The Human Animal Post

(This post has a point. A very important point if I might say so myself and I’m even skipping the Weekly Head Voices because of it. Please read it, in sessions if you have to, from start to finish. It has a WHV Nerd Index of 0/5 and a Backyard Philosophy Index of 55. You can get back at me in the comments.)

It turns out that when any normal human being is faced with observations or evidence that oppose their already formed opinions, they tend to ignore or downplay the value of those observations. Conversely, any scrap of evidence that seems to confirm the opinion in question is considered to be good and trustworthy evidence. This is called confirmation bias: You and I both suffer from it, and it can be a dangerous phenomenon. Ideally, we would be able to judge the evidence and come to a reasonable decision, but this turns out to be exceptionally hard.

A photograph I recently took of a confirmation bias. Note that observations from below confirming preconceived ideas are favoured more than observations from above, resulting in the tell-tale yellow tinge and staircase edge at the bottom of the core.

Another interesting one is the planning fallacy: We are apparently hard-wired to underestimate the time we’ll need to complete some or other task. In other words, you always think you’ll need far less time to complete that project than you’ll end up using. Most of you have experienced this first-hand, or indirectly, when some huge IT or building project falls way behind schedule (and budget).

There is a whole list of such cognitive biases. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re basically walking jugs filled to the brim with misunderstandings, and mostly we’re unaware of it. Now you might think to yourself: But surely I’m better and more logical than the rest! I’m sorry to have to disappoint you, but you’re even biased about your biases. It’s called the bias blind spot, a meta-bias that means you’ll always estimate your own unbiasedness more highly than that of your neighbour.

I hope you didn’t nod off right there, because the next topic I’d like to touch on is that of sleep (please excuse the lame joke, I needed it for the continuity). Ever thought of exactly why you get sleepy at night? Or why your teenager (or teenage sibling, or yourself; substitute whatever’s more relevant) is not able to go to bed or wake up on time? Mostly we just go through the (sleep) motions without asking why or how. When you’re exposed to light in the morning, your eyes talk to your supra-chiasmatic nucleus (SCN), a  cluster of brain-cells about the size of a grain of rice in your already small hypothalamus, which then, minute as it, starts raising your body temperature, releases the cortisol hormone (this gives you a boost) and stops the release of melatonin. When it gets dark, the SCN throws a switch which causes the pineal gland (itself just pea-sized) to start producing melatonin, another hormone, but one that makes you feel generally less alert and altogether sleepy, so you start thinking about that wonderfully fluffy and soft bed of yours, and it gets harder and harder to stay awake.

I find that really fascinating: There it is, the SCN, a rice grain sized clock that orchestrates the daily rhythm of your whole super-complex body! This helps us to explain to our toddlers why they should go to bed earlier: Because your melatonin is activated much earlier honey! (There’s no arguing with that, even when you’re 4 years old.) It also explains teenagers’ sleeping habits: Adolescent hormones and life-style seem to interfere with melatonin production, and so teenagers get their melatonin kick hours later than adults.

The hypothalamus consists of more interesting nuclei than just the SCN. The arcuate nucleus also lives there, and it’s one of the spots in your brain that produces dopamine. Dopamine rules your life. It plays an important role in just about every bit of your humanity that you care about: Motivation, punishment and reward, sleep, mood, attention, sexual gratification, learning, and so on. Dopamine is instrumental in drug addiction, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, also in ensuring that one human becomes completely and irrevocably obsessed with another when falling in love. Serotonin and norepinephrine are also involved, but dopamine is the one that makes you go completely crazy. Once you get past the crazies and you have the good fortune of finding yourself in a longer term relationship, guess what? Once again, there’s not really that much magic or even that much mystery: Oxytocin and vasopressin, two hormones that also act as neurotransmitters, help to ensure that you experience the warm-fuzzies when with your partner and hence facilitate the pair-bonding experience. Oxytocin also plays a crucial role in breastfeeding (our friend the hypothalamus notices sucking at the breast and kicks the oxytocin production into gear that gets the milk going to where it needs to be). Conveniently, it probably also plays a role in mother-infant bonding.

I could harp on for a long time about how exactly all of these (and many other) little tidbits determine your life, but by now, I hope that I’ve said enough and that you’re asking: What’s your point Vanessa?!.

My point is that you’re an animal. A cool kind of animal called the human animal, but an animal nonetheless. You’re a relatively complex machine, but a machine that can be studied and that can be understood. We humans have become incredibly skilled at picking apart the human machine. We have tools that can see which part of your brain is active during what activity, we even have tools to make the cells in your body glow in the dark when they’re being naughty. We still have much to figure out, but we know an astronomical amount more than we knew 50 years go. The points above are a microscopic example of recently acquired knowledge. Every day, the pile of Stuff We Know is growing more quickly, and the pile of Stuff We Don’t Know is shrinking more quickly. It’s a terribly exciting time to live in.

My actual point is: You’ve been given one of these human machines to drive. For life. You’ll be getting only this one, and you’ll be taking it to some strange places, even off-road at times. You’ll make a number of important decisions that deeply affect you and your machine and even the other machines around you.

Don’t you think that you should read the manual?

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