ago in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine that reported an investigated case of a young woman found in her home with carbon monoxide poisoning who was dealing with paranoid feelings as well as hyperventilation.

The hyperventilation might seem a routine symptom, but the standout was when the woman claimed to see a ghost in her bathroom when authorities arrived.

Yahoo | See ghosts? There may be a medical reason

Instead, Nickell says “ghosts” are often the result of pranks, environmental phenomenon, or physiological conditions such as sleep paralysis and the hypnogogic and hypnopompic hallucinations that accompany it.

Dr. Priyanka Yadav, a sleep specialist at the Somerset Medical Sleep for Life Center in Hillsborough, N.J., says sleep paralysis occurs when there’s a disconnect between mind and body while people are going in or coming out of REM sleep.
“It seems like you’re paralyzed, which naturally occurs when you’re sleeping,” says Yadav.

“But this somehow happens while you’re awake. It can last from a few seconds to a minute or two and is often associated with hypnagogic hallucinations, things you might see when trying to fall asleep or hypnopompic hallucinations, things you see when you’re trying to wake up.”

Yadav says these “waking dreams” can involve serpents, spiders, intruders, and yes, even ghosts and are often associated with feelings of dread.

“They’ll often see someone coming into their room and they’re not able to move or talk or scream or do anything.”

“Some people have visions where they feel something is trying to strangle or choke them or they have a sense of impending doom,” she says. “They’ll often see someone coming into their room and they’re not able to move or talk or scream or do anything.”

In a May 2009 paper in the journal Cortex, psychologists from Goldsmiths College in London wrote about their attempt to do just that. They then asked 79 participants to spend 50 minutes inside their “haunted” chamber.

msnbc | See ghosts? There may be a medical reason

A review of such work is presented, followed by the results of the “Haunt” project in which an attempt was made to construct an artificial “haunted” room by systematically varying such environmental factors.

Recent research has suggested that a number of environmental factors may be associated with a tendency for susceptible individuals to report mildly anomalous sensations typically associated with “haunted” locations, including a sense of presence, feeling dizzy, inexplicable smells, and so on. Factors that may be associated with such sensations include fluctuations in the electromagnetic field (EMF) and the presence of infrasound. A review of such work is presented, followed by the results of the “Haunt” project in which an attempt was made to construct an artificial “haunted” room by systematically varying such environmental factors. Participants (N=79) were required to spend 50 min in a specially constructed chamber, within which they were exposed to infrasound, complex EMFs, both or neither. They were informed in advance that during this period they might experience anomalous sensations and asked to record on a floor plan their location at the time of occurrence of any such sensations, along with a note of the time of occurrence and a brief description of the sensation. Upon completing the session in the experimental chamber, they were asked to complete three questionnaires.

National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) | The “Haunt” project: an attempt to build a “haunted” room by manipulating complex electromagnetic fields and infrasound.

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Lost in Your Brain

When science writer David Dobbs is suddenly unable to remember how to drive his kids to school, he sets off on a quest to understand his own brain, and makes a shocking discovery.

it’s more like a memory index or a call desk at a reference library when you go to call for your memory.

If you goggle terms like ‘spatial amnesia’, ‘amnesia’, ‘spatial cognition’, you will create a set of route that all leads to the same place, which is a place in your brain calls the hippocampus. The hippocampus is like a, it’s not technically where your memory is stored, it’s more like a memory index or a call desk at a reference library when you go to call for your memory. You go there, your brain goes there and they bring up the memory and you look at it, then you have it and you can use it, and you’re done.

It sits right next to the amygdala. It’s the only place in the brain, part of the brain, known to create new neurons. It adds neurons when you memorise things.
wired.com | The Hole in My Brain: Amnesia’s Lessons About Memory, Depression, and Love

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