Posted in Science & Nature


The Second Law of Thermodynamics, one of the fundamental principles of physics, dictates that the entropy of an isolated system never decreases over time. If left alone, an isolated system will always progress towards thermodynamic equilibrium: a state of maximum entropy.

These are very long, technical words: what is entropy and why should you care?

Simply put, entropy can be thought of as a marker of how chaotic and disordered a system is. This is a misleading simplification, as entropy actually is more about energy moving from a concentrated state to a more dispersed state, but it is easier to understand this way.

An example would be a hot cup of coffee cooling down. The hot coffee is a concentrated locus of energy. But over time this energy gets dispersed throughout the coffee and into the surrounding (cooler) air and converts the water into steam. Energy slowly disperses out, until the coffee becomes room temperature.

This makes the Second Law of Thermodynamics more relatable. When have you ever seen a cold cup of coffee heat up by itself without any heat source? For that matter, a spilt glass of milk never reassembles itself. Balls sporadically arranged on a pool table will never form an orderly triangle by themselves. A dead person cannot miraculously come back to life. Without external influence, you cannot reverse the entropy of a system.

In a way, you could define life itself as a battle against entropy.

The cells in our body are continuously fighting to preserve order and energy in our body, such as actively pumping salts in and out to maintain concentration gradients, rigorously preserving our body temperature to ensure that enzymes can function optimally and breaking down food to fuel all the processes keeping us alive. If we are left truly isolated (no heat, no food, no oxygen), then entropy will build in our body until we die.

The concept of entropy can be particularly motivating when we consider that entropy doesn’t just apply to physical energy. Our brains are also subject to entropy where, if left alone, it will default to the lowest energy state.

This means that if we don’t pay attention, we will quickly find ourselves mindlessly consuming content, scrolling social media, binging television and procrastinating. It is so easy to waste away the potential energy in our brain if we let entropy have its way.

The best way to counter this is by focussing on a key part of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It says that entropy never decreases in an “isolated” system. Some things are irreversible, like the inevitable heat death of the universe or our own mortality, but we can enact some change to restore some order to some systems. A cold cup of coffee can be reheated in a microwave. A leaking tire can be patched up and inflated. A spilt glass of milk can be turned back upright and refilled with more milk.

Ergo, we must prevent ourselves from being isolated systems. There are three main ways we can do this.

The first is to stimulate ourselves from external sources, reheating our metaphorical cup of coffee. This includes hobbies and interests, learning new things and expanding your horizons. Our brains are naturally fuelled by curiosity, passion and experiences.

The second is to connect with other people. Healthy social interactions keep us grounded to reality and inspire us to be better versions of ourselves. People can provide us with new knowledge, insights, wisdoms and love.

The last and most important is channelling our own willpower. We must fight against our natural instinct to be lazy by pushing ourselves to get off the couch, to exercise, to work, to create, to produce, to live. This is also the hardest because if it was easy for us to “Just Do It”, we wouldn’t even be discussing how to beat entropy. Therefore, we need to create systems, habits and routines to trick our brain into working and being productive. In no time, you will find yourself auto-adjusting your life to prevent entropic laziness from taking over your life, like homeostasis.

Isaac Asimov’s short story The Last Question tells the story of how even the most powerful supercomputer in the cosmos cannot answer the question of how we can meaningfully reverse entropy in the universe. But turns out we can reverse the entropy of our brain and it is damn well worth the effort.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Proust Effect

In his novel In Search of Lost Time, French writer Marcel Proust explored the power of smell in invoking memories. He tells a story of how he would have tea-soaked madeleine to trigger memories from his childhood. Proust called these memories involuntary memories, because it is not recalled on purpose, but automatically triggered by a sensory stimulus such as smell.

Our brain processes memory in a strange, abstract way. Because it doesn’t record memories like a photograph or video, memories become unreliable the older they are. We have very limited memories of our childhood, unless they are paired with specific emotions or memorable events.

Smell triggers involuntary memories because the part of the brain that senses smell, the olfactory bulb, lies right next to the hippocampus and amygdala. These sections of the brain handle memory and emotion respectively, so there is a theory that we form memories linked to different smells, especially if it is an emotional one. There is also some research to suggest a phenomenon called reminiscence bump, where we have a tendency to recall more triggered memories from adolescence and early adulthood. This may be because these are the years when we form our self-identity.

This may be why smells of certain dishes or baking may act as powerful mediums to recall treasured childhood memories, such as the love we received from our parents. Even as adults, we all have specific dishes that we crave to comfort us when we are feeling stressed or lonely. More often than not, these dishes will have a story behind them, whether you remember it consciously or not. When we smell the dish being prepared, we become drowned in nostalgia. The emotions of happiness, safety and love linked to these memories distract us from the pains of life for just long enough that we can have the strength to make it through another day.

Proust talked about a tea-soaked madeleine being his key to his memories. What food is the proverbial madeleine to you?

What food triggers your nostalgia?

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


The human brain is one of the most sophisticated computers ever developed. It is so powerful that it can simulate all kinds of imaginative scenarios, allowing us to predict and plan for the future. Unfortunately for us, it is a double-edged sword that brings with it the curse of anxiety.

Anxiety is different to fear in that fear is a response to a specific present danger, such as a bear, whereas anxiety is usually a more vague concern for the future. Because our brain can imagine many unpleasant possible outcomes, we become fearful of what may come. This might be because of a past trauma, such as being afraid of abandonment, or because we do not know enough to safely predict what may happen, such as starting a new job.

Regardless of what the source may be, anxiety can be damaging as it prevents us from living life to the fullest. To protect ourselves from becoming overwhelmed by anxiety, we develop strategies to ease our anxiety from a very young age. A common example is an object that gives reassurance, such as a teddy bear or a security blanket. Unfortunately, these are less socially acceptable to carry as an adult.

In some ways, almost everything we do could be seen as an attempt to escape anxiety. We strive for stable jobs so that we don’t have to worry about financial problems in the future. We seek pleasure and happiness, through healthy means such as a passionate hobby or unhealthy like alcohol, to distract us from anxiety. We look for a partner who we can connect with emotionally – someone who can hold us and tell us everything will be alright, even when all hope seems lost.

Anxiety is unavoidable, but it can be managed. There are many effective methods.

First, there is distraction. Hobbies and interests let us enter flow state, where our worries melt away because we are so focussed on the present and enjoying the moment that we do not need to worry about the future. Music gives us similar relief, as it helps us calm our nerves and drowns out the neurotic voice in our heads.

Second, there is the physiological approach. Anxiety raises your heart rate and breathing rate. You can trick your brain in to being less anxious by slowing your heart rate and breathing down. This can be done effectively through breathing exercises, meditation or even a simple, relaxing bath.

Third, there is mindfulness. Train yourself in becoming more aware of why you are feeling anxious. Anxiety usually stems from a single source then spreads like wildfire into its general form. Finding the source will make it easier to take the next step.

Lastly and most importantly, there is reassurance. This may be external, such as the kind words from a friend or a motivational poster, or internal, where you remind yourself that you will be okay. Remind yourself of all of the horrible experiences you have already survived in your life. Remind yourself that regardless of how stressful it was at the time, you are still (hopefully) okay. Remind yourself that you are an amazing, resilient, capable person who will get through this.

However, be aware that up to one-fifth of people suffer from anxiety disorders – a group of psychological disorders that cause persistent, distressing anxiety and dysfunctional behaviours developed to try reduce that anxiety. These disorders, such as phobias, panic disorder and OCD, are much more complicated to treat. They often require professional help and even medicines to treat. Even so, the above psychological treatments are used in conjunction and certainly can’t do much harm.

Anxiety is one of the greatest barriers to happiness. So in the wise words of Meher Baba: “Don’t worry, be happy”.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Rubber Hand Illusion

The five senses are something we take for granted as we never even give a thought as to how complex the way we receive sensory information about the world we live in. As incredible the science behind all the senses may be, it is also interesting to see such intricate mechanisms being fooled by sensory illusions. An experiment that highlights how intricate the senses can be is that of the rubber hand illusion.

In this experiment, researchers made participants look at a dummy rubber hand, while obscuring their real hand from view. They then applied exactly the same stimulus to the real hand as the rubber hand, such as stroking it with a brush or feather. Within a short amount of time, the participants reported that they were convinced that the rubber hand was their real hand, confusing the visual sensation of seeing the rubber hand with the tactile sensation of their real hand being brushed.


Because the brain is so good at piecing together things to come up with explanations, it links the two sensations and thus concludes that the rubber hand must be part of the body. The association is so strong that some participants would even feel pain when the rubber hand was attacked, pulling away their real arm.

One of the lesser known senses of the body is proprioception – the sensation of knowing where your body lies in three-dimensional space. This sensation is what lets you do things with your eyes closed, while also being responsible for the feeling of embarrassing yourself with a fall when someone pulls the chair out from under you. Proprioception is based on a delicate “body map” your brain draws out from various sensory information such as your joint position and touch sensation from your muscle and skin. It then adds more information such as vision and spatial orientation information from your inner ears to accurately predict how you will interact in your environment. In the case of the rubber hand illusion, the brain is fooled into remapping the body map to accommodate the rubber hand.

The application of this phenomenon, known as multisensory integration, extends from out-of-body experiences to phantom limb pain, where amputees feel pain and sensation from an amputated limb. There are also anecdotal evidence of men with penile prostheses being able to achieve orgasms, most likely thanks to the rubber hand illusion.


Posted in Psychology & Medicine


Anyone who drives to work knows the strange sensation of realising that you have no memory of driving the last few kilometres. It is as if you turn on an autopilot in your brain. Because your brain is a master of pattern recognition, it analyses the route and all the movements like handle turning that takes you to the destination then converts it into a habit. After many commutes, the habit is so strong that the brain does not need to spare any thought on the activity. Ergo, your brain literally turns on an autopilot for you so to spare brainpower.

Thanks to this autopilot, the brain does not have to think about the drive to work. This means that it creates no new memories about the commute and you come out the other side not remembering the drive. An analogy would be to think of your brain’s information processing ability as if it was taking photos. The more new information it processes, the more photos it takes. Because your commute is an automatic process, the brain takes hardly any photos. Therefore, the “album” has few photos and takes little time to flip through. In comparison, your brain takes far more photos if you were to spend an equal time exploring a new scenic route. When you look back on this drive, the album is much thicker and you perceive it as a longer, more detailed memory.

Of course, this is extremely dangerous as your brain’s autopilot does not protect you from changes to your usual commute, such as a car swerving into you by accident. The automatic process means your brain is less ready for information processing and you have a delayed reaction, which may cost you your life.

The same goes for meeting a new person. On a first date, you learn many things about the other person and your brain frantically takes as many photos as it can. Looking back on it, it feels as if every second lasted forever and you can remember every little detail like the song that was playing in the background or the colour of her nails. But twenty years down the line, a day with that same person might feel less special and more “automatic”. Just like your drive to work, such an “autopilot” might result in a horrible accident.

So never stop paying attention to details, avoid forming ruts with surprises and new things. Don’t let your relationship turn into a boring commute.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


When you remember a scene from the past, you are not remembering the past. You are remembering a memory of the past. Your brain works in a very funny way where it does not record memories like film. Instead, it seems to remember things as a collage. Everytime you recall a memory – whether it be a happy memory of your first love, or a sad memory of lost love – your brain recalls your last recollection of the event. Simply put, every time you “remember” something, you are merely remembering the latest memory of the event. Each time you replay an event in your mind, it is rewriting a version of the memory over itself.

This means that the more you dwell on a memory, the more it is distorted. You romanticise the good parts and dramaticise the bad parts. The memory is ultimately warped beyond the point of telling the true story. Instead, it becomes something akin to a movie script or a fairy tale. But if it truly is a memory you deem special and hold dear, then maybe it isn’t too bad keeping a romanticised, “perfect” version of it somewhere in your heart to look back on every now and then.

Posted in Science & Nature

Lizard People

What would the world be like if the dinosaurs had not gone extinct? In 1982, palaeontologist Dale Russell proposed a thought experiment regarding the possible evolutionary path of a species called Troodons. The Troodons were small, bird-like dinosaurs from the later periods of the reign of dinosaurs. They grew up to 2.4m in length and about 50kg in weight, standing on two slender hind legs. The most interesting feature of Troodons was their very large brain – six times larger than any other dinosaurs relative to their body weight. This would have most likely allowed the Troodons to be quite intelligent relative to other species, allowing it to utilise crude tools such as rolling a boulder off a cliff.

Russell believed that had the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event did not happen 65 million years ago (when a giant meteor struck Earth), the Troodons could have evolved in a path similar to humans, expanding their brain size and using intelligence as a tool of survival. Although its brain size was substantially lower than that of a human, he believes that through evolution, by the present its brain would be the size of a modern human’s. He also believed that evolution would have shaped the Troodons into a “dinosauroid” form, much closer to the shape of a human being. The Dinosauroid (nicknamed lizard people) would have had two fingers and a thumb, large eyes, no hair, internal genitalia (like reptiles), no breasts and a navel (the placenta is instrumental in giving birth to large-brained offspring). Their language would probably have sounded like a bird song.

Given the history of Homo sapiens and our competition and ultimate demise of similar sapient species, it is unclear whether we would have won the survival war against the Dinosauroids, or whether we would have even had the chance to evolve to our stage, as mammals rapidly filled the niche after dinosaurs were wiped out. There is much criticism of Russell’s thought experiment of the Dinosauroid being “too anthropomorphic” (too human-looking), but as suggested in the book K-PAX by Prot, perhaps the humanoid form is the most efficient natural design for an intelligent life form. Realistic or not, it is a fascinating projection of a world that could have been.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Life Review

They say that when you face your mortality, your entire life flashes before your eyes like a sped-up autobiographical film. This tends to happen in situation where a person feels they are in danger of imminent death, such as moments before a car crash. Reports say that the event typically lasts anywhere between less than a second to few seconds, and what they perceive as major life events flash before their eyes, usually in chronological order. However, reports are very subjective and variable.

This phenomenon sounds very clichéd, but it has been widely reported throughout time and space. Over 8 million people in the United States of America stated that they experienced this “life review” in a near-death experience, with countless records in historical texts, reaching far back as at least 1795 in a letter by Rear-Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort. It is fascinating to see that there is even a set name or phrase for this phenomenon deeply ingrained in various languages, such as English, German, French, Dutch, Russian, Persian, Arabian and Korean, suggesting that the phenomenon is widespread and common.

There is no strong evidence for why this phenomenon occurs, but there is one theory that is persuading. The brain is always subconsciously referring to past experiences and knowledge to apply to the present to help solve a problem. It has been suggested that when you are at the brink of death, the brain frantically searches through everything in an attempt to save you from demise. This is a rather messy process as the brain does not routinely encounter such near-death experiences and does not have much information to refer to immediately. In this process, it brings up every memory that you thought you had forgotten, which you see as a montage flashing before your eyes. For example, a man who was attacked by a great white shark reported that out of nowhere, he recalled his son watching a documentary on sharks and remembered that putting your hands down a shark’s gills will incapacitate it. Thanks to this, he survived.

The brain does indeed have an amazing ability to alter your speed of thought and delay time perception when you are in danger, or the so-called “fight-or-flight” mode. There is much anecdotal evidence of firefighters instinctively knowing that a building will collapse very soon, or emergency physicians making complex clinical decisions in the blink of an eye by drawing from a well of past experiences.

Calvin and Hobbes

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Viscera: Brain

(Learn more about the organs of the human bodies in other posts in the Viscera series here:

(NB: I have written MANY ARK posts about the brain and all the delightful ways it screws up. Some of them are probably the most interesting posts on my blog. Please click the hyperlinks to check out the various related articles! 😀 Alternatively, here’s a convenient list:

Among the many organs of the human body, no organ comes close to the magnificent complexity that is the brain. The brain acts as the command centre of the body. It receives massive amounts of information through the various senses, processes it and sends out electrical signals to control how the body operates. Not only does it control “basic” functions such as movement of muscles, controlling organ functions and regulating homeostasis, it is also responsible for the so-called “higher functions” such as consciousness, emotions and cognition. It is the true seat of the mind and soul.


The brain is the only major visceral organ not located in the trunk (body). It is enclosed in the cranium of the skull, which acts as a protective casing. Because it is a closed box, even a small increase in volume (such as due to a bleed or a tumour) can cause extreme pressures to build, causing severe problems. The entire brain and spinal cord are bathed in a fluid called cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), all enclosed by a sheath made of three layers (dura, arachnoid and pia maters). The brain sends out nerves to the rest of the body, which act as electrical wiring transmitting signals. These include the cranial nerves and the spinal cord, which leaves the bottom of the skull down the spine. The spinal cord branches off into many nerves that supply every nook and cranny of the body. The brain itself is made up of two large hemispheres, which are connected by a bridge called the corpus callosum. Despite popular belief, the actions of the two hemispheres are much more complicated than “analytical vs. creative”. The brain also encompasses the cerebellum (the small stripey structure at the back), which controls coordination and speech articulation, and the brainstem, which is involved in autonomic control of life-sustaining functions such as breathing, and also the source of the cranial nerves.

In the last century, scientists have learned that specific parts of the brain play a specific role. This thought started with the field of phrenology, where small areas of the brain were mapped to a certain mental faculty, such as love, wit or destructiveness. Although this turned out to be complete hokum, the idea stayed and we now know the actual functions of each part of the brain. The brain is broadly divided into four lobes: frontal, parietal, temporal and occipital. The frontal lobe is the domain of thought, personality, motor function and other higher functions. The parietal lobe is related to spatial awareness and sensory functions (such as touch). The temporal lobe is linked to hearing, comprehension of language and storing new memories. The occipital lobe is primarily associated with vision. The brain can then be subdivided into more focussed areas, such as Broca’s area that governs speech and Wernicke’s area that governs listening. It should be noted that the four lobes only describe areas on the surface of the brain (cerebral cortex) where the higher functions belong. The inside of the brain is just as complicated and has many different parts, such as the hypothalamus that is involved in homeostasis, and the hippocampus that converts short-term memories into long-term memories.

How does a lump of cells weighing around 1.5kg produce such wondrous abilities such as philosophical thought, deduction, emotions and calculation? The truth is that we still do not know how the brain functions exactly. However, we know that the brain is composed of a large number of neurons (nerve cells) – about 100 billion of them. These neurons connect to one another via a synapse, which is a gap between two nerve cells where neurotransmitters travel to and fro (allowing electrical impulses to jump from one neuron to another). Using these connections, neurons form an unbelievably intricate and complex network of electrical activity. Because one neuron can connect to many more others, the number of synapses is estimated to be around 100~1000 trillion – significantly more powerful compared to any computer in the world. The number of synapses directly correlates to intelligence and it seems intellectual activities such as reading a book increases the number of synapses in the brain. We have yet to understand exactly how the brain uses this incredible computational power to produce cognition and self-awareness.


(Video of neuronal activities in a zebrafish brain)

Because the brain uses electrical impulses for most of its functions, a common abnormality that is seen with the brain is when the electrical activity becomes disorganised and out of control – a seizure. This abnormal electrical activity may be due to a focal problem such as a tumour, or a generalised misfiring of neurons or altered regulation of electrical activity. When a seizure happens, the disorganised activity results in the brain not being able to function normally. For example, the most common consequence is a fit (tonic-clonic seizure) where every muscle spasms out of control, because the muscles are overloaded with chaotic signals. Focal seizures can cause fascinating symptoms depending on the location, such as temporal lobe seizures causing religious visions (hallucination). This also disrupts consciousness, which is why most epilepsy patients do not remember the event.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Agonal Breathing

When a person is on the verge of death, they may show a very strange pattern of breathing. They will begin gasping for breath, take deep laboured breaths, begin to make strange noises and possibly have some muscle jerks (which may look like a seizure). The breathing makes it look as if the person is taking a deep breath and sighing, while gasping every now and then irregularly. This is called agonal breathing and it is most likely caused by an oxygen-starved brain sending weak signals to try kick up the respiratory drive for more oxygen.

Agonal breathing is not uncommon in cases of cardiac arrest. It is important to note that agonal breathing is not an efficient form of breathing and thus it cannot be said that the victim is “breathing” when this occurs. Because it looks like the patient is taking deep breaths, bystanders may be fooled into thinking that they have been resuscitated and have begun breathing again. But this is not the case and the patient is still clinically dead. Ergo, one should not stop CPR even if the patient begins taking deep breaths and sighs. The presence of agonal breaths usually indicate a better outcome for the patient.

(Link to video examples of what agonal breathing looks like: