Posted in Life & Happiness, Special Long Essays

Serenity Prayer

In the early 20th century, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a prayer preaching about how one should approach hardship. The most well-known version of the prayer goes:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

Regardless of whether one is religious or not, this prayer is very helpful as it highlights and beautifully summarises the philosophy of fighting for change and also radical acceptance. It has since been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous for their twelve-step recovery program and is often quoted in self-help and well-being texts and courses.

When we are faced with hardship or a stressful situation, our brain may easily default to fighting against it. We may go into denial, find something to blame, judge the situation, or simply lash out with anger and frustration. We may even choose to give up completely and flee from the situation, sometimes withdrawing into ourselves to protect our fragile egos.

But these are all destructive behaviours secondary to our primal fight-or-flight response that end up wasting our time and energy. It is driven by adrenaline, base emotions and instincts, meaning that it is crude, unrefined and can be harmful to our long-term mental health.

When we are unhappy with a situation, we will often have the power to change things for the better, even if we don’t see it at the time. We could address a problem directly by communicating our concerns with a colleague or asking for a promotion. We could change how we are behaving, such as trying a more assertive rather than aggressive tone, or using the tit-for-tat approach so that we are not too hostile or too much of a doormat. We could re-prioritise our life so that we have a better work-life balance, such as taking more leave so that we can destress and reset. We could alter our environment by leading a change in culture or moving jobs or cities (although geographic solutions are never a great answer). We could also change how we respond to our environment, such as learning self-soothing or grounding exercises to calm our unsettled headspace and feelings.

We often forget that we have the power to change things for the better because we get so caught up in stress and chaos, or because we don’t trust or believe in ourselves enough. This is why the first step of the Serenity Prayer is to stop and think about how we can improve the situation by changing what we can. Because some things such as love, happiness, our identities, our self-worth and our well-being are all worth fighting for.

Then again, there are some things we just can’t change, no matter how hard we fight. The beauty of the Serenity Prayer is that it acknowledges reality for what it is: we can’t always get what we want and we can’t win every battle. That’s just life. So instead of throwing ourselves against a brick wall – causing suffering and feeling powerless – we can choose to accept our situation. This is the concept of radical acceptance.

Radical acceptance is not the same as giving up. It is a non-judgemental view of the world, accepting that bad things happen sometimes without any specific reason. Instead of entering a spiral of anger, frustration or despair, we can choose to be mindful of our emotions, let ourselves feel them, but also recognise that they are not permanent and this moment – no matter how hard it feels now – will pass. It is an active choice to accept our situation rather than waste mental and emotional energy. You may not approve of the situation, but you accept that you cannot change it, so you must change your perspective and state of mind instead.

(Image source: Puuung

A good example of how the Serenity Prayer can help in daily life is when you are stuck in traffic. You could choose to rage at the car in front of you for their bad driving, rage at the city council for poor planning, or rage at the world for your misfortune, but this does literally nothing to help your situation. Instead, you can recognise that this is frustrating, then let that feeling pass so you can think of how to better use your time and energy. You can call in to let your boss know that you will be late. You can think of alternative routes that might help you shave some time. You can make a note to remind your future self to leave earlier or use a different route next time.

But if you can’t shorten the time that you are in traffic, then you can accept the situation for what it is. Now, you can use your mental energy doing and thinking about things you enjoy, rather than letting yourself be consumed by your emotions. You can listen to a podcast you had been meaning to listen to for a while. You can do some breathing exercises and meditate. You can start planning that pet project you were thinking about for some time. You’ll still be late to wherever you were going, but at least you’ll feel more settled and productive rather than having built-up anger and anxiety, ruining the rest of your fine day.

The simplicity of the Serenity Prayer means that it is applicable in almost all aspects of your life. For example, if you feel that you are unhappy with your relationship with your partner, friend or family, then you can do the same thing.

  • Explore your feelings and why you may be feeling them.
  • Ask yourself what negative, probably untrue stories you are telling yourself.
  • If you identify a specific problem, try to solve it using different strategies, such as talking to them, reaching out first or changing your own behaviours.
  • If it is an issue of self-esteem, read about how to improve your own mental health through positive psychology.
  • If you have exhausted all of the tactics and efforts to improve the situation to no avail, then either consider a drastic change such as investing less emotional energy into that relationship, or radically accept the situation.

It could be that you are asking too much of your partner – to be your best friend, lover, father, househusband and support person – and you have to accept that one person cannot fill every role perfectly. It could be that your friendship with a friend is of a fun nature, not a supportive nature. It could be that you and your mother will never truly be friends or understand each other fully, but it does not change that you love and care for each other. Change what you can; accept what you cannot.

Over time, practising the Serenity Prayer in your approach to daily problems will train you to be more mindful of your feelings, analyse situations rationally and help you to be level-headed and calm in critical situations because you will think less reactively and emotionally. Whether you are religious or not, the Serenity Prayer is a simple yet powerful tool in improving the quality of your life and well-being.

Posted in Life & Happiness, Special Long Essays

The One

Many people dream of finding “The One” – the perfect romantic companion who is destined to be with you. It is a dominant trope in stories, both old and new. Plato’s The Symposium contains a story about how Zeus split human beings in two to weaken them, so we are always searching for our other half. An old Chinese tale tells the story of the “red string“ – an invisible connection between two people created when they are born, that will eventually bring the two together in the name of true love. There are countless examples of books, movies and TV shows that reinforce the notion that we will all eventually end up with just the right person.

What makes The One so special? Typically, instead of a list of ideal features such as a certain personality or look, most people describe The One as someone who they can connect with, be understood by and feel completed by; someone who they can’t imagine not being with.  People who believe in the idea of The One may picture a relationship where things are easy, because the other person will just “get” them and there will be no trouble in paradise. In short, The One represents a perfect relationship with the perfect person, tailored just for you.

But how realistic is the possibility of finding The One? If we look at it from a purely statistical point of view, the chances are infinitesimal. Not only does your match have to be born of your preferred gender, but they must live in the same space and time as you at some point in your life. Even if you happen to find this one person, you have to accommodate for whether you will even notice, let alone be attracted to, them since the qualities you are looking for may vary depending on what stage of life you are at. (Read this wonderful What If? article:

Of course, the whole point of The One is that despite all of these odds, the two of you are supposed to be brought together by some external force – fate, destiny, the gods, or whatever supernatural power you believe in. Then, it is said that the moment you set eyes on each other, you will feel an instant connection and true love will be born. Some people even believe that “if it is meant to be, it will happen without fail”. Because of this, some people test their relationship by stressing it, or will be more open to letting people go because they believe that if they are truly The One, then surely they will meet again and everything will be alright. This is explored in a short story by Haruki Murakami named On Seeing The 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning.

(Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian)

However, as beautiful as the idea of finding The One is, it can be a dangerous – even toxic – idea.

The most obvious problem is that dreaming of The One sets unrealistic expectations. Even when they are with an amazing, supportive, kind partner, some people will consider them only 80% or 90% perfect. Because of the nature of human greed, we always want something better or greater than what we possess. This makes us less grateful for what we currently have and we fail to appreciate how lucky we are to be with our partner. We may even decide to end a relationship in search of greener pastures, only to regret it and remember that person as “the one that got away”.

On the other hand, people are so afraid that they might not realise that someone is The One that they make the classic error of the sunk cost fallacy. They think that they invested so much time in this relationship that if they leave now, they will forever lose the chance to live happily ever after. This often leads to unhappy marriages and even divorce, causing people to miss out on opportunities of finding someone that they will truly be happy with.

Similarly, because we feel the pressure of time passing by while others seemingly find their soulmates and happy endings, we end up feeling desperate. This desperation may push us into forcing relationships with people who do not share our values, treat us unkindly or generally incompatible with us. Some people will fake an encounter with a supposed soulmate, marry them and hide their problems and resentment, while struggling to put on a happy face for the rest of the world.

Another problem with believing in The One is the concept of fate. It is comforting to think that things are predetermined, but this also makes us lazy. What is the point of looking for the right person or fighting to make a relationship work when fate will just throw you The One at some point in your life? If you believe in fate, it makes you complacent and take less action. Instead of taking the leap of faith, communicating and trying to improve yourself, you think instead “it shouldn’t be this hard if they were The One” and give up. Believing that there is someone out there set aside for you is entitlement. Much like anything in the world, luck and probability will only take you so far. Good things will only come to you if you take action and make an effort.

The inherent flaw in the concept of The One is that it is a black-and-white, binary question: “is this person perfect”? The quest for perfection is as futile as a dog chasing its own tail. When the standard you are comparing everything or everyone is perfection, you are sure to be disappointed.

Furthermore, how can we demand a perfect person when we are not perfect ourselves? As we mature, our preferences and needs change with us. Is it not arrogant to think that we know ourselves so well that we can pick out someone that we think will be perfect for the rest of our lives at first glance?

The perfect partner is not someone that will understand our every action, thoughts and words, and cater to our every need. The perfect partner is someone who possesses qualities we value, have imperfections that we can accept and will communicate openly so that we can work things out with them. No human being is perfect, so every relationship needs to be fine-tuned, negotiated and improved on, which involves each person undergoing change, compromise and sacrifices.

This philosophy sets a much more realistic expectation on our partners and ourselves. We don’t have to be perfect or find someone who is perfect: we just have to find someone who is willing to work with us to become perfect for each other eventually. Someone who makes us happy, while helping us grow to be someone that can make them happy.

There is no one true “The One”. The One that matters is the one who – out of all the imperfect people out there – you chose because you find them awesome and want to try work with to build a happy relationship together, and they feel the same way about you.

The One is someone you made a conscious choice to round them up to The One.

(Image source: Puuung

Posted in History & Literature, Special Long Essays


The concept of hell is one of the oldest and most widespread concepts in the history of humanity. The idea that you are punished in the afterlife for your misdeeds during your earthly life is found in both the Western and Eastern hemisphere, from ancient civilisations to tribal communities to modern societies. Hell is typically described as the place the wicked are sent to for eternal damnation. It is often populated by all kinds of demons and monsters, located underground in a hot, fiery location. Depending on the religion, there may be a “death god” ruling over the realm, such as Satan, Yama, Hades or Hel. In hell, sinners are usually punished with various forms of torture, often fitting their crimes or having an ironic twist.

For example, in the Buddhist hell, seven “death gods” judge you for 49 days. One judgement tests whether you committed crimes of the tongue, such as lying or conning. If you are judged guilty, your tongue will be pulled out and it will be ploughed and sowed with seeds for eternity. In another court, you are judged for “how cold you were to others”, turning away from them when they needed your warmth and generosity. If you are guilty, you are locked away in a frozen hell for eternity. After being found not guilty in all seven courts, you are granted a chance to be reborn into your next life.

Why is hell such a common concept around the world? Every child knows the answer to that: if you do bad things, you will burn in hell. Ergo, you should not do bad things. This is the classic appeal to fear fallacy that has been used time and time again by politicians to control the masses. Death is an excellent deterrent to misdemeanour. In ancient times (and in certain modern nations), the death penalty was used to keep order in society, as the threat of death is usually good enough to persuade people out of doing something bad.

However, if a person does not care about death because they believe that all the woes of earthly life end with death, then what do you do? Early religious leaders most likely found the answer in hell – a place where you will suffer for eternity, without relief. Hell is an extremely simple way of persuading the masses that living by the law and a moral code will lead to a peaceful rest in the afterlife. Heaven is the perfect positive reinforcement and hell is the perfect positive punishment.

In Christianity, breaking one of the Ten Commandments is a clear sin. If you do not repent for this sin or ask for forgiveness, then you will be barred entry from heaven and be sent to a fiery hell, where Satan and his minions will put you in a chamber full of torture for the rest of eternity. However, the greatest punishment in Christian hell is not the torture itself, but knowing that you will forever be separated from the love and blessing of God.

(from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch)

As with many aspects of religion, hell was an important part of keeping order in ancient civilisations. To enforce this system, the picture of hell had to be fleshed out with as many grotesque, horrific details as possible. Luckily, hell was a rich source of inspiration for artists and writers throughout history. Dante wrote extensively on how he imagined hell to be structured in The Divine Comedy. Hieronymus Bosch painted large works where he used his twisted imagination to create all kinds of strange monsters. Auguste Rodin made a large sculpture called The Gates of Hell to depict imagery from Dante’s The Divine Comedy (this is where the famous figures of The Thinker and The Kiss come from). Some of the most famous Greek mythology stories involve hell and the underworld in some way, such as Orpheus’ rescue of his wife and the banishment of the Titans to Tartarus by the New Gods.

Hell appears to be the perfect form of divine judgement of your sins, but it also poses a question. Many religions preach that their gods are benevolent, just and moral. How could a god that sends their beloved children into a place of eternal suffering be called just? One would expect this to be too harsh a punishment and unnecessarily immoral. This is especially the case for those who are called “wicked” for being a non-believer. The Rapture described in the Bible explains that on Judgement Day, Jesus Christ will collect those who are good and worthy of God’s love and ascend to heaven, while the rest of the world will be left in hell. This is very different to the doctrine of Buddhism and Judaism where it is believed that hell is a “process” through which you are cleansed of sin after paying for your sins, after which you may receive peace and rebirth.

One proposed answer to the so-called “problem of hell” is that human beings are given free will and what we decide to do with it is our responsibility. Therefore, going to hell is seen as a “choice” you make in life.

(The Last Judgement by Michelangelo, from the Sistine Chapel)

But is going to hell really a choice? I cannot speak for the process of going to the afterlife as I have never been there. However, one interpretation you could consider is that hell is not some fiery realm in another dimension – but Earth itself.
It appears that Earth itself is not the best world to live in. Children die of starvation, men are murdered, women are raped, the elderly suffer from incurable diseases… If that does not sound bad enough, most people live in a hell of their own in one way or another.

Our insecurities prevent us from truly loving. We fail to achieve our dreams because we are too afraid of taking the risk. When things do not go the way we planned, we blame and beat ourselves up about it until we are miserable. The neurotic are trapped in constant anxiety, the depressed cannot see light amongst the darkness they wallow in, the pessimists are too cynical to see joy in this world and the optimists have their hopes and dreams crushed by the cruel face of reality.

We do not know whether there is hell or heaven in the afterlife, but there certainly is a hell on Earth and that is the one you create in your own mind. Instead of worrying about what kind of eternal suffering we may experience after our death, perhaps we should focus on saving ourselves from the hell that we live in. Until you find a way to escape this hell, whether it be through love, happiness or success, you will forever be trapped in misery and regret. Hell is not a fiery underworld of suffering nor a frozen wasteland of damnation – it is a state of mind.

(Image source:

Posted in Science & Nature, Special Long Essays


Mirrors are perhaps one of the most useful yet underrated inventions that we use every day. From shaving in the morning to fixing make-up during lunch, the modern man or woman will use a mirror (or some other reflective surface) at least once a day. Mirrors show us an accurate reflection of the world that we cannot see. We can only look forwards and need a mirror to reflect light going the opposite way to see behind us or – more importantly – ourselves. To do this, a mirror must directly reflect every photon (particles that make up light) at exactly the right angle so the image is not distorted. If the mirror is not completely flat or perfectly polished, light will not be reflected at the exact angle and we will see a distorted image – much like looking into a mirror at the circus. Therefore, one could say that a perfectly flat, clean mirror is absolutely honest, as it will reflect exactly as it sees.

However, this statement is not entirely true as what you see in the mirror is a mirror image of reality. This may seem trivial, but it has significant consequences. This is most obvious when you hold a book up to a mirror. Without training, it is very difficult to read something that is mirrored. This is why Leonardo da Vinci wrote his notes in mirror image. This phenomenon of something becoming completely different is also seen in chemistry. Because of the way molecules are arranged, it is possible to have a property called chirality – where two molecules with the same elemental composition are built in the mirror image of one another. Essentially, it is as if the molecule can be either left- or right-handed. It turns out that even if the composition is the same, two molecules of different chirality (called enantiomers) can act completely differently. This effect may be as simple as changing the way a liquid polarises light to making a drug completely inert or even toxic. For example, the amino acid carvone that gives the spearmint taste only tastes like spearmint if it is L-carvone (“left-handed”), whereas D-carvone (“right-handed”) is tasteless despite having the same molecular formula.


Since the topic of chirality is rather technical and hard to understand, let us move on to the field of literature. One of the best examples of how mirrors can completely change something is seen in Lewis Carroll’s novel Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Lewis Carroll understood the significance of mirror images in chemistry and wrote this novel to portray how quirky and strange a “mirror world” may be. Through the Looking Glass is a sequel to the famous book Alice in Wonderland and describes a world that is the mirror image of Wonderland. Carroll cleverly wrote the first book so that it would be the opposite of the first book. The first book starts outdoors, is set in the summer, uses changes in size as a plot device and focuses on the theme of trump cards. The second book starts indoors, is set in the winter, uses changes in direction as a plot device and draws on the theme of chess. There are even characters such as Hatta and Haigha who are the mirror images of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare from the previous book. Although they are very similar, they are just not the same and hence Alice does not recognise them. Perhaps the line that best shows Carroll’s understanding of the dangers of mirror worlds is this: “Perhaps Looking-glass milk isn’t good to drink”.

The field of psychology is also heavily interested in mirrors. It is a well-known fact that our brains recognise the purpose of mirrors. If you put a mirror in front of someone, you know that the person will examine themselves, groom themselves or simply make funny poses. A simple experiment shows how used to mirrors we are. If you angle two mirrors at right angles and fit a transparent sheet of glass in front of the two to make a prism shape, the image you see through the glass is a reflection that is not mirrored. Because it is not mirrored, you can hold up a book to it and still read it fine. This is known as a non-reflecting mirror. An interesting experiment shows that if you make people use this kind of mirror, they become incredibly confused as they are too used to using a mirror image to see themselves. Even though the reflection they see is a “truer” image, because their brain automatically flips the mirrored image, they become uncoordinated and keep moving their hands in the opposite direction.

As mentioned at the start, mirrors are a human invention. Although reflection occurs in nature, such as on a clear surface of water, animals generally are incapable of using mirrors. This is such a universal fact that animal psychologists use a mirror test to determine whether a specie of animal is self-aware or not. The test is done by showing an animal a mirror. Most animals will see their reflection and automatically believe that it is another animal, as they are incapable of thinking that it is a reflection of themselves. Hence, they will try to threaten, attack or flee from the image they see. But if you show a higher-order animal such as an ape or dolphin a mirror, they will start to groom themselves as they realize that the mirror is simply showing themselves.


This is what sets us apart from animals. Not only are we capable of recognizing ourselves in a mirror, but we have the ability to go one step further and reflect on ourselves using the mirror of our minds. Some people may take a look at the person in this mirror and be content with who they are. But some will gaze into the mirror and, much like the animals in the mirror test experiments, see a completely different person they do not recognise. This may cause disappointment, frustration or even disgust as we realize that we are not who we think we are or aspire to be. Then again, sometimes you will gaze into the mirror and see a person that has strengths such as courage – a person you could be if you realized your true potential. The most frightening realisation would be to discover that there is no one in the mirror.

(Image source:

Lastly, we could consider the mirror of behaviour. Goethe said that “behaviour is a mirror in which everyone displays his own image”. The corollary to this is that human beings read behaviour to try and interpret another person’s character. One can use this to greatly improve the relationship and connection with another person. Mirroring is the act of subtly copying the other person’s behaviour to build rapport – where an empathic bridge is constructed between two people. Rapport is particularly useful in jobs that involve earning the trust of strangers in a short time, such as in healthcare or business. By matching the other person’s body language, such as posture or actions like taking a sip of water, the other person will open up more easily to you. The same applies to verbal and emotional mirroring where you subtly reuse the words the other person spoke and reflect their emotions such as excitement. Obviously, one must be subtle with mirroring as a direct imitation will appear mocking and strange. If you are able to subtly copy their behaviour, the other person’s subconscious mind will be tricked into thinking that you are similar in character and trust you more. This skill is extremely useful in improving your interpersonal and social skills.

A mirror is a paradoxical object that is absolutely honest yet relatively deceitful. Reflections in the mirror are true yet completely different. If you take a peek into the mirror of your mind, perhaps you will see the person you think you are now or the person you could be in a mirror world. If you are happy with what you see, then cherish that and be proud of who you are. Otherwise, you can always do what Alice did and jump through the looking-glass to find an alternate you – the best you that you can be.


(Image source:

Posted in Philosophy, Special Long Essays

The Tree Of Possibilities

Author Bernard Werber (the inspiration for this Encyclopaedia) posited the following theory: if we could see the future, would we not actively build towards a better future? Imagine a tree soaring high into the sky, stretching countless branches in all directions. The many branches of the tree branch off into smaller branches, which branch into even more smaller branches. At the end of each branch, there hangs a leaf. This tree is not a normal tree; it is a Tree of Possibilities that represents the flow of time from the beginning of the universe to the distant future. Each split in a branch represents the creation of two different futures due to a choice or a change, while a leaf represents the final future created from the cumulative effects of these changes. Thus, the Tree of Possibilities is the ultimate crystal ball showing all the pasts that could have been and all the futures that can happen.

Of course the Tree of Possibilities is a fictional model created in our imaginations. But what if we could actually make this tree? First, we would create an organisation of the greatest scientists, mathematicians, sociologists, psychologists, historians, philosophers, science fiction writers etcetera that represent the many fields of knowledge. These people are gathered in a location far from the reaches of governments and the media, where they can discuss without any interference. These specialists will debate over all sorts of topics, amalgamating their knowledge and intuition to generate a tree diagram as mentioned above. This is a diagram free from ethics, morals, laws, optimism, pessimism and individualism – the ultimate objective view of all possible futures that humanity and the Earth may face. The experts may agree with each other at times and disagree at times. There is ample possibility that their postulations are wrong. But none of these matter. The important point is not that the Tree is “accurate” or not, but that it is an extensive scenario database of all the paths humanity can walk on towards the future.

The Tree of Possibilities will have various conjectures such as: What if nuclear war broke out? What if artificial intelligence is perfected? What if chimpanzees reach the intelligence levels of human beings? What if we build cities on the Moon? However, the future is altered much more easily that you would think. Thus, there will also be branches representing much more trivial and ordinary (even bizarre) postulations as well: What if smoking is banned? What if the average age women gave birth is older? What if rhinoceroses were domesticated pets? What if pianos do not exist?

On analysing these numerous postulations, a branch bearing the leaf with the ideal future will be found. Ergo, we can choose to follow a path of least resistance, where all the choices we make will ultimately lead to that ideal future. Essentially, the Tree of Possibilities is a tool that is used to predict the future. However, it is not “fortune telling” as it is based on logic rather than magic and divinity to see into the future. The future the Tree tells is not a set “destiny”, but rather one “possibility”. Thus, instead of fearing the future like we do with fortunes, we would instead feel excitement over the potential of finding the ideal future. If the path we are currently on is fated to an unhappy ending, then we can simply jump onto a different path with the guidance of the Tree. Unlike fortune telling, which destroys all uncertainty and any other possibilities in the future, the Tree of Possibilities provides humanity with the greatest gift: dreams of a better future.

As you could imagine, the possibilities of the future are infinite so a drawn-out diagram of the Tree of Possibilities would take up extensive amounts of space. Ergo, the ideal form of the Tree of Possibilities would be a computer program. As computer programs only need sufficient storage space, it provides a perfect environment in which the Tree may grow. The program would generate a Tree based on the information provided by the scholars, drawing out each branch and leaf, while also calculating the effects of any action on each of the possible futures. If we further applied the engine used in chess programs to predict the next few moves, then we may be able to create a program that can calculate the ideal future and the path of least resistance for humanity.

My ideal future is this. There is an isolated island, far from any interference, with a large building. At the centre of this building, there lies a supercomputer running The Tree of Possibilities. The computer is surrounded by lecture theatres, conference rooms and residential areas. Thus, specialists of each field may come to stay and use their knowledge to water the Tree and foster it. This island will provide humanity with hopes and dreams, leading them towards the best possible future based on logic and imagination.

The Tree of Possibilities will radically change our day-to-day lives. One of the greatest weaknesses of human beings is the inability to see the long-term happiness and sacrificing it for short-term gain. However, if we were able to see precisely how our actions will affect the future, then would we not act differently? Armed with insight and foresight, people will understand what is best for the future, and instead of the current near-sighted attitude of only seeing the gain right before our eyes, they will act in the best interests of their children and grandchildren. Politicians will see how useless bickering over trifling issues is and instead focus on policies that take a while to show the effects (yet nonetheless important), such as environmental conservation. The Tree of Possibilities will help us make rational decisions to create a world that the future generation will be happy living in, without being swayed by emotions and selfish greed. And so, we will build towards a utopia.

The greatest weapon a person has is imagination that can build the future.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine, Special Long Essays


How many friends can a person have? Believe it or not, science has solved this question. An anthropologist called Robin Dunbar studied various societies, tribes and primate groups to determine how many members a group can have to maintain stability. He discovered that the ideal size for a group of humans was about 150.

What happens if there are more than 150 people in a group? This is easily explained by the following thought experiment. Imagine that you have a friend called Mr. White. Add a personality to him – flesh him out as a person. Next, you make another friend called Mr. Red. Then Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Maroon… At a certain point, you will no longer remember the name or personality of your “friend” and not even care about that person. This is the limit set by our brains – known as Dunbar’s number, or more colloquially the Monkeysphere.

Any person outside of this Monkeysphere is not of your concern. Once you saturate your brain with 150 relationships, the brain ceases to care about other people. Interestingly, the Monkeysphere is directly related to the size of the neocortex (the part of the brain responsible for higher order thinking). For example, most monkeys can only operate in troupes of 50 or so.

The Monkeysphere can be defined as the group of people that you conceptualise as “people”. Because of this limitation, we are physiologically incapable of caring about everyone in the world. For example, we are highly unlikely to be concerned about the welfare of the janitor at work compared to a loved one. As politically incorrect it may be, the brain sees the janitor as “the object that cleans the building” rather than a human being. You may “care” about the janitor in the sense that you greet him in the corridor, but there is a limit to this. This effect actually explains quite well why society is dysfunctional in general.

Because we do not see people outside the Monkeysphere as “people”, they mean less to us. Stalin once said that “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”. Similarly, the death of a family member is devastating but 10,000 people dying in a foreign country from war does not have the same emotional effect. Furthermore, if a stranger was to die in front of your eyes, you would still not be nearly as devastated as the death of someone you are close to.

Also, as we do not feel connected to these “outsiders”, we are much more prone to act rude or aggressively. For example, one may insult other drivers with the most colourful words on the road, but would (hopefully) never say those words to a friend.


This expands to a greater scale in the context of survival. We are wired to put the need of the members of our Monkeysphere ahead of those outside of it. Thus, we would not steal from our friends but openly evade taxes as we see the government and others as a cold, faceless body. It does not occur to us that through our actions, we are harming other human beings. The same applies to our view of corporations; despite being made up of real people, we only see them as heartless machines actively conspiring against us.

What if the scale was then expanded to countries? If we do not see a person on the other side of the road as a human being, it is extremely unlikely we would register a foreigner as one. This explains why racism and stereotyping is so common in human societies. Although liberal-minded people would like to believe that we should treat every human being like we treat our mothers, our brain is incapable of it. In fact, it is much more likely we would see those people as acting against our interests by “stealing jobs” and so forth. Thus, racism is a hard-wired behaviour to protect the best interest of our Monkeysphere.

We have established that it is impossible to worry about the seven billion strangers in this world. This brings us to an important point: it is just as impossible to make “them” interested in “you”. It is a cold, hard fact that if you are outside of their Monkeysphere, people will not care about you. Ergo, they treat you badly, put you down, steal from you and downright ignore you. In fact, cognitive dissonance means you are even less likely to care for people outside the Monkeysphere as your brain actively rejects people from getting closer to your Monkeysphere, exceeding the preset limit of 150 people. This is why propaganda always focusses on dehumanising the enemy and why people seeking votes and attention pull at sympathy strings – to try get as close to your Monkeysphere as possible.


Many people will lament how we are not monkeys and the Monkeysphere does not apply to us. We have laws, ethics and “humanity”. However, we cannot escape our primitive psychological behaviours and this is reflected in societies filled with crime, unhappiness and a general disinterest in people not related to yourself. This is why city-dwellers tend to be less friendly than villagers, as there are too many people to fit in one, happy Monkeysphere. In fact, monkeys may have more functional societies than us because they hardly ever exceed their own Monkeyspheres (which may also explain why they rarely have wars). The same can be said of tribes and villages of the past.

Ironically, the development of society has been based around working around the limitations of the Monkeysphere – a theoretically ideal society. By living in larger groups, humans can achieve greater feats such as industries and large-scale economies. Although we suffer the consequences of racism and crime, we have become very effective in survival.

Economics is based on the Monkeysphere too. As we only care about our Monkeysphere, there is no reason for us to be concerned about the needs of others. So when a system such as communism forces us to share our bananas, we become infuriated that we have to give up our bananas to people we do not know. But in capitalism, every individual can pick bananas for just ourselves and those we care about. The system thrives as each Monkeysphere acts dynamically and everyone is happy. This is the concept of the invisible hand that is the foundation of modern economics.

But still, the concept of countries means that we have to share the burden of millions of people we do not care about in the form of taxes and civil duties. This makes us unhappy. So what can we do?


Firstly, realise that you are to others what others are to you. If you find a certain person on television as annoying and irrational, chances are that someone else sees you in that light. You are limited to your Monkeysphere of 150 people and people outside of it are in their own Monkeyspheres.

Secondly, understand that no one is special. There are no heroes or perfect beings. Everyone is a human being and prone to making mistakes and acting “human”. Therefore, we cannot idolise people and be disappointed by their actions. This also means that you cannot judge another person and consider their words and actions as insignificant, as they are just as human as you.

Lastly, never simplify things. The world is not simple. It cannot be generalised as one happy village with everyone living happily in harmony. It is a composite of a massive number of different Monkeyspheres, all concerned with their own well-being and not caring about anything else.

Remember the words that Charles Darwin spoke to his assistant, Jeje Santiago: “Jeje, we are the monkeys”. As much as we would like to think that we are higher-order beings, we are simple creatures of habit and behaviour limited by our Monkeysphere.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine, Special Long Essays

Lie Detection

In developmental psychology, a child’s ability to successfully lie is considered a milestone achievement. This goes to show how lying is one of the characteristic behaviours of human beings. Even a three-year old knows that by lying, they can avoid punishment and gain much more.

There are many signs of deception. Becoming an expert in observing these signs and knowing what they mean can grant the ability to see through lies. The following is a description of some of the changes – both non-verbal and verbal – that people exhibit when lying. Note that these signs are not always definitive and should be used as a reference only. One must carefully deduce whether the signs are there because the person is lying, or whether it is a simple physiological process with no meaning. Here is a simplified list of the signs that will be discussed:

  • faster blinking, avoiding/too much eye contact, dilated pupils, looking up and right
  • sweaty face and palms, fast pulse and blood pressure, flushed face
  • dry mouth/lips, constant licking or pursing lips, swallowing loudly and often
  • looking away or down, tics and twitches in face (eyes, cheeks, mouth)
  • placing hand near mouth (rubbing nose/chin, scratching face etc.)
  • touching neck, pulling at collar, rubbing forearms or hands
  • shoulder shrug, crossed arms/legs, fidgeting, hiding of hands
  • holding hands or clenched fists, unusual movements
  • tucking feet below seat, tapping of feet
  • short, general descriptions (or overly detailed), inconsistencies in detail
  • talking faster and at a higher pitch, emphasising the “truth”

Non-verbal signs are essentially body language – a mean of subconscious communication through which the person signals to another person about their emotions and thoughts. These can be behavioural (avoiding eye contact), physiological (faster heart rate) or cognitive (exaggerating that they are “truthful”). As non-verbal communication makes up 90% of a conversation, it is extremely useful to know what signs to look for and know what they mean. Let us start with the face.

The eyes are considered the window to the soul. This is because the eyes give off so many clues about what the person is thinking, usually subconsciously. A key sign to look for is the frequency of blinking. If the person is blinking much more than usual, it suggests that they are nervous (causing their eyes to dry out faster). Another famous example is eye contact – people avoid eye contact when lying as they are subconsciously “ashamed” of being immoral. However, they may consciously compensate this and make too much eye contact, another sign they are hiding something. Looking up and to the right has been associated with the brain imagining something, as opposed to down and left which is related to recalling true memories. Lastly, the pupils may dilate from the excitement and nervousness.

When a person lies, they tend to be nervous, stressed and excited. This activates the sympathetic nervous system, colloquially known as the fight or flight mode (rapid blinking is related to this). This causes other signs such as sweating, dry mouth, fast heartbeat and blood pressure. Therefore, a liar may be seen licking or pursing their lips to moisten them. Frequent, loud swallowing is also a clear sign of dry mouth. The face may be slightly flushed as well.

As stated above, the person is also subconsciously ashamed of their lying. This causes the person to face away from the person or look down (think of a child who is lying – their innocence makes signs of deception flare up like Christmas lights). Many people place their hand near their mouth (e.g. rubbing their nose or chin, touching their lips), as if the brain is telling the hands to stop the lie from coming out. They also tend to rub their neck or adjust their collar as touching the neck comforts people. Note that scratching the nose is another sign of lying but not the same as rubbing the nose. Scratching is to relieve the itchiness caused by the raised blood pressure irritating the soft tissue of the nose (Pinocchio effect).

Obviously the facial expression would change also, expressing nervousness and mild stress. This may be concealed with a fake smile (when the “eyes don’t smile”) or anger. It is well-known that people exhibit microexpressions – a flicker of emotion expressed in the face – that only shows for a fraction of a second. Although it is hard to spot, it is a direct display of their true emotion. Fascinatingly, the right face tends to react more as it is controlled by the left brain – responsible for the logical and complex thinking required in telling a lie. This may show as a tic or twitch in the eyes, cheek or mouth.

Moving down the body, a classic sign of deception is the shoulder shrug. Shrugging the shoulders is a message they are “unsure” if what they said is true and is seen (subtly) in many cases of lies. The arms may be crossed (a closed position), which shows they are being defensive (a sign of guilt or discomfort). Similarly, the person may be leaning away from the other person.

The hands are just as important as the face when it comes to lie detection. As mentioned before liars tend to touch various parts of their face and neck while telling a lie. Women tend to rub their hands together or their forearm instead of the neck to comfort themselves. Fidgeting is also very important to notice as this is a comforting act too and exaggerating movements are seen also (reinforcing the “validity” of their lie). Usually, people are aware of this fact and attempt to hide their hands in their pockets, behind their back or behind a bag. They may hold the hands together to prevent fidgeting, or tightly clench their fists. Basically, look for unnecessary (or lack thereof) movements as this almost certainly indicates that something is abnormal.
Similarly, the person may cross their legs (defensive), tuck their feet below the seat (distancing from the other person) or tap their feet (nervousness and excitement).

To finish off, here are some verbal cues for deception. People have a tendency to give short replies when lying. They also talk at a faster pace and higher pitch. These are all due to the subconscious want for the conversation to be over as soon as possible (often accompanied by an awkward or angry attempt at changing the topic). On a similar note, they are more hesitant and less fluent in talking, adding many “umm”s and “uhh”s as they try conjure a lie. Words such as “somebody” “somewhere” “everywhere” that encompass a non-specific or broad target are used to try dilute the details of the lie.

Conversely, the more experienced liar tries to make their lie believable by adding excessive detail to their story. For example, asking a specific detail (that they normally wouldn’t notice) would prompt an answer as opposed to an “I don’t remember”. It is also useful to ask the same question again and check for any inconsistencies.
Lastly, if the more the person affirms that they are telling the truth (e.g. “honestly”, “believe me”, “swear to god”), the more likely they are lying.

This list is not exhaustive and there are many tiny details that can be used to help you decide whether someone is trying to deceive you or not. Again, as the signs are not definitive (e.g. they may be thirsty or just nervous talking to you) it should be considered within the context along with other information. However, it is still an extremely useful tool for finding the truth as everybody lies.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine, Special Long Essays

Lucid Dream

Dreams are wonderful things. Within a dream, nothing is impossible and the mind unleashes its full potential creativity. Is there a way to harness such power? The short answer is: yes.

Lucid dreams are defined as the state of being aware that you are in a dream. This means that unlike normal dreams, you know that you are dreaming. Although this may sound easy, it is quite hard to enter and stay in a lucid dream. Many people experience a lucid dream a few times in their life, but tend to pass it off as a normal dream or some paranormal event (many “out-of-body” experiences can be explained as lucid dreams).

The major difference between a normal dream and a lucid dream is the ability to control your dream. This concept is explored in detail in the movie Inception, where characters utilise the creative power of dreamspace, tricking the victim that they are in reality to manipulate information out of them. Inception is actually a great example of what a lucid dream is like: the architect can manipulate the dreamspace to her wishes, even going as far as ignoring the laws of physics and conjuring objects out of nothing. This ability is not exclusive to movies – you too can exert this power within your own dreams, every night.

The most important point to remember is that lucid dreams are based on memory. Reason being, if you cannot remember the dream, then it might as well not have happened. Also, you need the ability to distinguish a dream from reality, as otherwise it will pass you by without you realising. There are a few tips and tricks that can help the induction of a lucid dream.

Firstly, keep a dream diary – a record of every dream you have in excruciating detail. This not only trains your ability to remember dreams in detail, but also lets you prepare for when a lucid dream comes. So every morning when you wake up, record whatever you can remember from the night’s dream. Many people complain that they never dream, but this is false – they are merely forgetting it. After keeping a dream diary for at least a couple weeks, you will find that the frequency of dreams increase dramatically, with increasing creativity.

Secondly, look for dream signs. You will notice from your dream diary that certain things appear often in your dreams. This may be a certain person, an impossible object (such as the staircase from Inception), meeting a deceased person or something happening (e.g. falling). A classic example is a clock. In a dream, when you look at a clock (preferably digital) and blink, time suddenly leaps around, such as 3pm suddenly becoming 6pm. Looking for these signs in your surrounding can easily alert you to the fact that you are dreaming.

Lastly, do reality checks as often as possible. These are actions that confirm that you are in reality, or conversely if the check fails, that you are dreaming. Reality checks are represented as totems in Inception, and although the risk of “getting lost in a dream” is close to nothing in a lucid dream, it is an extremely useful tool. Reality checks (RC) are based on the fact that the laws of reality do not function in dreams. For example, a common RC is bending your fingers backwards. In real life, your fingers will only go back so far. In a dream, the fingers can touch the back of your hand: a definitive proof that you are not in reality. Other examples include breathing through a pinched nose, pinching yourself (no sensation in a dream) and… anything creative actually. The general rule is: “habituate what is not your habit” – i.e. make a habit of something that is not usually your habit, so you can do it in a dream as a RC.

After a few weeks practising using the above skills, prepare your mind for a lucid dream. Every night before going to sleep, keep thinking “I will dream” or “I will stay awake in my dream”. Continuous reinforcement directly increases your chance of “waking up” in your dream, and allows you to begin your journey into lucid dreams.

As mentioned above, within a dream, you have almost godly powers as you can manipulate the entire dreamspace to your will. However, there is a catch: you have to control the dreamspace. This may sound absurd, but it will be relevant when you have your first lucid dream. Dreams are like wild mustangs – they will spiral out of control as soon as you try to take control. For instance, a novice lucid dreamer (or, in Greek, oneironaut) will find that as soon as they acknowledge that they are in a dream, they will instantly wake up. This is a form of defence mechanism as the boundary of reality and dream is faded, causing your brain to become confused.

There are methods to help your stay in dreamstate. It has been suggested that when you notice signs of waking up (e.g. the surroundings become blurred and slowly disappear), spinning on the spot can prolong the dreamstate. Rubbing your hands together also helps. The duration you stay in the dream becomes longer as you become more proficient in lucid dreaming.

This is only the first step. The more you manipulate your dream, the more your brain will “reject” your dream-self. Again, this is seen in Inception (it is actually quite an accurate depiction of lucid dreaming). You will find that through practice, you not only lengthen your lucid dream, but also increase the power to manipulate things. In the advanced stage, you will not only be able to completely recreate the world around you, but also achieve flying and the ability to summon people.

A final point to learn about lucid dreaming is that there are two ways into a lucid dream: DILD and WILD.
The first, and the most common, type is Dream-Induced Lucid Dream. This is by far the easiest method. In DILD, you “wake up”, or become self-aware, in a dream and then continue to dream the same dream (except now it is lucid). It is easier to achieve this during a nap or when you go back to sleep after waking up in the middle of the night.

The second, and more advanced method, is the Wake-Induced Lucid Dream. WILD is when a lucid dreamer can go straight into a lucid dream from a state of alertness. This lets you enter a lucid dream anytime at will, and can be more powerful than a DILD. However, there is a catch. WILD easily induces sleep paralysis (see Sleep Paralysis) due to the forced induction of REM paralysis. This can be a horrifying experience for the unprepared, especially due to the nightmarish hallucinations it brings. But after practice and the correct mindset, you can easily vanquish this state with willpower, and freely enter a lucid dream. Sleep paralysis should not deter you from attempting lucid dreaming, for it is only a temporary side effect.

Lucid dreaming is one of the most useful skills one can learn. Not only does it let you explore your mind freely, you can go deeper to discover your subconscious (often through imagery), solve complex problems you couldn’t in real life and relieve the stress built up from reality. An interesting feature about dreams is that time is completely relative; this means you will enjoy a lengthy dream much longer than your actual sleep, giving you a better rested sleep. If you are lucky, you may even enjoy the delightful experience of a “dream within a dream” (or go even deeper).

Oneironauts, dream on.

Posted in Special Long Essays


New Years Day, 2010 – While reading Bernard Werber’s new masterpiece God, a thought flashed in my mind. It was an idea that I had previously thought of but never acted on. It was an idea relating to Edmond Wells’ (well, actually Werber’s) Encyclopaedia of Relative and Absolute Knowledge.

I have always respected Werber who frequently applied the vast amount of knowledge he compiled in there in many of his works, in the most creative ways possible. Not because he was simply collating all the knowledge of the world, but because he created a dictionary of how to use that knowledge, what true knowledge is, and thoughts and philosophies of his that have never been heard of anywhere else.

Even more amazing is the fact that he started this massive project when he was just fourteen. Fourteen! The reality is that at that age, most teenagers prefer playing sports, gaming, socialising and dating rather than “boring” books. But Werber seeked knowledge. Instead of who won the soccer game, he was more interested in the lives of ants. Instead of learning names of celebrities, he learnt the history of ancient Greece. Furthermore, to make sure he did not forget what he learnt, he steadily compiled a knowledge tank that is the Encyclopaedia of Relative and Absolute Knowledge.

The most likely reason I adore and respect Werber so much is probably because I feel that his way of thinking is similar to my own. When I read his books, every page makes me nod in agreement as I learn, understand and empathise with his words. Above all else, I empathise most with his passion, because I too have had a hobby of collecting knowledge since I was young. The knowledge we gain from school is limited, the reason being that students follow a curriculum set by a department. Because of this, I frequently questioned my teachers; I felt not getting the most out of those who have learnt far beyond my current knowledge to be a waste. Thanks partly to that, even in university I had a better general knowledge base than many other students and also gained valuable life lessons. The point I am emphasising the most here is that seeking knowledge – beyond that which is given to us – is the fundamental basis of the Encyclopaedia of Relative and Absolute Knowledge

What I am saying here is not the fact that Werber or I studied intently as students is ideal. What I respect is his passion for knowledge. The Encyclopaedia contains not just facts he rote-learnt from textbooks or classes, but things he researched, pondered and experienced himself. Yes, true knowledge is not something that one learns because he is forced to, but the precious reward one gains from passionately searching and researching. Also, the vast amount of knowledge left by our predecessors should not be blindly absorbed, but rather processed and analysed by each individual so that he or she can decide whether they think it is the truth or not.

This is what Werber refers to as, and what I emphasise as “relative and absolute knowledge”.

History, science, religion: all of these fields are bound to contain both truths and fiction. Therefore, each must be scrutinised and picked apart by the learner. I consider an encyclopaedia that stores all of this knowledge to be more valuable than any book in the world. And thus I decided: to record everything I know, and everything that I will come to know, here in my own book before it is too late.

I will name this book directly after Werber’s and call it the Encyclopaedia of Absolute and Relative Knowledge (note that I have switched the “absolute” and “relative” for the sake of differentiating from the original, and for the acronym ARK that will be used henceforth). This is due to the fact that regardless of copyright, it is not my original idea and was conceived by Werber. Also, there will be many entries that will be from the original Encyclopaedia, as many contain priceless information and ideas that I want to keep and already know now. However, these will only be Werber’s knowledge that I have looked over, thought about, totally agreed with and found to be so important that I must repeat them.

As a side note, I will write all of my entries in Korean to my best ability. This is because I want to record my thoughts in my mother tongue, which is my most precious language. If there is a need in the future, I will translate it to English. I wish that (the very few) friends who share my way of thinking will some day read these as well.

Lastly, I want to continue writing this book for the rest of my life. So with that thought in my mind – and the hopes that I will have the willpower and endurance to fulfil it – I hereby start my very own Encyclopaedia of Relative and Absolute Knowledge.

Jin Kim

5th January, 2010