Posted in Life & Happiness

Doing The Opposite

Routines make you become more and more rigid in your thinking. At times, doing the complete opposite of what you want to do may be more beneficial. For example, staying awake when you feel sleepy, sitting in silence when you want to listen to music or walking to your destination instead of driving there. These small acts may allow you to discover fresh feelings and new directions.

(from The Encyclopaedia of Relative and Absolute Knowledge by Bernard Werber)

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 Philosophy

Fundamental Benevolence

Mencius, a leading Chinese Confucian philosopher, proposed a thesis that diametrically opposes Xunzi’s theory of fundamental malevolence. He claimed that human beings are fundamentally good. According to Mencius, people are inherently altruistic and courteous, wanting to help a fellow man. He stated that people are born with all the qualities needed to build virtue: compassion, humility, modesty and ethics. Through mental training and discipline, these traits respectively develop into: humanity (yin, 인, 仁), righteousness (eui, 의, 義), courtesy (ye, 예, 禮) and wisdom (ji, 지, 智). Mencius believed that as every man and woman are born with all the qualities needed to become a saint (seung yin, 성인, 聖人), anyone could become a “good person” through disciplining one’s mind. According to this theory, evil is only a product of bad environments and people inherently act benevolently when matured in a good environment with adequate teaching in etiquettes and social order. Thus, the act of harming others and murdering are because the person’s fundamental nature was corrupted by a harsh life and environment and because they lack virtue and discipline. A person who strives to perfect their morality is a gentleman (gun ja, 군자, 君子), a person who does not is a petty person (so yin, 소인, 小人). In Confucianism, gentlemen are highly respected while petty people are shunned.

Are human beings good-natured? The theory of fundamental malevolence states that human beings, like all other animals, are selfish beings who only care about their own needs and will willingly harm others to fulfil their greed. Contrary to this, the theory of fundamental benevolence (성선설, sung sun sul) teaches that people are altruistic animals who will support and help each other. We proved the validity of fundamental malevolence from an evolutionary perspective with the example of a hungry lion. An animal case scenario that supports the theory of fundamental benevolence is the ant.

By observing an ant colony, we can learn that altruism can assist in survival. An ant by itself is quite powerless, but when millions of ants come together to form a colony, they can build great cities to protect themselves, they can farm to feed everyone and they can easily overcome any foe of all sizes. Ants do not become jealous of another ant who has more food. Instead, when they are full, they will store excess food in a social stomach so that they can share it with another hungry ant they come across. Through cooperation, understanding and connection – that is, the philosophy of 1 + 1 = 3 – ants are able to compete and survive in nature. In fact, ants thrive anywhere in the world and can easily adapt to almost any environmental change. When comparing the two ultimate species that dominated nature, human beings and ants, the commonality is that both build societies. To build a society, individuals must get along with each another, and the key to building relationships is goodwill.

Thus, we have proven that fundamental benevolence can also be supported by evidence from nature. If so, are human beings fundamentally good or evil? The more you study people, the less credibility there is for fundamental benevolence. Of course there are plenty of stories of altruistic people, but “generally” people are still selfish animals who prioritise their own gain. No matter how much you say “I care for other people and wish everyone in the world happiness”, the reality is that you will only really care and love for people within your monkeysphere, while not caring nearly as much for the starving child on the other side of the world.

This is not to say that “good” does not exist on this world. It is just that the fundamental nature of human beings is likely to be evil, as Xunzi posited. However, as we grow, we learn social order, etiquettes and morality and we try to suppress our basal instincts as much as possible. Although our efforts are usually successful, we still slip up every now and then. On the contrary, some people do not even make the effort to hide their true nature and we label these people as “evil”.

Whether we are fundamentally good or evil, the truth is that we have both the potential and ability to develop our own character and sense of morality. Whether you will be an ant, who builds great cities and strive for a society where everyone helps each other stay well-fed, or a lion, who stalks prey all alone to feed itself day-to-day; that is your choice.

Posted in Science & Nature

Animal Hypnotism

Animals can be hypnotised just like humans. Strictly speaking, it is not hypnotism per se but more of a trance or putting the animal to “sleep”. An animal in trance is in a state of complete relaxation and is immobile, staying still as if it is sleeping as its heart rate and breathing slows. After a certain amount of time, the animal wakes up and acts as if nothing happened.

For example, flipping a rabbit on its back causes it to stay still. It merely twitches its nose but its limbs are completely stiffened. An alligator shows the same response when flipped.
A pheasant can be put into trance if its stomach is rubbed and an iguana falls asleep when stroked on the head as the heat sensing organs are activated and they feel relaxed.
When stroked on its most sensitive part, the nose, a shark freezes from the intense sensation (considering a shark dies if it stops swimming, this must be quite a pleasurable feeling for the shark).
If you turn a lizard on its back and rub its stomach, its diaphragm and respiratory organs are compressed and oxygen supply is limited. This causes the lizard to “turn off”, falling into a trance.

These strange responses are most likely a survival instinct. For example, if a rubber hose with a knot on the end is held in front of a mouse, it will stay absolutely still. This is because it mistakes it for a snake and is frozen from fear. Also, predators such as snakes focus their vision around movement sensing and thus are blind to immobile objects. Similarly, rabbits and alligators mentioned above are playing dead to avoid danger.

Unfortunately, this instinct produces the opposite effects sometimes. Chickens are a good example.
When you press a chicken’s head against the ground and draw straight lines in front of it, it suddenly goes quiet as if possessed. Even after taking off the hand, it stays still. This technique was devised to make the process of cutting off the chicken’s head an easier task. Also, a chicken can be put into trance by gently tucking its head under its wing and then swinging the whole chicken side to side about 10 times. A turkey can be put to sleep the same way.