A theory on how the brain processes and remembers time is that it counts time by the number of experiences. For example, if you attend a party and meet many new people and have an exciting, fun time, then your brain will remember that day as feeling longer and with much more detail. In contrast, a normal, boring work day may not even register as a memory, because there is nothing new to remember.
This sounds obvious, but the theory has relevant implications. Look back on your past week and try to remember what you did. Do you remember the weather three days ago, what you talked about with your friend over coffee five days ago, or what song was playing while you were doing paperwork?
It is not uncommon for our brain to go into autopilot and forget menial, daily routines. In other words, the more standardised and automated your daily life is, your brain will remember those times as “less time”. Ergo, the life you look back on is shorter than what it could have been if you stop having new experiences. Is that not such a waste?
Compare this to when you travel or start a new relationship. You are exposed to so many new stimuli and experiences that your brain light ups and frantically records every detail (the heightened emotions play a role also). This is why we can remember the scent of our partner, the conversations we had with a stranger we met in a French bookshop, and what movie was playing in the background when you had your first kiss. These are moments that you can remember in better detail than you can remember entire years.
The bottom line is that a boring life a short life. A way to make the most of the short time we have in life would be to continue having new experiences as we grow old. Travel the world, meet new people, try things you normally wouldn’t, fall in love and push your horizons.
Otherwise, you may end up on your deathbed looking back on your life, regretting that your highlight reel is much shorter than you expected.
Books are one of the greatest inventions in human history and is considered a “complete” invention, in that it cannot really be improved on any further. Books provide us with knowledge, stories, advice and wonder. The Laurentian Library in Florence, designed by Michelangelo, symbolises this by having a dark entrance lead in to a bright, Pantheon-like library to suggest that books are the key to enlightenment.
Why do we read? Non-fiction books are normally clear in their purpose: they provide objective (for the most part) knowledge in various fields, ranging from history to science. But what about fiction? How can reading fiction enrich our lives, when it is the product of imagination?
When we are in school, we are taught how to critically read fiction. We scrutinise a piece of literature so that we can decipher the motives of the characters, understand symbolism and uncover the hidden social criticism that the author may have intended to portray. We learn to analyse a book, rather than to enjoy it.
But this is not the intention of the author. Unlike non-fiction books that attempt to provide answers, most fiction books don’t try to hide some truth or a deep, meaningful answer. Instead, they are meant to be a journey.
A journey is different from a quest in that there is no specific goal or a mission. All you have to do is wander around, take in the sights, feel emotions that arise in response and expand your inner horizons through reflection. You may even learn something new, whether it is a historical fact, an observation about people, or more about yourself. The point is, there is no “right way” to read fiction; you can enjoy it however you want, without any expectation or judgement.
A writer does not hope for their book to teach one answer to every reader. Everyone has different world views, past experiences and values, so they react to a given situation in variable ways. You could recommend a book that you love to a friend, but they may experience the book in a completely different way. They may not even enjoy it. But that is okay, because the purpose of fiction is not so that it can be enjoyed in one, formulaic way. It is meant to teach us how different we all are.
A good work of fiction tells the story of how an individual or a group of people navigate through a specific scenario or life in general. We get to peer into their thoughts and emotions, while wondering how we would act if we were in their shoes. It teaches us empathy by showing us that people think and act differently to us. We can learn from the characters’ developments how we can tackle our own life problems or worries. It provides a safe environment for us to explore our inner psyche, our insecurities and traumas.
Lastly, remember that just because you travelled to a place once, it does not mean that you know the place. You might have only looked at the key sights and missed how the locals live, or maybe you were not even aware that a certain area existed. Much like this, what you take away from reading a book can be quite variable. The more you immerse yourself, connect with the characters and reflect on the book, the more it will add to your life. You might also find that the second time you read the book, your experience is very different because you have matured or have new problems to deal with.
Now, think of a book that you loved reading. What made the experience so enjoyable? What thoughts or feelings did the book inspire? How did it add to your life?
What makes a city or town aesthetically pleasing? Places such as Prague, Florence and Santorini are famous for their picturesque cityscape. Instead of specific famous buildings or tourist spots, postcards from these areas could just show any part of the city and they would still be beautiful. What sets these places apart? How is it that despite all our technological development, modern cities can’t compare to the beauty of cities that are hundreds or thousands of years old?
Korean architect Yoo Hyun-Joon proposes a theory regarding two factors: material and shape. Consider the following matrix using the two:
Out of these four, the combination that we find the most beautiful is when a city has simple materials but complex shape. For example, Santorini is made only of stone buildings painted white and blue. But because it is built on a volcano, the ground is uneven and the building shapes differ to accommodate for this. Florence is almost entirely made of bricks. Traditional Korean houses were made only of wood. This is because in the old days, due to labour costs and poor logistics, cities were usually built with materials abundant in the surrounding area. Instead of varying materials, architects would challenge the limit of materials with varied shapes.
Nowadays, thanks to trade and globalisation, it is much easier to obtain materials from all over the world such as glass, concrete and steel. Furthermore, we can use industrial vehicles to change the terrain to flatten the ground and we use tall rectangular buildings to maximise space. Thus, we end up with the ugly, chaotic combination of many materials and simple shape.
The solution to making a beautiful city is simple then – create a building restriction that unifies the building material to one. A good example is Newbury Street in Boston, USA. This shopping district is famous for its classy red brick appearance, thanks to a building restriction that ensures every new shop built on the street must have the side of the building facing the street built using red bricks.
Of course, just unifying the building material to any one thing does not solve the issue. For example, cities made of only concrete rarely are as appealing. What is important is to use local materials that best represent the context of the city and the land it was built on.
The next time you have a holiday, try travelling alone somewhere new. It may sound lonely, but travelling on your own can have several benefits that you may never have considered.
Firstly, you can be selfish for once and plan the trip to wholly fit your needs. If you want to spend a whole day in a museum or focus on the best eateries of the city, you can do that without worrying about your travelling companions’ preferences. Some of the worst moments while travelling are conflicts within the travel group due to different travel styles. Travelling alone eliminates that issue as you are only in the company of yourself.
Secondly, you will meet new people much more frequently and readily. You may have to ask a stranger for a photo using broken Japanese. You may go out drinking with a group of Australians on a night out in Edinburgh. You may strike up a conversation with a Dutch girl next to a piano within an antique bookshop in Paris. When travelling alone, you have to rely more on the kindness of strangers and it is easier for others to approach you when you aren’t surrounded by a group.
Lastly, remember that travelling frees you up from commitments and your “real” life. Instead of worrying about bills, assignments and the future, you can focus on the present. This lets you make better use of your time, such as noticing little details like how blue the sky is or taking photos of happy people on the streets. Most importantly, when you’re alone, you can become lost in your thoughts and gain more insight into your inner psyche. This is when you can learn more about what you enjoy, what you want out of life and being mindful of how you are really doing in life.
But of course, travelling with others has its own appeal. The happiness you gain from sharing wonderful experiences such as beautiful sunsets and delicious local foods, paired with deepening the connection and bond you have with your friend or partner becomes the best part of travelling.
“If you want to find out who you truly love, travel far away on your own. The person you wish was beside you at that moment is the one you truly love.”
~ from Calmi Cuori Appassionati
They say money cannot buy happiness. But everyone eventually comes to the realisation that in the world we live in, this is a lie. Who hasn’t felt the thrill of retail therapy – feeling joy from purchasing something they have always desired, from expensive clothes to delicious dessert? It is difficult to persuade a starving person that “money cannot buy happiness” when even a small donation could mean that person being happy from a full stomach.
Of course, this is a literal explanation of the saying. The lesson from the saying is more that money is not the only thing that can buy happiness. Some of the greatest joys a human being can experience – such as connection, love and humour – are virtually free.
That being so, having money gives you the luxury of being able to enjoy even the free things more, because there is one resource that money can buy and that is time. If you are spending less time having to earn a living, then you have more free time to enjoy hobbies and social activities that will bring you happiness. Ergo, money does not equal happiness, but it sure helps your happiness to have enough money.
As mentioned above, money can bring direct happiness as well from purchasing things. However, most of the “happiness” we receive from buying things is from dopamine, meaning it is short-lived and not sustainable.
A better use of your money is purchasing experiences. If you spend your money to go travelling or do an activity like skydiving, the happiness you feel will be linked to the memory and you will be able to reminisce about it in the future. And if you cannot afford an expensive adventure, you can still buy a cup of coffee and catch up with a friend.
A woman travelling in Africa is bitten by what appears to be a mosquito. She swats the insect and keeps on going about her journey. The next week, she finds that she has a small nodule where she was bit. She is also feeling slightly unwell, with fever and fatigue. Over the following two weeks, her fever worsens (coming and going intermittently) and she notices large lumps along the back of her neck. By this stage, she is experiencing muscle and joint pain as well. After returning home from her trip, she finds that her symptoms have not resolved. On top of her fever and pains, she begins experiencing headaches, mood swings, lethargy, confusion, clumsiness, delayed response to pain, sleepiness during the day and insomnia at night. She begins to worry that something is wrong, but she believes that it is a bad flu and does not see a doctor. Her symptoms worsen with time (sleeping up to 15 hours a day), until one day, she falls asleep and does not wake up. She is taken to a hospital, where it is discovered she is in a coma. She dies within a week.
This is the typical presentation of sleeping sickness, also known as human African trypanosomiasis. It is an infectious disease caused by a protozoan parasite called Trypanosoma brucei (comes in two types: T. brucei rhodesiense (East African type) and T. brucei gambiense (West African type)), which is transmitted by tsetse flies – a bloodsucking fly endemic to sub-Saharan Africa (there are also case reports of sexual transmission between people). When infected, the parasite rapidly proliferates in the patient’s bloodstream. It is not detected by the host immune system, thanks to a surface protein called VSG. This allows it to spread through the patient swiftly and silently via the circulatory and lymphatic systems. The early symptoms (intermittent fever, rash, lymph node enlargement), typically presenting about a week or two after infection, are due to the parasite spreading through the blood and lymph. As the infection spreads, the parasites begin to invade the central nervous system (although in the West African type of the disease, patients often die from the toxic effects of the parasite replicating in the blood before they reach this stage).
As the infection spreads through the CNS, it causes the neurological symptoms described in the case. The sleepiness (from where the disease gets its name from) worsens as the disease progresses, with patients finding it difficult to wake up in the morning, even sleeping for over 20 hours. The sleepiness is caused by a chemical called tryptophol, which is produced by the parasite. Essentially, the neurological symptoms appear as if the person’s brain is slowing down, until they fall into a coma, resulting in death without treatment (usually within 2~3 years since the infection).
Sleeping sickness is invariably fatal unless treated early. Once the patient reaches the second stage (neurological phase), treatment becomes very difficult. The current first line treatment is a drug called melarsoprol, which is a form of arsenic. Because of its toxic nature, it is extremely dangerous and there is around an 8% chance of the patient dying from side effects. Fortunately, there are less dangerous and more effective treatments such as eflornithine (which only works for the West African type) being developed.
Travelling is fun. But strangely, the etymology of the word travel is the Latin word tripalium, which means “torture instrument”. This is most likely because in the old days before airplanes and trains were invented, travelling was often long, arduous and painful. Travelling is probably the least terrifying form of torture. Let us explore the various methods of torture used throughout human history. There are many types of tortures, but they can be largely divided into physical and psychological torture. The main goal of torture is to induce maximum pain to extract information from, punish or to execute a person.
Physical torture is very simple: inflict as much pain as you can. For example, you can simply tie the person to a chair and beat them senselessly, or apply pressure to a wound to cause intense pain. A useful tip for beating someone is to place a phonebook on their stomach or hand and hitting the book, which transfers pains while not leaving a bruise or any marks. A simple way to cause extreme pain is the use of fingers. Finger tips are extremely sensitive and contain many nerve endings, meaning sticking needles under the nail bed or ripping the fingernails off causes extreme pain. Like this, medical knowledge has often been used to develop new ways to torture people. For instance, heating the sole of the feet with fire causes severe pain, electricity used in the right amount can keep the person alive while causing pain and seizures, and if you lie a person flat and on a slight decline (so the head is lower than the body), put a cloth over their face and pour over it, you can induce a sensation of drowning (this is called waterboarding and is used by the CIA). Another simple, effective torture method is the joori-teulgi(주리 틀기) from Korea, where a person is tied to a chair with the feet bound, with two long sticks inserted between the thighs, crossed, then pulled down to streth the thighs apart. This causes extreme pain and suffering.
As mentioned above, torture can be used to kill a person too. The famous hanged, drawn and quartered torture was used in the Middle Ages to punish treasonists. The convict was drawn behind a horse for a while and then hanged until just before death, when they were disembowelled, beheaded and quartered. Another strange, complicated method of torture can be found in China, where slow slicing was used. Slow slicing involves tying a convict to a post and cutting slices of flesh off him until he dies. Executioners often had an art of slicing in such a way to prolong the suffering for as long as possible without killing the person. Another execution method found in both Western and Eastern history is dismemberment by horses, where the person’s four limbs and head are tied to individual horses (or cows), which are then made to run in different directions to violently rip the person up.
Animals were used in various forms of torture throughout history around the world. Tying the prisoner to an elephant’s feet to crush them to death, putting a rat on the person’s stomach then putting a pot over it and heating it with fire to make the rat burrow into the person’s guts, feeding them to lions or vicious dogs, coating them in honey and leaving them in the path of fire ants to make them get slowly eaten… Out of all of these, the most bizarre method is the goat torture used in ancient Rome. This torture involved tying the prisoner to a chair and securing their feet, which were coated with salt water. Next, goats were released around the prisoner. The goats would lick the sole of the feet to cause tickling, which over a prolonged period is interpreted as pain by the body. This eventually drives the person insane from pain.
Unlike physical torture, psychological torture induces shame and fear rather than pain. Threatening, solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, rape and sexual torture, sensory deprivation, exploitation of phobias, loud noises (such as banging on a door constantly), blindfolding the person and rubbing a balloon on their cheeks, placing foreign objects or snakes in the anus or vagina, leaving them in a container full of insects… Psychological torture has just as much a variety as physical torture and can have longer lasting effects on the person. Furthermore, as it leaves no external marks, it is still frequently used in the modern day.
No matter what the method, inducing extreme pain to control people, extract information and cause suffering is an inhumane act that cannot be tolerated. If mankind had focussed their creativity and effort into more constructive and altruistic things rather than discovering various ways to cause pain, we would probably be living in a much better world.
Any computer user would have had an (unfortunate) experience where their computer crashed and all the information there was destroyed in a second. You may still be able to format it and use it without problems, but the data you had on the computer and any customisation you made would be lost. But what if this exact thing could happen to a human being?
There are many types of amnesia, with causes ranging from neurobiological (where trauma to the brain, a drug or some other pathology causes memory loss) to psychogenic (where there is no apparent biological cause for the amnesia). With psychogenic amnesia, one only experiences retrograde amnesia, where they cannot recall memories from the past. However, anterograde amnesia, where you cannot form new memories and keep forgetting what happened, is absent in psychogenic amnesia. Psychogenic amnesia is often caused by extreme stress or a traumatic event. One type of psychogenic amnesia is situation-specific amnesia, as seen in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that occurs after a severely stressful experience such as war, rape, child abuse or witnessing a brutal death. In this case, the patient tends to only lose memories regarding the event, as if the brain is trying to protect the person from the hurtful memories.
A more interesting and much rarer type of amnesia is global psychogenic amnesia, also known as a fugue state or dissociative fugue. Unlike situation-specific amnesia, patients in fugue states have absolutely no memory of their original identity and personality. Simply put, they (usually) retain all their functions such as speaking and social interactions, but their persona has been wiped out like a formatted computer. Fugue states often develop after severe stress and can happen to anyone. Similar to situation-specific amnesia, the brain blocks all memories of the past in an attempt to protect the person’s psyche. Due to the “deletion” of the previous persona, patients in fugue states often generate new identities and begin wandering (sometimes even travelling to another country) away from the place they lost their memories. This is most likely the brain attempting to leave the environment to avoid the stressor that caused the event.
Fugue states are often short-lived, lasting from days to months. However, very rarely they can last for years. Once out of a fugue state, the patient recovers all of their past memories but have no recollection of what happened during the fugue state. This creates a hole in their memory. For obvious reasons, this usually causes intense confusion and distress in the patient and treatment is often based around helping the person come to an understanding about the episode and cope with the stressor that caused it.