Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Child Prodigy

At the age of 6, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart toured Europe to astound audiences with his mastery of the violin, organ and keyboard. At the age of 11, Judit Polgár defeated a Grandmaster in chess, later becoming a Grandmaster herself at the age of 15. By the time he finished elementary school, Saul Kripke had taught himself ancient Hebrew, finished the works of Shakespeare and mastered the works of Descartes and complex mathematical problems.

Each of these people is considered a child prodigy – person who develops and shows extreme talent in a skill at a level far beyond the norm for their age. The term wunderkind (German for “wonder child”) is also used. For some unexplained reason, these people are far beyond the average level of children at their age in terms of intelligence or a certain talent.

Prodigies are actually a subset of a condition known as precocity, where a young child shows unusually early development or maturity, especially in mental aptitude. For example, a German child called Christian Friedrich Heinecken is known to have talked within a few hours after his birth, learnt the key events of the first five books of the Torah within a year, mastered the Bible at age 2 and had a working knowledge of universal history and geography, Latin and French at age 3. Unfortunately, he was struck ill at the age of 4, and shortly after predicting his death, passed away. Heinecken’s case is an extreme example of precocity, but nonetheless most precocious children show at least an outstandingly advanced level of mental maturity compared to other children. Along with prodigies, savants and children with extraordinarily high IQ (over 160) are also considered precocious.

Although precocious children enjoy their extreme talent (for which they usually have deep passion for) and may even become famous for it like Mozart, they are almost always at risk of certain problems. One common issue is that they tend to be placed on pedestals as people constantly praise their ability. This can quickly evolve into narcissism, setting a major expectation that the child battles with throughout his or her life. Children with advanced intellect are often unable to fit in to society as they are far more intelligent than their peers. Not only do other children shy away from them, but they feel too bored and unstimulated by other children and choose to alienate themselves. Furthermore, although they may have the intelligence and maturity to comprehend philosophical concepts, they still have the emotions of a child, meaning they are tormented by the dissonance between the rational mind and their emotions. All of these factors combined lead to a great increase in risk of depression in precocious children.

Essentially, the main conundrum for child prodigies is trying to balance their amazing talent with a happy life in a “normal” society. This could be achieved by parents keeping things real and not placing excessive expectations on the child, and giving the child a way to vent their genius in some way. For example, chess has been a classic way of keeping children with high intellect engaged. Having this kind of vent allows the child to still engage with other members of his or her society (other children), while honing their great skills for an even brighter future. The child must stay engaged and passionately practise and advance their skill so that they do not stay in a perpetual rut all their life.

With great power, comes great responsibility.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Flow

Have you ever had a moment of pure passion, where you are so immersed in what you are doing that everything around you does not matter and you are in a state of total bliss? In that moment, you feel fully alive, present and completely engaged with what you are doing. When the happiness and creativity expert Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi was studying how painters work, he noticed an odd thing. When their painting was going well, they did not care about getting tired, hungry or uncomfortable. They just carried on. But when the painting was finished, they rapidly lost interest in it.

Csíkszentmihályi described this state of mind as a flow state: the experience of being fully engaged with what you are currently doing. When in a flow state, an hour can pass in the blink of an eye, action and awareness merges and the experience is intrinsically rewarding. You feel that what you are doing is important, in full control and not self-conscious. Flow state does not just involve ultimate concentration. It is a complex state of mind where you are solely driven by focused motivation, operating at your peak level of mental and emotional engagement. Essentially, your mind uses 100% of its capacity for the task at hand, rather than wondering what is for dinner or peeking at the beautiful girl across the road. Because of this, a person in flow state not only works with great efficiency and creativity, but they also feel positive, energised and happy. In fact, the intense spontaneous joy brought on by flow state can almost be considered the mental equivalent of an orgasm.

So how can you achieve flow state? Flow state is not something that one chooses to go into. It is only attained when certain criteria are met.

  • Flow state can happen with any activity, but it is more likely to occur if you are internally motivated (i.e. you are doing the activity mainly for its own sake).
  • You should have clear short-term goals for what you are trying to achieve. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  • An important aspect of flow is that the activity must be challenging enough to stretch your skills almost to the limits, but not more. If it is not challenging enough, you will get bored. If it demands more skill than what you are capable of, you will become anxious. That being said, the balance only has to be between “perceived” challenge and skill. In other words, all you need is confidence that you can take on the challenge.
  • The activity should provide immediate feedback on how you are doing (e.g. seeing how a painting is turning out, hearing yourself sing). This allows you to adjust your performance in order to maintain flow state.

Flow is an incredibly useful thing. Through flow, you can forget about your worries and your strife, reach a state of pure happiness and inner peace and produce something truly great. The key to happiness is knowing what allows you to reach flow state and routinely entering flow state. For example, I know that the three things that give me flow are: music, humour and obsessions. Ergo, I play my guitar and sing, watch television shows that make me laugh and write an entry for the Encyclopaedia of Absolute and Relative Knowledge every day. All of these activities allow me to be truly happy, no matter what the situation may be.

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Posted in Life & Happiness

Talent

The following is a story from a school in Detroit, USA, many years ago. One day during class, the class lost a mouse that was needed for an experiment. The students looked desperately for the mouse, but no one could find it. The teacher then said: “Everyone be quiet, Stevie Morris will be able to find the mouse”.

The students replied: “That’s impossible, Morris will never find the mouse”. The reason being, Morris was blind.

The teacher said: “You’re right. But Morris, while not being able to see, has excellent hearing. He will be able to hear and find the mouse that you cannot see”.

Morris was extremely touched by this comment. He realised that his blindness was not just a disability, but also gave him a superior sense of hearing compared to others. Morris used his hearing to nurture his musical talent and became a successful singer-songwriter. This boy is Stevie Wonder.

Talent is not something grand. At first, it merely appears tiny, useless and infantile. Stevie Wonder only started off as a boy with good hearing; he was not born a genius singer-songwriter. To develop a talent into a real talent, two extra factors are needed. The first is a master, such as Stevie Wonder’s teacher, who can identify and nurture a child’s natural talent. The second is another talent that when combined with the master’s guidance, develops the talent into something great. This something is effort. Effort is a talent that everyone can have. Those who complain that they are talentless are simply people who have not yet put in the effort.

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Posted in History & Literature

Han Suk-Bong

Han Suk-Bong is a famous writer from the Joseon Dynasty (Korea during 14th to 19th century), who was praised as “the master writer of the East” even in the Ming Dynasty (China during 14th to 17th century). His writing and calligraphy were partly thanks to his inborn talent, but also because of his intense training and practise throughout his life. There is a famous story regarding his training.

Han Suk-Bong practised calligraphy since a young age by himself, practising every day. The villagers all praised his talent and his mother sent him to a famous temple to study. After four years of studying, Han missed his mother so much that he sneaked out during the night and returned home. When he told his mother that he there was nothing more for him to learn, she told him to turn the lights off and said: “I will slice rice cakes while you write, then we will compare our skills”. After the two silently did their best work in the darkness, they turned the light on and it was evident that Han’s letters were all crooked and unsightly while his mother’s rice cakes were perfectly sliced in even thickness. Han deeply repented his arrogance and realised there was so much more to learn. His mother told him off and told him not to set foot in the house again until he could write perfectly even with his eyes closed, just as she could slice rice cakes perfectly. Thanks to his mother’s passion for his education, Han became one of the most well-known masters of calligraphy and literature in the Far East.

The best type of parent is one who identifies a child’s natural talents early on and helps them develop those skills. If the child becomes lost, loses their way or fall into the pit of arrogance believing they are the best, it is the parent’s duty to correct them. The moment you believe that there is nothing more to learn, you become a failure.

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Posted in History & Literature

Hot Waitress Economic Index

What happens when an economy is going into a depression? Unemployment goes up, inflation goes up, housing markets tank… There are many (miserable) indicators of a waning economy, but none are as strange as the Hot Waitress Economic Index. Simply put, this index suggests that the worse the economy is doing, the more attractive the waitresses are on average.

Despite sounding incredibly shallow and sexist, there is sufficient data to support this theory. It can be explained by the fact that when the economy is doing fine, attractive women are more likely to be in higher paying jobs as they are favoured by employers (unfair, but statistically true). When the economy is doing poorly, unemployment rates rise and these attractive women are pushed down to low-paying jobs such as waitressing as actual skill becomes a higher priority when hiring. This causes an apparent increase in the overall attractiveness of waitresses in the country. Some studies suggest that the Hot Waitress Economic Index is even more accurate in predicting the state of the economy than unemployment as attractive people tend to be the first to earn jobs, acting as an immediate indicator for the economy. For example, when the economy dips out of the depression and starts to rise again, attractive people are the first to be re-hired into higher paying jobs, causing the Hot Waitress Economic Index to change before the unemployment rate does.

Interestingly, there is no data on how the economy affects the average attractiveness of waiters.

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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.

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Posted in Science & Nature

Forecast

When the weather forecast says today will be sunny, it always seems to rain (and vice versa). In fact, according to a US study, forecasts are sometimes less accurate than flipping a coin. If not even professionals can accurately predict the weather, can ordinary people like you and I do it?
The key to this is observation. By carefully studying your surroundings, you can look in to the future.

There are many signs before rain comes. For example, if the sunset is unusually clear or if a mountain far away looks smaller or hazy then it is very likely that it will rain the next day. If you see a rainbow in the morning it suggests rain is coming from the west. On hot days without any wind, it is likely there will be a heavy shower.
Animals are also adept at telling the weather. Frogs crying, worms coming out and swallows flying low are all signs that the air is humid and rain is coming. Swallows are especially accurate, as they fly low to catch insects that cannot fly high due to the humidity weighing them down.
If you are at the beach and there is a swarm of jellyfish, avoid going out to sea. Jellyfish near the coastline is a premonition for a storm. 

If a more accurate weather prediction is required, the most precise method is cloud observation. If you study them carefully they comprise three tiers, with some clouds rising vertically.

Clouds in the highest level

  • Cirrus: Very fine, white feathery clouds that almost look combed over. If these clouds are curvy and organised the weather will be fine, but if they appear banded or spread chaotically they can gather and form rainclouds and start a shower.
  • Cirrostratus: Looks like a veil of cotton curtaining the sky. They cause halos around the sun and moon, which is a sign of imminent rain.
  • Cirrocumulus: Looks like a spread of seashells on a beach. If you find these clouds over a beach in winter, it will rain soon.

Clouds in the middle level

  • Altocumulus: Either appears as an ordered stream of rounded clouds, or looks like a herd of sheep. If these clouds shrink in size, the weather gets better (and vice versa).
  • Altostratus: Shaped like streaks of veil across the sky. They are often light grey or very dark. If they become thicker or sink to a lower level, it is a sign that the weather will be cloudy with a chance of rain.
  • Nimbostratus: The common “raincloud”, bringing rain and snow.

Clouds in the lowest level

  • Stratocumulus: Clumps of clouds that appear in layers without clear boundaries. You can see clear sky through gaps between them. If you can see clouds that were cumulus in the afternoon changing to stratocumulus by sunset, the weather will be great the next day.
  • Stratus: Looks like fog covering a low sky. If they come in the morning and disappear by night, that day will be clear. However, if they lie between altostratus and a canyon, it will rain.

Clouds that rise vertically

  • Cumulus: Fluffy clouds that you can see on a clear sky. If they disappear by evening the next day is clear, but if they can be seen late at night or float north-westerly, it is a sign that it will rain.
  • Cumulonimbus: Massive cloud pillars that rise to the level of cirrus. It always brings heavy rain and sometimes a thunderstorm.

If you know how to observe and analyse cloud patterns, you can predict the weather even when stranded on a desert island.

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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.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Dunning-Kruger Effect

People are very interesting animals that, despite possessing the most powerful brain out of all the species, exhibit many strange psychological phenomena. For example, in psychology there is a well-known cognitive bias (the act of subconsciously making bias while thinking) called the Dunning-Kruger effect. 
This effect states that people who are unskilled are more likely to fail to recognise their incompetence and rather overestimate their capabilities. It is most prevalent in cases where someone first learns a skill, such as singing at the karaoke, then believing that they are extremely skilled or an expert in the field when it comes to learning knowledge.

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This strange effect is caused by the belief that learning is an easy process. For example, it is simple to understand the basic principles of science, but it takes far more effort to understand the deeper, more complex pieces of knowledge to become an expert in the field. However, people are deluded into thinking that the time required for a beginner to become an amateur is equal to the time for an amateur to become an expert. This can be easily explained through the analogy of a role-playing game, where “levelling”, or gaining more experience, is much easier in the earlier levels compared to much later. For example, the time taken to go from level 1 to 30 may be equal to the time taken to go from level 30 to 33.

The Dunning-Kruger effect scientifically explains the proverbial frog in the well (who believes he is the best, not knowing that there is a bigger world). Also, this effect extends to those who are actually skilled, as it causes them to believe they are not as skilled and rather underestimate themselves. This is often due to them understanding that it is much more difficult to master a skill and that they are “nowhere near” that point. 

These two factors combine to produce a strange paradox where the less skilled are less likely to believe they are incompetent and rate themselves as more skilled than the expert. This is frequently seen on the internet or during debates and arguments.

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