Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Pick A Card

A very common card trick involves the magician asking you to pick a card as he ripples through a deck of playing cards in front of you. Following a few misdirects, such as pretending to pick out the wrong card and burning it, the magician will reveal the card that you chose secretly in your head. How did they do this?

The solution to the trick is to simply trim the top of a card and placing it in front of a card that the magician chose ahead of time. Because of the small gap, the chosen card ends up being revealed longer than other cards to the person as the deck is being rippled. That slight increase in visibility makes it much more memorable, subtly nudging the person towards choosing it.

As simple as the trick may be, it highlights how often we are under the illusion of choice. As much as we hate to admit it, we are quite susceptible to suggestion and persuasion. This is the basis of subliminal messaging, hypnosis and many types of mentalism (magic tricks involving manipulation of the mind). When we make a choice, how do we know that it comes purely from our own free will and volition?

Take for example the phenomenon of fake news. One of the dangers of fake news is that by using provocative, misleading headlines and summaries, it grabs our attention and leaves an impression. This means that unless we are vigilant about fact-checking and reading news from reputable sources, we can easily be manipulated into thinking or acting in a way that benefits those who released the fake news. The results of this may range from benign, such as persuading you to choose a certain brand of product over another, to something as sinister as affecting how you vote in an election or creating discord amongst the population of a country.

The field of psychology constantly reminds us of how flawed our minds are, with its numerous cognitive biases and ways it can be manipulated. We must be constantly aware of this fact to prevent ourselves from falling victim to those who try to take advantage of our thoughts and actions.

Posted in Science & Nature

Pringles

Pringles are a beloved snack well-known for its addictiveness (“Once you pop, you can’t stop“). There are a few other interesting factors that set Pringles aside from other potato chips.

Firstly, Pringles have been called many things, because it is not strictly a potato chip. When it first debuted, other snack companies complained that it was not technically a potato chip as they were made from dried potatoes, so they were labelled “potato crisps“. Ironically, the company successfully argued in 2008 that Pringles were not “potato crisps”, using the logic that they were not of natural shapes and only contained 42% potato as they are made from potato-based dough. This was so that they could avoid the British tax on potato crisps.

Secondly, Pringles chips have a characteristic saddle-shape, known in mathematics as a hyperbolic paraboloid. This creates a uniform shape, meaning they can be stacked neatly in a tubular container for efficient and reliable packaging, as opposed to most potato chips that are packaged in bags. Furthermore, the shape is structurally sound, preventing the chips from breaking under the weight of the stack.

Finally, the inventor of the cylindrical container was a chemist named Fredric Baur, who started the process of making Pringles. His dying wish was to have his ashes buried in a Pringles can and this wish was respected by his children.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Identity Crisis

A common set of questions we get asked are: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, “What do you do?” and “Can you tell me more about yourself?”. These questions are essentially asking how we identify ourselves and what kind of identity do we want in the future.

If you were asked “who are you?”, how would you reply? Many people would identify with their occupation, such as a doctor, musician, software developer or actor. Some people define themselves by their relationship, such as a mother of two. Another common source of identity is your accomplishments and success, such as celebrities, a popular author or world-class athlete.

But what happens when our identity is shaken? For example, what if you identify as an author who published an immensely popular, critically-acclaimed book, but you can’t write a book good enough to follow it up? What if you are the best swordsman in the realm and you lose your hand? What if you identify as a mother, but your children are now grown up and have left you in an empty nest?

The problem with hinging our identity on one thing is that it makes us vulnerable to having an identity crisis when that thing will inevitably change.

Life has a tendency to be unpredictable and can easily throw the rug from under our feet at any minute. If this happens and all of our proverbial eggs are in one basket, it leads to a devastating blow to our sense of self-worth. Focussing our identity around one factor of our life would be as silly as investing all of our money in a single stock.

To solve this issue, we should treat our identity like any other investment: diversify your identity.

You are not “just a(n)” anything, because you are so much more complicated and multi-faceted than that. You can be a lawyer who also makes pottery and is a loving wife. You can be a mother who is also an amateur pianist that cooks well and is passionate about photography. You can be a successful internet celebrity who also happens to be an avid member of a board game community and loves playing tennis with his flatmates in the weekends.

The trick here is to find different sources for your identity. Identify yourself not only with your job and success, but also with your relationships and passions. Be mindful that most things in life are transient, whether by choice or not. That way, when we are forced to give up a part of who we are, our identity will still hold its shape so that it can heal with time, to form an even more complex and interesting identity.

(Image source: https://thegorgonist.tumblr.com/image/169169068294)
Posted in Life & Happiness

Sausage Stew

This is a recipe for a simple, but hearty and delicious sausage stew. Because of its short ingredient list and the fact that you can store most of the ingredients for a long time (canned or frozen), it makes for an ideal back-up meal option. Furthermore, the amount of each ingredient can be varied quite a bit and substituted depending on your preference. It is also quick to make.

All in all, it is an ideal recipe if you are learning how to cook.

Ingredients (serves 3-4):
6 fresh sausages (ideally chorizo or pork & fennel, but any uncooked fresh ones will do)
400g canned chickpeas
400g canned crushed tomatoes
3-4 Mushrooms (button or Swiss)
0.5-1 bag of spinach
Italian spices (suggest any mix of smoked paprika, oregano, rosemary, thyme)
Grated cheese (optional)

  1. Peel the sausages and dice or tear the meat into very small pieces
  2. Heat pan (preferably a deep one like a wok or broad pot) to medium-high and start cooking the sausages
  3. Break up the sausage meat as it cooks with a spatula or wooden spoon
  4. When the sausages are browning, add thickly sliced mushrooms and cook for 2 minutes
  5. Add smoked paprika and spinach, then toss for just under a minute to let the spinach wilt slightly
  6. Add canned chickpeas, tomatoes and rest of the spices
  7. Mix everything together and cook until liquids start to bubble
  8. Turn heat down to low and simmer the stew, add in rest of spices, season with salt and pepper
  9. Mix in handful of grated cheese and let it melt in as the stew simmers
  10. Serve

Other than the sausages, chickpeas and tomatoes, almost every other ingredient is optional. You can take the cheese, mushrooms and spinach out, and add other vegetables you would like, such as onions or capsicums. If the stew is too meaty, you can reduce the number of sausages to 3-4 instead.

You can even take the chickpeas out and instead crack two or three eggs into the stew when it is simmering, then bake for 7-10 minutes in the oven to make baked eggs.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Encouragement

Perhaps the encouragement you need to hear is not:

“You can do it!”

but:

“You’ve done the best you can”.

Sometimes it’s okay not to hang in there, or to keep trying, or to give more of yourself.

You are not a roly-poly toy; you are a person. You are allowed to rest and recharge for a while, so that you have the energy to get up again when you are ready. There is no point burning out by running on fumes.
It’s okay to suffer, to be tired and to feel down.

It’s okay to be human.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

The Silent Twins

The story of June and Jennifer Gibbons is a fascinating case of linguistics.

June and Jennifer were twin sisters born in 1963 from Barbadian parents. They were raised in Wales, where they were bullied in school due to their dark skin. This was a traumatising event that led to the twins becoming more and more isolated as children, often choosing to hermit themselves in their own secluded world.

An interesting phenomenon that developed at the time was that June and Jennifer would talk in an unintelligible language between the two of them. At first, it started with a mix of English and Bajan Creole (an English-based Caribbean language) spoken very rapidly. However, over the years, their shared language became more and more cryptic to the point that only the two of them could understand each other (and their younger sister Rose).

To add to this, the two made a pact with each other that they would never speak to other people, based on their trauma of being ostracised by their schoolmates. Furthermore, the twins exhibited mirroring movements and mannerisms, and would become catatonic when forcibly separated from each other.

In their teenage years, June and Jennifer started writing various plays, poems and stories. They also began experimenting with drugs and alcohol, leading to them committing crimes such as arson, theft and vandalism. Instead of being sent to juvenile prison, they were admitted to a psychiatric hospital due to their mutism.

The two would be admitted at Broadmoor Hospital for a total of 12 years, where they were treated with antipsychotics despite not having objective signs of psychotic illnesses. Their institutionalisation resulted in the worsening of their “symptoms”.

Later on, it was revealed by June that this was the point that the two came to an agreement that their pact could only be broken if one of the sisters died. In other words, one person had to die for the other to live a normal life. Jennifer decided to make the sacrifice.

At the age of 30, they were finally discharged from Broadmoor to be transferred to a more open clinic. When they arrived at the clinic, Jennifer was found to be unconscious. She was transferred to a hospital where she was diagnosed with acute myocarditis (heart muscle inflammation), resulting in her demise. The cause of the myocarditis was never found and had appeared unprovoked.

After a period of grief, June started to speak to other people. Regarding Jennifer’s sacrifice, she said:

“I’m free at last, liberated, and at last Jennifer has given up her life for me”.

June would go onto give interviews detailing her and Jennifer’s life journey and suffering, giving us insight into a remarkable case of cryptophasia.

Cryptophasia is a common phenomenon in twins, where they develop a language spoken only between the two of them. This may be accompanied by mirroring actions. It is thought that up to 50% of twins invent some form of language or code between the two. Cryptophasia is possibly a result of speech delay, with the twins compensating for each other by creating a language that they find more relatable. As in the case of June and Jennifer, environmental and social factors are also likely to play a crucial role.

The desire for connection is innate to human beings. When we feel isolated in the world, we may cling to the few connections we feel comfortable with, even if it means causing further isolation and loneliness. This may manifest in a healthy way, such as investing more time and energy cultivating a fulfilling relationship with friends and family. However, it may also result in co-dependent or toxic relationships, social isolation, addiction and restricting ourselves from leading a full life.

June and Jennifer Gibbons are reminders to us of the importance of connection in our life. How far would you go to feel connected to something – anything – in life?

Cuombajj Witches by Seb McKinnon
Posted in Life & Happiness

Your Now Is Not Your Forever

One of the keys to happiness is living in the present: being mindful of what is happening now, instead of worrying about the future or regretting the past. That said, the present is not always happy. Sometimes, the now is excruciatingly painful, whether it be physically or emotionally. Ironically in those situations, it feels impossible to escape the present and it feels like the suffering will be endless.

But to quote author John Green from his novel Turtles All The Way Down:

“Your now is not your forever.”

No matter how bleak the outcome may look, there will almost always be a glimmer of hope. Wounds heal with time, we can adapt to harsh environments and we can grow strong to overcome our challenges. Things can change for the better if given the chance and with effort, no matter how impossible it may seem at the time.

So the next time you feel helplessly stuck in the now, remind yourself that this too shall pass. It will not solve your immediate problems, but it may give you a touch of strength to help endure the hard times, even if it is one day at a time.

Posted in Science & Nature

Hexapod

Dragons are fantastic creatures of our imaginations, so they do not follow many of the rigid laws of natural science. They breathe unlimited amounts of fire, can endure extreme heat and they can fly despite their massive size. But perhaps the most unrealistic feature of dragons is the fact that they have an unnatural number of limbs.

All vertebrate animals on Earth follow a simple rule: they are four-legged creatures, also called tetrapods. The limbs may have devolved away such as in whales and snakes, but they remain as vestigial structures or still encoded for in the genes. Birds and bats have adapted their upper limbs into wings to fly, but the total number of limbs is still four.

How many limbs does a dragon have? They have four legs that they stand on, but also two large membranous wings like a bat. This means that they have a total of six limbs. The only other animals that share this trait are insects and other mythical creatures such as the centaur and pegasus.

To be a vertebrate with six limbs, a dragon must have evolved from an ancestor separate to Tetrapodomorpha, an ancient fish-like creature with four limbs that is the common ancestor to all four-legged beasts. Alternatively, the wings may not be true “limbs” and be similar to flying lizards that evolved to have a rib jut out with a membrane attached to act as a glider.

Unlike the scientifically inaccurate dragon, a wyvern obeys nature’s four-leg rule. Furthermore, unlike the traditional Western dragon that we have been describing, dragons of the Far East have no wings and four limbs, also obeying the law.

As ridiculous as it may sound, applying scientific principles to our imagination allows us to learn more about how our world works.

Posted in History & Literature

Permanent Record

The recording of language was a key development in history that allowed civilisations to flourish. Through recording, we could pass on knowledge and wisdom much more efficiently and securely from generation to generation, unlike oral history which can change over time or be lost when a mass casualty event occurs.

The oldest piece of written history comes from Sumeria over 5,000 years ago, but one could argue that cave paintings such as those found in Lascaux Cave extend that history to more than 17,000 years. Archaeologists have used written records from ancient times to help determine what life was like during those times, and what important events occurred throughout history.

Fast forwarding to now, we live in an information era where there has been a massive explosion of the amount of information produced and recorded, thanks to the development of science and technology. One such development is digital media, which allow us to store a staggering amount of data in small hard disk drives. For example, the entirety of Wikipedia (February 2013 estimate) could just fit into a 10 terabyte HDD. If an archaeologist from the future was to access an archive of the internet from now, they could gain so much insight into our history, knowledge and what day to day life.

Nowadays, most of us store our data digitally, including important documents, precious photos and our entertainment such as music and videos. But unfortunately, as efficient digital storage may be, it is far from permanent.

Digital data comes with the downside that it needs continuous backing up, as data can corrupt and the storage medium can fail. A typical hard disk has a life expectancy of around 5 years, after which the drive will start failing. Servers that manage the cloud need constant maintenance.

If humanity were to suddenly disappear, our troves of digital data would be wiped out within less than a 100 years, like dust in the wind. Even if we took great care to maintain our library of data, a single solar storm could create enough electromagnetic interference to wipe every drive clean.

Contrast this to a book, which can stand the test of time up to many millennia as long as it is preserved well. As novelist Umberto Eco put it:

“The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.”

It is a perfect invention.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs

Abraham Maslow was a Jewish psychologist who tried to answer a question that plagues every person at some stage: what is the meaning of life? To answer this question, he published a paper called A Theory of Human Motivation, where he introduced the now well-known Hierarchy of Needs. The basic premise to Maslow’s theory is as follows.

We have different needs in life. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs categorises these needs, then places them in a pyramid-shaped model in order of priority. Maslow believed that some needs are more fundamental than others. For example, you can’t worry about being single if you are starving to death. Therefore, to be motivated to work on one category, you must first satiate your need for the category below that. Maslow organised the categories in the following order.

Starting from the bottom of the pyramid, we have physiological needs. This is self-explanatory, as you need to be biologically alive to even worry about the other needs. This includes food, water, warmth and rest.

The next level addresses safety. If you do not feel safe, then you would be too preoccupied by the sense of danger to consider higher needs. Therefore, you need physical shelter, resources and a general sense of security, whether it be personal safety, financial, health or emotional security.

Safety and physiological needs are considered “basic needs“. The next two are considered “psychological or spiritual needs“.

Social belonging refers to the human need for connection. Loneliness and disconnect can be crippling to the point that you cannot enjoy the other aspects of your life, even if you have your basic needs met. This includes romantic and intimate relationships, family and friends, and communities.

Once we fulfil our need for external connections, we can start looking within ourselves, addressing our need for self-esteem and self-respect. We cannot lead fulfilling lives if we doubt and are unkind to ourselves.

Lastly, we have the apex of the pyramid that Maslow thought all people should ultimately aspire to: self-actualisation. Essentially, this means being the best version of yourself that you can be, unlocking your full potential and making the most out of your life.

The interesting part to this last step is that you define what the best version of yourself is. Perhaps you wish to be a great parent or a teacher. Perhaps you want to be a high-achieving professional or to create something others can enjoy. Perhaps you wish to be content and happy.

The Hierarchy of Needs suggests that to even think about achieving self-actualisation, we must fulfil the more basic needs first. This means that in some cases, what gets in the way of our self-actualisation may not be us, but our environment. For example, child abuse and domestic violence greatly affect a person’s sense of safety and causes significant trauma. Being socially isolated or having low self-esteem are all barriers to letting you be you. So how do we escape this trap?

First, evaluate whether you truly don’t have the basic needs. We often misjudge what we actually need in life, choosing to focus on things that won’t bring us joy, such as gaining more material wealth than needed, or social attention. On retrospect, we may find that we already have everything we need to ascend to the next level.

Second, if something is in your control, take action to remove the obstacle. This might involve changing your perspective, modifying how you do things or communicating with another person why things are not working. If you are in a toxic relationship or a job that you loathe, you may have to leave them to let yourself progress. We have much greater power over our lives than we think, but our fears, doubts and social pressures convince us otherwise.

Third, remember that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is not the one-truth. There have been countless studies showing that Maslow’s suggested order of priorities do not apply in the real world, with many people opting to prioritise higher needs above basic needs, such as willingly staying hungry in order to pursue creative outlets, or giving up a secure, stable life in the pursuit of love. It may be difficult, but we can sometimes transcend the challenges of our environment through determination.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has been controversial in the field of psychology ever since its publication, but it is a good reminder that to achieve a happy, fulfilling life, we need to take stock of what we truly need in life and balance them with each other.