Category: Articles

These posts aren’t associated with a particular podcast episode. They’re just good, old-fashioned writing on a variety of nootropic, neuroscience, or personal optimization topics.

Hey there, Performance Hackers!

Our friends at Quantified Self are putting on an exposition on the San Francisco waterfront on June 20th — and Jesse will be paying them a visit to check out all the newest developments in the self-tracking world.  The expo is for everyone interested in understanding where technology is going and how it’s affecting our lives.

QS’s Press Coordinator Ernesto Ramirez joins us for this micro-edition to give some background on the Quantified Self movement and offer a sneak-peek of what will be happening at the event.  Ernesto covers the most popular ways to self-assess, the crossover between do-it-yourself and personal tracking, and how much time actually goes into recording and analysis of activities.

Come and Say Hi

Join Jesse and the other optimization-fiends interested in how sensors, data, and “very personal computing” can be used to understand ourselves and the world around us.  Try out the new wearable devices and apps that can give you intimate and direct feedback about yourself: from how you sleep, eat, and exercise — to what triggers your fear and joy.

Any Smart Drug Smarts listeners in the San Fransisco area who’d like to attend can register here using the discount code smartpod to get $10 off the regular $20 ticket price.

We hope to see you there!

Where & When

June 20
10am – 4pm
Herbst Pavilion, Fort Mason

I recently read an article about those baddest of bad guys, Nazi Germany, and how their toolkit for perpetrating war contained quite a bit of chemical help.

Pervitin — something we now call by the street name speed — was doled out like candy to soldiers in the Wehrmacht, the Germans’ invading force that conquered Europe during 1939-1940.  This methamphetamine was prized for its fight-all-night qualities — increased vitality, speed, and motivation, and reduced need to rest while you’re mid-blitzkrieg.  (Later in the war they would add cocaine to the mix.  Seriously.)

The Wehrmacht also encouraged the use of more alcohol than you’d think military discipline would allow — because of alcohol’s propensity for reducing moral hang-ups about extreme behavior.  And let’s face it: When you’re the Nazis, morality is just sand in your gears.

But the Nazis are far from the only military to encourage, or even mandate, the use of psychotropic drugs by personnel.

It’s a downright common practice.

If you sign up for the U.S. military today, you’re contractually obligated to allow Uncle Sam to inject you with… well, pretty much whatever he wants, whenever he wants, without telling you any more than he wants to about what you’re being injected with.

I’m not a big fan of the “not telling you what you’re being injected with” part, but the fact that injections are sometimes a job requirement… that strikes me as reasonable.

If a soldier is going up against an enemy known to use certain chemical agents, mandating the use of a prophylactic antiserum makes good sense. This could be true even if the antiserum has known, limited downsides. The wear-n-tear on an individual soldier’s body, in a utilitarian sense, may be more than justified when held up against the downsides to the soldier and his team, should he succumb to a chemical attack.

And militaries aren’t alone.

Many professions, implicitly or explicitly, require taking drugs.

  • Third-world doctors need vaccinations.
  • Lifeguards unwittingly but unavoidably take in daily transdermal cocktails from sunscreens and pool-cleaning agents.
  • Sommeliers and people who lead wine-tasting tours… well, you get the point.

But the usual pros-and-cons pragmatism of public opinion regarding professional drug use gets complicated when the drugs involved affect people’s minds.

Caffeine is the one substance that society gives a free pass.  No one seems up in arms about people making a Starbucks-stop on the way to work, or (gasp!) going for a second cup of joe in the staff kitchen.

All other psychoactive drugs, though, raise eyebrows.

I’ve revealed myself as the stray kid who slipped through Nancy Reagan’s thought-net, and doesn’t believe all drugs are always bad, always.

An easy example: Despite the staggering numbers of Americans taking antidepressants, there’s a sort of society-wide “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.  We know that some of our staff, co-workers, and bosses are using these things — but we’d prefer not to think about it.

I’m about to go off the rails and get all crazy now.

If you’re easily shocked, please brace yourself.

The fact is, there are situations where people are better at their jobs with their mental states chemically altered.

As a boss, I like my employees to be perked-up from caffeine.  (I’ve openly encouraged Caffeine Naps in my office.)

It may be that Sarah in Accounting is a lot more effective on her antidepressant meds than off them.

And if Bill in IT happens to maintain a Ritalin prescription that he doesn’t technically need — but it helps him to focus better — who am I to complain?

Now that I’ve revealed myself as the stray kid who slipped through Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” thought-net, and doesn’t believe that all drugs are always bad, always, let’s continue…

I want to talk about a class of professions where the professionals’ psychological states really, really matter: Those who are authorized and empowered to use violence.  The men and women who carry guns.

This is pure self-interest on my part: Someone’s thoughts and mood matter a heck of a lot more to me if he or she is potentially authorized to hurt me, and has the means and training to do so.

Today is a dark day for American law enforcement.

“To Protect and Serve” seems increasingly like a euphemism for “To Bully, Beat Down, and Skip the Consequences.”  Some recent Hall of Shame examples:

The number, severity, and “you’ve got to be kidding me!?” nature of these stories make police aggression seem like a systemic problem.  All sorts of solutions should be explored (and, to be fair, probably are being explored): Changes to hiring practices.  Increased oversight.  Stronger carrot-and-stick incentives for good and bad behavior.

What about a chemical intervention?

How would you feel if Pfizer or Dow Chemicals or Merck invented a substance that could chill out the police a bit?  Not impair them functionally, but change their minds, maybe change the way they see the world…  And reduce their impulse toward violence.

I’m not talking “Don’t pull out your gun when you’re in danger”; I don’t want to endanger our police any more than I want them to endanger the rest of us.  I’m talking about “Don’t continue clubbing the guy who’s already collapsed on the ground” or “Don’t apply the Taser to the grandmother.”

If such a drug were theoretically available, wouldn’t it be worth a field-test?  A trial program in a few precincts, to see if excess police violence is damped down a bit?

I hope you’re nodding.

What if such a drug already exists?

What if it is MDMA?

Yeah, it’s an illegal drug.  A rave drug.  The main ingredient in Ecstasy*, the serotonin-dumping, dance-all-night-in-laser-light pill that flooded America in the 1990s and has been a Schedule-1 narcotic — both highly illegal and highly popular — ever since.   That drug.

* Ecstasy often contains speed and other additives, and is not pure MDMA.

Someone’s thoughts and mood matter a heck of a lot more to me if he or she is authorized to hurt me, and has the means and training to do so.

Just humor me for a moment and try to forget that MDMA is an illegal, recreational substance.

Let’s look at the demonstrated positive effects on its users:

  • MDMA increases the release of oxytocin and prolactin (hormones associated with trust and bonding).
  • MDMA significantly decreases activity in the left amygdala, associated with fear and traumatic memory.
  • Animal studies have shown MDMA to dose-dependently decrease aggressive behavior.
  • Users often report ongoing improvements to their mood, and to feelings of trust and fellowship with others — long after the drug has dropped to physiologically undetectable levels.

I’m not proposing cops get high and go out on patrol.  I’m proposing cops get high, feel the love that MDMA seems to reliably bestow… and then sleep it off, and go to work a day or two later.

Am I crazy to suspect that the psychic nudge this drug might give would make police violence a little less likely?  Isn’t that what we’re after?

Okay.  I realize there are some “yes, buts” that I’ve got to address now…

“Yes, But… Will It Work?”

First off, thats not the right question.  We should test this crazy idea.  Not assume I’m right based on a blog post.

I’m not proposing a policy.  I’m proposing a study.  

I’m making a testable hypothesis, and trying to convince you that it’s worth investigating.

“Okay, So… Could It Work?”

Now you’re talking.  I think yes, and here’s why:

What horrifies us about our increasingly militarized, overly-aggressive police force isn’t that it has the capacity for violence, but that this capacity is being too liberally applied.

Let’s assume we’re okay with bad guys getting a billy-club in the face or a firm tasing every now and then.  The important thing is to reduce the number of billy-clubs-to-the-face for everyone else.

It’s the duty of law enforcement personnel to make tough, real-world, real-time decisions on “does this situation merit violence?”

If you are a non-military U.S. civilian, you’ve got a 20 times greater chance of being killed by a cop, than being killed by a terrorist.

Now please permit me to interrupt with a quick diversion into statistics, so we can talk about something important called a “false positive.”  We’ll keep the math simple and this whole thing quick…

A “false positive” is when you’re looking for something — and you think you find it — but you’re wrong.

You’re separating out green M&M’s, and you mis-identify a brown M&M as green and add it to the green pile.  That brown M&M is a false positive.  (A green M&M that you miss, and doesn’t wind up in the green pile, would be a false negative.)

False positives, it turns out, are exactly what society hates, when it comes to cops and violence.

Let’s look at an example with simple numbers:

Officer Jones has 1000 interactions with civilians over the course of a year.  In each interaction, he’s got to do some mental calculus and decide “does this situation merit violence?”

And let’s say we’re the Jiminy Cricket of Public Conscience, and we know the correct answer is 10.  In 10 of these interactions, the person needs some billy-clubbing; everyone else should leave Officer Jones’ presence unscathed.  This would be the perfect-world scenario.

But the real world has error rates.  Officer Jones is not perfect, and he mis-reads the situation 1% of the time.  In these cases, he will either billy-club, or fail to billy-club, the correct people.

So the 10 times over the course of the year when he runs into an actual violence-deserver, with only a 1% error rate, chances are good that all 10 of them will get the club-treatment.  (9.9 is what statistics would predict, so pretty close.)

False positives, it turns out, are exactly what society hates, when it comes to cops and violence.

The problem is, that same 1% error rate, applied to the 990 people who don’t deserve clubbing, means that 10 people (990 x 1% = 9.9) are going to get thwacked, also.  Yikes.

So Officer Jones will beat down 20 people during the year, and half of them won’t deserve it.

What started as an innocuous-sounding 1% error rate has resulted in a 50% mis-application of violence*, with 10 officer-delivered assaults on undeserving civilians.

The disparity between that 1% and the 50%, both of which are “true”, is why Mark Twain famously quipped: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Thanks for bearing with me on that detour.

I needed to do that, so we can understand why an MDMA-induced tweak in cops’ instinct-to-violence might matter so much.

If MDMA could theoretically make a cop’s move for the billy-club 50% less likely, we’d be cutting our innocent-civilian beatings from 10 down to 5.  Not perfect, but a great start.

But wait — we’d also be cutting our righteous manhandling of violence-deserving criminals from 10 down to 5, wouldn’t we?  Well yes, we would — but there’s something important to consider here:

The only situation when cops should apply violence is when doing so will protect themselves or others from physical danger.  If a cop is dealing with someone, and that person moves from being a possible threat to being a definitive threat — that’s generally a pretty unambiguous move.  A person goes from yelling and waving his arms around, to throwing punches, etc.

So in nerdy terms, a false negative (a cop not using violence, when he should) tends to be a self-correcting situation — because no cop is going to ignore violence right in front of him — whereas a false positive (a cop using violence, when he shouldn’t) isn’t self-correcting, because it’s the cop who has prematurely upped the ante.

So what we’d be hoping for with MDMA, is a general de-itching of cops’ trigger fingers.  Making the pause a little longer, the hesitation a little greater, before Johnny Law commits to the use of force.

This approach works because the number of times violence shouldn’t be used dwarfs the number of times violence should be used.  This will always be true in civil society.   (In fact, in any non-zombie-apocalypse scenario.)

So if we accept the premise that MDMA may reduce cops’ inclination to violence, then the answer to “Could It Work?” (or at least “Could It Help?”) seems to be a resounding yes.

“Yes, But… Tweaking With Cops’ Minds Is Unethical.”

Is it?  Because… we do this already.

A cop’s psychological state is society’s business.  (And we may soon decide the same about other professions like airline pilots, where professionals carry the lives of many civilians in their hands.)

We’ve all seen TV shows where cops — often griping about it — are forced to meet with a psychologist and “talk about their feelings,” etc.  Script-writers love this as an easy way to layer in character development, but there’s good reason why these characters’ real-world equivalents exist.  Police psychologists are representatives for us tax-paying civilians who want our peace officers mentally well-calibrated.  (Too frequently nowadays, we have reason to wonder.)

Normally when this tweaking with people’s minds is unethical objection comes up, those making the objection are not opposed to the general concept (tweaking), but to the specific methodology (in this case, with psychoactive compounds).  Objections to “skillfully presented verbal arguments,” for example, don’t hold much weight with anyone — although such arguments can tweak people’s minds as effectively as any drug.

Let’s accept that we influence other people’s minds constantly.  Pleasant colors in hospital waiting rooms.  Soothing music in dentist’s office.  Perfumes to attract romantic partners.  As social animals, it is our constant endeavor to manipulate the mental states of our fellows.

So let’s overrule this objection and move on.

“Yes, But… What About the Cops’ Physical Health?”

MDMA has physical downsides.

All that said, MDMA seems to be not that physically detrimental.  It’s dangerous, but manageable.  In a UK study published in the Lancet (the world’s oldest medical journal), Ecstasy was ranked only 16 out of 20 on a list of dangerous drugs based on harm to the user and harm to others.

A Personal Note…

Just in case you think I’m writing this piece as a recreational user who thinks the world would be a better place if MDMA were in every public drinking fountain, let me offer full disclosure:

I’ve never tried the stuff.

The truth is, despite ample opportunities, I’ve always been a bit unnerved by MDMA’s reputation for “serotonin recuperation hangovers.”  I’m not eager to do anything that could undercut my body’s natural production of serotonin (a “feel good” neurotransmitter).  So, at least for the moment, it’s not for me.

But then, I don’t carry a gun.  I’m not the one tazing septuagenarians or beating civilians to death while “taking them into custody.”

Modest physical downsides to someone like me — an unarmed, not-particularly-dangerous civilian — might not be worth the benefit of damping down my instinct towards violence…

But for a member of an increasingly dangerous police force, maybe it’s time to bite the psychopharmacological bullet and do the science to learn if MDMA’s use might be worth the speculative benefits.

I’m completely ignoring an elephant in the room: MDMA is the primary ingredient in something called “Ecstasy” — it’s reputed to be intensely pleasurable, and many cops might jump at the chance to take it.

I Am Not Anti-Police.

Not even a little.

I’m fully aware that most cops don’t do this terrible stuff.

The ones we hear about are ugly statistical anomalies.  But in a nation of 300 million people, including hundreds of thousands of cops, statistical anomalies will happen predictably, year-in and year-out.

This proposal is about strategically reducing those violent anomalies.

So, why not run a pilot program?

Take a few precincts across the country, and make the program strictly voluntary.  Cops who want to fool around with some MDMA, maybe even occasionally micro-dosing while on the beat, are free to do so.  Cops who want to abstain, can.

Run the test programs for 2-3 years.  See what happens to police violence during that time.   See what happens to police-community relations during that time.  If there are violent incidents, see how many of them are from the MDMA users vs. everyone else in the “control group.”

This is what science is about, right?

Make a hypothesis, test it, review the results, and make decisions based on accumulated evidence.

Hitler wanted his Wehrmacht to be energetic, assertive, and morally compromised.  He used a chemical cocktail of methamphetamine, booze and cocaine to accomplish that.  His goal was despicable, but his logic was sound.

I would like to see America’s police force calmer, less hostile, and more cognizant of the overall Brotherhood of Man.

If MDMA could edge our cops in that direction, isn’t it worth an honest-to-goodness social experiment?

Or are we so poisoned by Nancy Reagan Just Say No dogmatism — and afraid of finding a legitimate use for a “party drug” — that we’re willing to continue getting our asses beat by our peace officers?

Let’s grow up, get serious, and do some damned science.


Acknowledgment to this excellent article by ex-police-officer Redditt Hudson, on America’s problems with violence and institutionalized racism within the police community.

If you’ve been listening from the beginning – and I’m consistently delighted to hear how many people stumbled onto Smart Drug Smarts recently and then went back and listened to the old ones…

Well, you know it took a good, long time before we were able to get to the regularly weekly schedule we’ve been managing the past few months.  There’s some excuses for this (a few of which are slightly valid…), but the good news is: Excuses are no longer necessary.

We’re now an every-Friday show.

But We Are Not Content.

Now that weekly-ness has been achieved, we achievement-addicts are wondering…  What more can we do?

And so we looked at our “Things We’d Love To Do If We Get Overly Ambitious” list, and realized we should find a place for some of the extra stuff we get access to.  You see, every now and then, we have the opportunity to do interviews outside our normal range of content.  We’ve even said no to stuff — cool stuff — because it didn’t seem to “fit” with what we’re doing.

Bonus content for those of you who like the show enough to carry it around in your pocket…

Also – sometimes – we’ve had guests who were gun-shy about talking about certain things to an everyone-with-an-iTunes-account audience.  (Remember the episode with the distorted, Speak-n-Spell voice guest?)

But I think maybe I can coax such guests to talk to a more limited audience, behind a just-slightly-ajar Internet door…

And So We’ve Created “Overdose Editions.”

Overdose Editions are going to live outside the normal RSS feed that distributes the podcast.  These episodes won’t be on iTunes, Stitcher, or even this website — not as audio, anyway.

We’ll be releasing them exclusively through our mobile app, Axon.

They’ll be bonus content for those of you who like the show enough to carry it around in your pocket, and allocate some precious icon-space on your smart phone screen.

Overdose Editions won’t be coming out on any fixed schedule — just when something appropriately weird or awesome comes up.

Want to Know Every Time a New Overdose Edition Lands?

No problem.  Two ways to do it — both work, and they’re complementary.

  1. Download Axon, now available for iPhone + iPad, and Android (long-delayed, but…) in the works.
  2. Sign up for our Mailing List.  If you haven’t signed up already, you should see a prompt at the top of your browser right now… and maybe another one poking up from the lower-right corner of the page, too.  Signing up won’t hurt and will expose your brain to more synapse-stimulating Smart Drug Smarts goodness.  And every time a new Overdose Edition appears, Rhiannan will be writing about it… just a tantalizing taste to remind you to listen.

So that’s that.  A little something new.  We’re really excited… And the first Overdose Edition will be out very soon — the first week in June, 2015*.

* If you’re reading this and it’s later than that, the good news is: You’ve already got content ready-n-waiting for you.

If you are an Android user and feel left out – we’re here to help.  Sign up for the mailing list and drop an email to Rhiannan and we will absolutely, positively get you hooked up – as a stopgap until Axon for Android is available.

I’m going to keep this short, because I don’t want to get all moralistic.

This is more a “just a little something I noticed” piece than a real, serious exhortation…

And before I start, let me openly admit that what I’m about to point out may have struck me only because it supports something I already believed.  So this entire post has Confirmation Bias written all over it, but, all that notwithstanding…


You (yes, you!) should stop drinking.

Why?  Because Alexander the Great couldn’t handle alcohol.

And he was Alexander the Great.  And you’re not.

I just read John Maxwell O’Brien’s excellent biography, Alexander the Great: The Invisible Enemy.  The book is a fairly straightforward piece of historical scholarship about the excessively-biographied Macedonian one-time-ruler-of-all-he-surveyed… but with one fairly unique angle.

Most previous biographers have spent a lot of explanatory time on the contradictory elements of Alexander’s character: Philosopher and butcher, dreamer and tyrant, charming and polite but also someone who occasionally stabbed his friends.  Incongruous elements in the warlord’s personality were explained with appeals to his complex relationship with his dead father Philip II, or a megalomania that set in after he took over the larger part of the world, or [insert more insubstantiable psychobabble here]…

O’Brien’s more straightforward take is this: Alexander the Great was a really, really bad drunk.

As his drinking worsened, so did his statesmanship, and his health, until he died at 32 from alcohol-related illness.  Full stop.

There was no conspiracy that poisoned Alexander in his prime.  There were no “puzzling contradictions endemic in this many-faceted leader’s personality.”  There was just an amazing guy who truncated his own epoch-making career for the love of one too many tankards of unwatered Grecian wine.

What am I saying?  That “alcohol is bad”?

Boo, hiss!  “Get a life, write a blog post worth a damn.”  I hear you.

But bear with me for a moment.

As his drinking worsened, so did his statesmanship, and his health, until he died at 32 from alcohol-related illness.  Full stop.

If O’Brien’s propositions are correct – and he paints a darned compelling picture – isn’t it worth considering the moral of the life story of one of the most venerated humans in all world history?

So who was Alexander?

Some bullet-points from his historical resume:

  • He was born a prince, and was tutored as a child by Aristotle (yes, that Aristotle), so he had some advantages.
  • He was insatiably ambitious, and not content to only outdo the deeds of his kingly father, he set out to exceed the deeds of mythical figures (like Hercules).
  • He was laugh-in-the-face-of-death brave, leading his armies literally as well as figuratively.
  • He unified the Greeks, destroyed the Persian Empire (at the time, the big kids on the block), and conquered lands from Greece to Egypt to Pakistan and into modern India.  (Check out this map, and remember this was over 300 years B.C., when technology was more-or-less limited to chariots and harsh language.)
  • He founded over 70 cities.
  • Military historians class him among the greatest tactical generals of all time.

Despite all this, the guy had character flaws.  He was also a butchering mass-murderer on more than one occasion, but the point I’m trying to make is that he was undeniably, extraordinarily gifted.  A world-class bad-ass.

And yet, when it came to a one-on-one, winner-takes-all fight between Alexander and Wine*, Wine won.

* Grecian wine in Alexander’s time was different than what we think of as wine now.  The “un-watered” wine Alexander and his Macedonian boozing-buddies drank would be closer to a hard alcohol in today’s terms.

It’s not like Alexander didn’t know the powers or the dangers of drink.  As a youth, he’d courted danger by mocking his kingly father’s inability to, well, balance upright while publicly drunk.  And as king, he occasionally sponsored drinking contests with double-digit body counts (yes, as in, dead bodies) resulting from alcohol poisoning.  So he knew he was playing with fire.

Isn’t it worth considering the moral of the life story of one of the most venerated humans in all world history?

And what Alexander knew anecdotally then, we know a lot more scientifically now.

Thanks to its prevalence in all societies (and despite an alcohol industry that would rather keep such information corked), the effects of alcohol on the brain and body are among the most-studied of any psychoactive substance.

Some Low-Marks on Alcohol’s Wall of Shame

  • 65% of suicides have been linked to extravagant drinking.  (Mental Health Foundation Understanding the relationship between alcohol and mental health, London: Mental Health Foundation, 2006.)
  • “[Brain damage from alcohol] occurs as a function of quantity and exposure; the more you drink, the greater the damage to key structures of the brain, such as the inferior frontal gyrus, in particular. This part of the brain mediates inhibitory control and decision-making, so tragically, it appears that some of the areas of the brain that are most effected by alcohol are important for self-control and judgment, the very things needed to recover from misuse of alcohol.”  (from this 2014 study)
  • Mouse studies show that alcohol drunk in early pregnancy (during the period in which human mothers would typically not even know they are pregnant) changes the way genes function in the brains of their offspring – changes apparent in the brain structure of the offspring even in adulthood.

These three citations are the smallest tip of an alcohol-iceberg.  The research is out there, if you look for it; and I’ve read such stuff before – so why is it a book about ancient history, not the plumes of recent studies, prompted me to write this post?

What struck me as I read this book was the issue of scale.

Most of us are not “problem drinkers.”

Most of us will not drink ourselves to death.

Equally few of us will ever let a drunken rage engulf us, and murder our friends.

But then, very few of us will conquer Asia Minor, either.

Alexander was a genius, an amazing physical specimen, legendarily determined, and incalculably brave.

All of this was not enough to avoid being bested by drink.

If you’ve read this far (and aren’t on your second drink yet), then your drinking is not on the scale of Alexander’s.  And that’s good.

But your ambitions – and likely, your advantages – probably aren’t on the scale of Alexander’s, either.

So then: How is your less-than-biography-worthy alcohol consumption subtly undercutting you?

Maybe it isn’t.

But maybe it is.

It’s worth thinking about just a little, isn’t it?

Nobody ever said being a mom was easy.

It used to be that you had to worry quite a bit about dying in childbirth. 

Also about your kids not living long enough to toddle, much less to adulthood.  Back in the Dark Ages, child mortality was so high, kids often weren’t even given names until they were 3 or 4 years old — because hey, what’s the point of cluttering the family tree with offspring that might not reach puberty, anyway?

Those days are (thankfully) past.

But being a modern mom has its own set of problems.

And I’m not talking about being a new mom, either, with a bouncing baby hot out the womb in 2015.  I’m talking about my mom, now in her mid-60s, dealing with some distinctly modern problems that are going to be increasingly par-for-the-course as maternal difficulties go.

We probably all remember the movie The Lion King, and the emblematic Circle of Life song by Elton John and a cast of cartoon animals.  Popular song, and a popular concept: Life, with all its ups and downs, trials and tribulations and individual triumphs and defeats, is still essentially repetitive.

Birth, growth, maturity, wisdom, aging, death, and so on… ad infinitum.  Each of us gets one spin around the circle, and when the upswing of our own transient life seems past, we can rest easier knowing we’ve passed the existential baton to a loved-and-raised progeny or two – kids we’ve brought into the world, loved, raised and shaped.  If not in the strictly biological sense, then at least ideologically.

Of course, not every human does this, but it’s a well-established strategy with some proven, winning examples.

Life, with all its ups and downs, trials and tribulations and individual triumphs and defeats, is still essentially repetitive.

We’ve got quite a lot of old people who have reported significant satisfaction in watching their offspring arcing around the same Circle of Life, just a partial-revolution behind mom and dad, chronologically.

The truth is, up until now the Circle of Life could just as well have been called the Handcuffs of Life.

If you were a cave-mom, your kids were going to be – you guessed it – cavemen or cavewomen.  End of Story.  No upward mobility, no aspirations, nothing but moving up the seniority-rungs of cave-society, until it’s their turn in a shallow grave with some bead necklaces.  And that’s if they’re lucky.

Agriculture didn’t change things much.  Serf farmer moms had serf farmer kids, and so on.

More recently, in the past couple centuries, we’ve had an explosion in the number of available professions in many parts of the world.  Depending on a mom’s perspective, she could be thrilled to see her child rise beyond the family’s traditional station – or maybe upset to see a kid “leave the family business,” if she took a more negative slant.

But the Circle of Life was still on firm footing.  Jaunty new professional options didn’t do much to interfere with the growth-marriage-work-aging-death thing.

But now, things are getting weird.

Especially if a mom’s kids are among a technology-adoring, futurist set – and she is perhaps a bit more Luddite in her leanings.

My mom was born in 1950.  Bless her heart, she still considers vacuum cleaners to be exciting technology.  Microwave ovens are somewhat suspect.  Modern car navigation systems that talk are “creepy.”  And the idea that her grown son “wants to change his brain with drugs”* is something she really prefers not to think about.

* “Why can’t you call them food supplements?” is a conversation we revisit now and again.

But we’re not breaking any new ground in family dynamics, are we?

There’s always been a generation gap.  Older folks always find the music too loud, the skirts too short, the newest gadgets too damned complicated.

But then, there was always the Circle of Life to fall back on.  Curmudgeonly moms and stick-in-the-mud dads still knew that come Hell or high water, the passing of years would inexorably place their offspring into a roughly identical carousel-seat to the one they sat in, one day.  “As you torment me, so my grandchildren shall one day torment you, sucka.” *

* Said with more or less ironic relish, depending on the sense of humor of the parents in question.  I’m happy to say both my parents are on the merrier end of the spectrum.

But the Future is arrived.

And people are taking notice.  Everyone is interested.  Some people are curious.  And some few of us are actually making major life decisions on the assumption that the Circle of Life, long coiled like a packed spring, is about to warp out at the end, arcing off into uncharted territory.

If people are right, who believe that in a decade or two, longevity technologies may extend our average lifespan by more than one year per year… What does that mean for your personal life plans?

Up until now the Circle of Life could just as well have been called the Handcuffs of Life.

If you watch the Paralympic Games, and find your reaction changing from “Isn’t it nice that person is still able to function?” to “Jesus Christ, did you just see that!?”… What does that do to your contentment with your biologically-inherited physicality?

If you’re persuaded by the Extended Mind Hypothesis, and agree that our devices are becoming important adjuncts to our thinking selves… Do you want to have a baby with your sweetheart, or engage in asexual co-evolution with your laptop?

I’m not supplying answers to these questions; I’m just pointing out that these weren’t questions sane people could even ask, until right about now.

But these questions are getting saner.

Incredible technologies are moving the Lunatic Fringe onto center-stage.

Maybe it hasn’t been a Circle for a while now…

During my mom’s generation, the newly-available birth control pill upset the Natural Order of Things and ignited public controversy that remains controversial even today.  The Circle of Life, one could say, got dented.  Humans had put a manual screw-nozzle on the spigot of fertility.

And it was a change that mattered.  The average age at which American moms had their first child raised significantly: from 21 years of age in 1970 to over 25 in 2008.  Predictable markers on the Circle of Life are suddenly shifting around.

Do you really want to have a baby with your sweetheart… Or engage in asexual co-evolution with your laptop?

But the availability of the Pill was one relatively well-defined choke-point on an otherwise untouched Human Condition.

What technology is about to give us, though, isn’t choke-points. 

It’s branches.  It’s springboards.  It’s lots of bizarre-looking options.  The Circle of Life, unchanged in aeons, suddenly has off-ramps under construction.

My mom hates this idea.

And I, of course, love my mom.

I want her to be okay with the idea of an amorphous future.  One that’s less predictable.  One where the progress of life creeps like a vine, curls like a paisley, expands like an ink drop in water…

I understand where she’s coming from.

She wants to understand where I’m going.

But I don’t think any of us, looking ahead, can lay claim to too much certainty when we look at the future.  It seems dishonest to me.  (And, Mom, you also taught me to always be honest.)

The Circle of Life may be breaking, it’s true.

But circles are not the only beautiful shapes in nature.

Spirals are nice, too.


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The choice to become a superhero is a fairly easy one.

Every day, in the United States alone, about 80 people receive successful organ transplants.

All you have to do is tick a teeny box on your driver’s license and voila – the most valuable parts of your mortal coil (once no longer in use by you) will get passed on to those who can use them – giving you the opportunity to save one, two, even 100 lives.

Pretty good deal, right?

But there’s a hole in this seemingly straightforward system.  A quick scan down the list of organs you could pass on, and you’ll notice a conspicuous absence: your brain.

Now, to be fair, it’s not like we’ve figured out how to do brain transplants (yet…).  But the brain-donation omission poses some problems.

For starters, even for organs that do make the list, donor numbers are still not what they should be. Over 20 people die daily while waiting for procedures that are on hold due to a lack of suitable donated tissue.  Considering the mismatch in supply and demand when the barrier is just a few pen-marks and a signature… you can imagine the disparity for a process that’s slightly more complicated – or, is shrouded in relative obscurity.

And unfortunately, brain donation is both.

The issue of perceived cause-and-effect also comes into play.  Donate your liver – it goes directly to someone whose own liver is failing.

But your brain?  It would go to research – the result of which might take years to see fruition.  The incentive isn’t as immediately obvious.  But consider this: Over 1 billion people worldwide are affected by neurological disorders.  Meaning it’s almost inevitable that someone close to you will eventually draw the proverbial short straw.

To make things even more complicated – somewhat paradoxically – the more information we gather about the brain, the more we need to gather.  An integral part of science is replication – so every time a major breakthrough is made… it has to be tested again, and again, and again.  (This to make absolutely sure it wasn’t a fluke of misunderstanding or bad measurement.)

When it comes to brain science specifically, human tissue donations – both from those with neurological abnormalities, and from healthy control subjects – are among our most powerful assets.  While animals have been extremely useful in neuroscience research, when it comes to understanding the human brain, nothing beats the real thing.

Today marks the beginning of International Brain Awareness Week, and our aim this year is to shed light on brain donation.  While disease advocacy groups do an excellent job educating their respective demographics, their messages don’t always reach the general public.  So this week, we’d like to spread the message to those who might not know that brain donation is even an option – let alone how to opt in, or why it’s important.

Below are some resources for you to educate yourself further, as well as links to “brain banks” worldwide.  If you’d like to do something for the cause, please share this article.  And if you’d like to do two things, become a donor yourself.

Happy Brain Week!

Why Brain Donation?

Where To Donate Your Brain

General Tissue Donation

Brain Awareness Week 2015

About three months ago, I started down an intellectual rabbit hole that made me stop eating, as of midnight last Sunday night.

It’s now late afternoon Saturday as I write this. I’m closing in on six days with nothing but water going down my gullet.

This hasn’t been easy, but it has been memorable. More on that in a minute. But first, the “why,” for those of you still understandably hung up on the “why is this guy starving” part.

Why Would I Do This?

This podcast episode details the compelling science behind massive carbohydrate-restriction as a cancer ameliorator, and (possibly) a nip-it-in-the-bud prophylactic, if undertaken while a person is still largely cancer-free.  It’s worth a listen, and I won’t detail it point-for-point here.

So my initial motivation, as someone without cancer who prefers to stay that way, was just that:  If inconveniencing myself in a painful-but-not-overtly-dangerous way can, very possibly, keep me from dying from something that a whopping proportion of the population dies of, that’s pretty great.  My diet and exercise regimen should do well at protecting me against heart disease, that other über-killer, so if I can nix both heart disease and cancer from my list-of-demises, that leaves me with the less-likely and more-interesting array of Far Side deaths:  Falling grand pianos, shark attacks, assassins with too much time on their hands.

Dr. Thomas Seyfried’s specific recommendation for this potential “anti-cancer prophylactic practice” was a once-a-year, 7-day water-only fast.

So I decided that at some point in 2015, I’d tick that off my to-do list.  And if it wasn’t gallingly difficult (and assuming the scientific presumptions aren’t overturned in the next year), I’d make it an annual ritual.  I mentioned on several podcast episodes that I’d be doing this, and wound up with a head-count of 15 participants who wanted in on the starvation en masse.

My Ulterior Motive

I’ve got a deep, dark secret I’m going to put out here in public.

It may be that anti-cancer health stuff wasn’t my primary motive in doing this.  It may be that it’s just because it’s weird.

When Dr. Seyfried wowed me with the still-stunning fact that a person with average body fat can live on that fat alone (plus adequate water) for 60-70 days before succumbing to death-by-starvation, I was flabbergasted.

If inconveniencing myself in a painful-but-not-overtly-dangerous way can keep me from dying from something that a whopping proportion of the population dies of, that’s pretty great.

I thought about it, and the longest I’d ever gone sans-calories was maybe 20 hours (and that’s a top-end estimate) to prepare for a blood test.  Kinda pathetic.

And not eating sounded so weird. Like smacking our biology in the face.  The idea that we could get away with it and even benefit from it fascinated me.

Now believe me, I’m no anorexic.  In one day, seven hours, and 24 minutes, when my week is over and I can eat again, you’d best believe I’ll be chowing down.   But there do seem to be several verifiable benefits to short and medium-term non-caloric fasting.  (See this and this and this.)

I did not go in expecting this to be a joyride.  I eat a lot.

My diet is made up of natural, unprocessed foods, and no sweeteners — so the sheer volume of the food I eat is considerable.  Downshifting to nothing at the stroke of an arbitrary midnight was going to make my body wonder what the hell was going on.

I read up on this before starting, of course. But the research was a little tough, because most of the people who have written about fasting seem to have come from one of three camps, none of which I fell into:

  • Sick people, seeking to cure or alleviate some specific malady.
  • Obese people, seeking to lose weight.
  • “Spiritually-oriented” people, looking to ritualize the experience into having some deeper meaning than I found plausible.

As for me, I wanted in and I wanted out.  I like food.  I anticipated this would be a pain-in-the-ass, but one that I could draw some benefit from.  But short of being pretty sure I wouldn’t die in the endeavor, I didn’t really know how hard it would be.

The warning flags based on my reading were about:

  • Food cravings (duh)
  • Flu-like symptoms around Days 3-5 as one’s body runs out of its last sugar stores, and starts “burning fat” for energy
  • Muscle aches and pains from the release of formerly blood-borne toxins that are sometimes stored in a person’s fat
  • Lethargy
  • Insomnia

Sum total: it sounded like a pretty shitty week.  But I don’t want cancer.  And I hadn’t done anything all that weird in a while.  Something that would make the stick-in-the-muds among my friends and family cringe or ogle at me like an exotic species.

So I strategically halted my grocery shopping, and (with the fridge almost perfectly empty) last Sunday night, I ate one final guava…

Then I called an end to that whole “intake of calories” thing.

Believe me, I’m no anorexic.  In one day, seven hours, and 24 minutes – when I can eat again – you’d best believe I’ll be chowing down.

Results May Vary

If there’s one thing that doing the Smart Drug Smarts podcast has taught me, it’s that person-to-person subjective results on almost anything can be all over the map.  Short of sex on the good end, and hand-on-hot-stove on the bad end, individual responses to any given stimulus are less predictable than we’d like in an orderly universe.

With that disclaimer in place, here’s what my fasting experience has been like:

Hunger

It turns out that hunger is a multi-headed beast.  There’s the feeling of hunger in your stomach, that “we could use some food down here” feeling.  Then there’s the actual rumbling, grinding stomach pain of hunger – which is a different thing.  And then there’s the joy of picking out your next meal, deciding what you’ll eat where, with whom, and in what order.  All of these are distinctly different things, when you suss them apart (as I’ve had occasion to this week).

I was lucky to experience almost no physical hunger pains.  A few growls for a few seconds, primarily on Days 1 and 2.

The psychological aspects were (as of Day 6, still are) a ton more challenging.  I apparently take a lot of pleasure out of anticipating my meals, and the let-down when I have to remind myself that the meal I’ve just started anticipating ain’t gonna happen — that really sucks.

Weakness

I was forewarned that in Day 3 and beyond, your stamina starts fading.  This was true, and I felt like on Day 5, my strength started fading too.  I haven’t tried any pull-ups in the past few days, but I’ll bet I’m way off my max.

That said, I’ve by no means been bedridden, which is what some reading had led me to semi-expect.  (Admission:  I am now laying in bed as I type this, but I just took a 30 minute walk with no fatigue whatsoever.)  It may be that since my body has now switched on the fat-burning engines, and isn’t fruitlessly scrounging for blood-sugar-that-ain’t-there, I could actually have more energy accessible than I did on Days 2 and 3, but it hasn’t felt that way yet.

Overall, there has been a pretty predictable pattern starting on Day 3:  Peppy mornings, lethargic afternoons and evenings.

Only once (on Day 5) has my vision dimmed as I stood up quickly.  This is a common thing among fasters — but still not a terribly pleasant experience.

Sleepiness

You might think that late-afternoon lethargy and sleepiness are birds-of-a-feather.  But not exactly.  The physical depletion I’ve felt hasn’t necessarily made me want to sleep.  And my biorhythms since Day 1 have been all over the place.

My second and third mornings after beginning the fast (after about 28 and 52 hours), saw me wake up at 4:30am and then 3:30am, respectively — obviously without an alarm.  I had no intention of getting up so miserably early, but sleep just wasn’t happening.  Then a few nights ago, I pulled a 10.5 hour sleep-night, which isn’t normal either.

My policy while fasting has been to cut myself slack on everything beyond not-eating and diligently hydrating, so I’ve been rolling with these sleep/wake punches.  But anyone attempting a fast should be warned about the difficulties in maintaining a predictable schedule.

Cognition

All my life, my brain cells have been powered by glucose.

As I write these words, and for the past few days, my brain cells are being powered by ketone bodies, the once-thought-to-be-toxic breakdown products from the metabolism of fat.

Since I might be “impaired” thereby, and not even realize it, I won’t judge the before/after quality at this early juncture (after all, writers will tell you that first drafts always suck) — but I frankly find it nothing short of amazing that our physiology has an entire redundant backup power system that works just fine, and that most of us never “turn on” to see how it works.

I have definitely felt cognitively “off” this week — although at times very “on,” too.

If I were to generalize, I’d say:

  • Mornings I’ve been clearer-headed than afternoons.
  • My afternoons/evenings haven’t been characterized by dumbness, but by “distractability.”  I’ve lacked the willpower to keep myself effortfully focused on one task.
  • This same “distractability” has often brought with it a slight euphoria.
  • I’m not completely sold on the Willpower is a Depletable Resource idea, but I have certainly felt my ability to push myself has been radically diminished this week, maybe to 30-40 percent of normal levels.  Is that because my willpower has been depleted by resisting food?  Or just because my body and brain have been discombobulated and, as my grandpa said, “you can’t push a rope”?  I leave that answer to future scientists and a double-blind, placebo-controlled study.

Weight Loss

First, losing weight wasn’t part of my goal here.  Very much the opposite; I was concerned about losing muscle mass as well as fat, as my body sought for things-internal to snack on.  (Although, over a comparatively short fast, that’s not too much of a danger.)

But I lost weight precipitously.  Mostly “water weight,” I’m told.  And all of us normally carry 2-3 pounds of  poop or proto-poop in our gastrointestinal systems, and I’ve shed all that by now as well.

I find it nothing short of amazing that our physiology has an entire redundant backup power system that works just fine, and that most of us never “turn on” to see how it works.

But the numbers are still shocking:  On Sunday I was 179 pounds.  Today, six days later, I’m 166 pounds.  And dropping.

Walking down the street today, I noticed my pants sagging; my never-gave-it-much-thought posterior has diminished in size enough to matter functionally.

(Despite these dramatic changes, I’m told to expect an equally-fast regaining of the weight once I start feeding again.)

Odds and Ends

Prior to the fast, I thought that seeing food while I was fasting, and the unencumbered people eating it, would cause me rage, despair, envy, etc.

The truth is very much the opposite.  Seeing food, smelling it — rather than being torturous, is actually a real pleasure.  I’ve been seeking opportunities to sit side-saddle at my friends’ meals so I can waft their food-smells.  I find this way better than the monotony of total sensory abstinence.

The water fast has also changed my beliefs about farting.  I assumed that no eating meant no pooping and, relatedly, no farting.  The pooping part was true.  (Final poop, and a very small one: Day 3.)  But I farted no less than 3 hours ago, after five-and-a-half days.  A modest fart, but a fart nonetheless.  How (and why?) one’s body makes these things, I’m now perversely curious about.

Things I Missed Out On

My personal response to fasting is just a sliver of what I saw in our self-selected group of test monkeys.  Overall, I lucked out.  Some folks had a far rougher time than me.

Among the physiological and perceptual reactions we saw were:

  • Heat waves or flashes felt throughout the body.
  • Inability to fall asleep.
  • Inability to keep warm.
  • All-over aches and pains akin to the flu.
  • Heart palpitations.
  • And this rather poetic explanation: “My thoughts were like the clearest chaos ever. Do you ever get chaotic thoughts when you have a fever? It was like that, but I could focus. And no fever.”

I noticed my pants sagging; my never-gave-it-much-thought posterior has diminished in size enough to matter functionally.

Would I Recommend This?

I guess that’s the same as asking, “Will I do this again next year?”

For me, I think the answer is yes.

Next year’s fast will lack the wonder of a first-timer’s view of a new experience — a definite downside.  But I’m hoping that it will be psychologically easier.  And I may well do a few shorter fasts (1-3 days) throughout this year to keep my system acclimated to such deprivations.

If any study comes out refuting Dr. Seyfried’s idea that “deep ketosis” (that is, living off fat stores with flatlined and minimal blood sugar) may be an effective cancer prophylactic, I’ll certainly look at that carefully.  Seven days of deprivation is too much to incur just for the novelty.  But as of now, my feeling is:  Even if there’s just a 50% chance that this is effective, isn’t a week-long inconvenience once per year, for a 50% reduction in ever getting cancer a pretty great gamble?

But for me right now, the main question on my mind isn’t “Will I do this next year?”…

It’s “What am I going to eat in 26 hours and 29 minutes?”


* It is advised that food be re-introduced slowly to any stomach that’s gone food-free for more than 5 days. I may or may not heed this advice. Currently, being a good little boy in this regard feels unlikely.

What’s This Fasting Business All About?

A couple of months ago, Dr. Thomas Seyfried – the author of Cancer as a Metabolic Disease: On the Origin, Management, and Prevention of Cancer – came on the show to speak to us about metabolic fasting as a means of cancer therapy – and (possibly) prevention.

For the more in-depth explanation of how exactly that works, click here to listen to the episode.

The rest of this post will throw around words like ketosis and just assume, you know what that means – so if you don’t, check out Episode #56!

The short version?  It may be that we have the ability to “starve out” stray (pre-tumorous) cancer cells by simply… not eating.  Cancer cells don’t survive nearly as well as healthy cells in a ketotic internal environment.  And the quickest way into ketosis is, well… starving.

Dr. Seyfried cited “a 7-day water fast, once per year” as his recommendation for a healthy person to remain cancer-free by starving any errant cancer cells before they can get a foothold in the body.

This means that for a comparatively small investment of time (and a larger dollop of willpower), we might be able to significantly extend both our lifespans and our “health-spans.”  Cancer remains a distressingly prevalent killer and misery-bringer – so anything to safely lessen its likelihood is great news, right?

Why Water Fast?

While there are many variations on this theme – slightly different fasting methods promoting slightly different health benefits – research suggests that a water-only fast of at least three days is the most effective method to achieve a ketotic body state in the shortest amount of time.

Why a Week?

Three-to-four days to get firmly “into ketosis,” then the rest of the week to give any loose cancer cells in our bodies time to starve.

A day or two shorter might not be enough time to kill the stray cancer cells.  Any longer might be (pardon the pun) overkill.

The Plan

We plan to do a 7-day water-only fast – and if it goes well, it will likely become an annual ritual.

While we’re very set in the belief that the possible-rewards outweigh any expected unpleasantness, we’re also realistic about this being a pretty big undertaking.  (7 days.  Water.  Only.  Ugh.)

So, in an attempt to make the week infinitely less excruciating, and beneficial to as many people as possible, we’ve decided to arm ourselves with as much information as we can.  And in the company of other like-minded, willpower-imbued longevity-seekers.

And so, Water Fast Week was born.

From February 16th-22nd, everyone participating will be communicating via an online forum, sharing their personal experiences, tips, and helpful information with the group.  We’ll have a few experienced fasters – as well as a medical doctor – in our midst, to chip in where they can as well.

And, almost certainly, we’ll cover the action* in a Smart Drug Smarts episode.


* “Action” might not be the right term; we’re expecting a pretty lethargic week.

This post is unrelated to the normal subjects discussed at Smart Drug Smarts.  It’s just something I wanted to write.  – Jesse

Aside from a few areas of interest peculiar to me, I don’t really follow the news closely most of the time.

Which isn’t to say that bad things are happening in the world and I prefer to hide from them, but more that I don’t trust or enjoy the way on which our world is typically reported.  The hybridization between slasher-movie shock spectacle and over-emoted OMG hyperbole doesn’t do much for my fandom of the species.

That said, I still get major news by way of cultural osmosis, and every now and then a story gets under my skin.

The Charlie Hebdo disaster this past week was such a story.

A ton has been said already and will continue to be said as this brutal story and its cops-and-bad-guys aftermath winds to its conclusion.

It’s terrible for all the reasons we already know intuitively — and that the 24-hour news media remind us like a terror metronome.

I, no less than anyone, am sickened by this crime and feel an obligatory sense of loss, despite the attack being half-a-world away on a small number of people I’d never heard of before.

But why does this story still chew on me after the initial “Damn, that’s awful” washed over? It’s sad to say, but horrible things happen daily in our multi-billion passenger world — from time immemorial, and likely for quite some time to come.

I puzzled about it, and I think my ongoing stomach-churn is a devil’s brew of revulsion both at the crime itself and the way it will be distilled in the mainstream discourse.

We’ll hear the grisly story of the slain journalists, and their killers.  The background of the comics that prompted the attack, the details of the firefight with the French police.  We’ll see the justifiable grief and outrage from mourners and protesters, and finally segue to the latest details of the manhunt for the killers…  And when that invariably concludes, to the masterminds and organizations who trained and fomented them.

Who, What, When, Where…

I remember, drilled into my head at some very early age, my father’s bullet-points for how a “news article” could and should be written.  Five Ws and an H.

Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How?

“Answer all these questions, Jesse, and you’ve got yourself an article.”  A clear sentence or two responding to each would almost certainly fill the two-thirds of a lined notebook page that my teacher would expect.  Mind my spelling and punctuation, don’t smudge the cursive, and an A could be mine – a B at worst.

I can only assume that our major news media’s fathers and mothers imbued them with similar how-to lessons.  And I hear the echoes of this pattern in the Charlie Hebdo news coverage.

Who were these killers?

What sort of people are they, that they could do this?

When and Where did they commit their crimes?

The problem is, it’s a fading echo that I hear, of my grade-school bullet-list.  The first few questions are answered loudly, repeatedly, all-consumingly…  But we barely approach the last couple.

Why did the killers think this act was the best thing they could spend their lives on?

How were they so profoundly misguided?

And How come this will inevitably happen again?  And again and again.

These Hows are the most interesting — and ultimately, the most consequential — of all of the questions we could pose.  And they’re barely addressed in the majority of the pre-digested “we did your thinking for you, and by the way, here’s your emotional response; no need to thank us” media.

If we’re lucky enough to get a How, it’s: “How can we prevent future attacks by Islamic extremists on journalists?”  A legitimate question, sure.  But legitimate in the same way that swatting a mosquito is a legitimate reflex, but of little result if you built your house in a subtropical swamp.

Everyone reading this, at some point, has been held up for ridicule.  But few, probably none of us, have emptied Kalashnikovs into our ridiculers.

I’m on a plane as I type this, with nearly two hundred other people, all of whom endured the obnoxious ritual of having to de-shoe and be frisked by everything-detectors (our tax dollars paying for the privilege), in commemoration of an airplane-related event some 14 years ago.  This same proliferation of minor, maybe-effective-maybe-not inconveniences happens constantly, innumerable times, worldwide, daily.

Are we to now construct similar protective dikes around the political satire industry as we have around airlines?  And when the next disaster strikes, born of extremist insanity, will we mount ad hoc defenses on yet another element of society, then another, then another?

What We “Learn” From the Mainstream Coverage

It’s a sad irony that we’re mostly given cartoonish coverage of the deaths of these cartoonists.

The stories, maybe by necessity (since it’s what the public has been trained to hear), play like an Islamic extremism Mad-Lib.  Our TVs sparkle with scary mugshots, the killers’ nationalities, and repetitious details of the crime itself.

And if/when we finally “zoom out” to the broader implications, the topics are “Who else might be on the fatwa list?”  Or even “How can the West help the Islamic world reform and self-police its believers, without (gulp) offending anyone as it does so?” 

But mostly, it’s Who, What, When, Where, Rinse, Repeat.  Until the story flames out and the next news cycle begins.

Imagine for a moment that you are my friend, and you sit me down and tell me: “Jesse, I just met the most amazing woman, and I’m deeply in love.”  And I respond: “What’s her hair color?  Please show me several photos of her in provocative poses, and how big are her boobs?”

I would be completely, despicably missing the the point.  Whatever has you deeply in love, her physical topography is a side note, at best.  What makes this particular woman amazing?

I submit to you that this absurd missing-of-the-point is what the mainstream Charlie Hebdo coverage is doing.

Like your theoretical love interest, there is something amazing about the main characters in this story — the killers.  It’s a bad amazing.  But it’s what really deserves pondering over, not the case’s superficial details.  Let’s leave that stuff to the French cops.  What society needs to think about, long and hard, is this tragic incident’s Whys and Hows.

Why were these people so threatened by cartoonists that they were willing to take lives (and very likely sacrifice their own) to “solve” a perceived problem?

How do human beings get so remarkably misguided?

I find the latter question absolutely fascinating. 

And to be fair, the mainstream always does address it — sort of — but the answers are as superficial as my interest in your new girlfriend’s hair color.

“How can we prevent future attacks by on journalists?” is a legitimate question in the same way that swatting a mosquito is a legitimate reflex — but of little result if you built your house in a swamp.

“The killers are misguided because fundamentalist Islam is a lousy religion.”

Yeah, okay.  I’ll give you that, but can we go a little deeper?

“They’re misguided because Islam, like it or not, is inherently violent and what we politely call ‘fundamentalism’ is shirking the fact that the whole religion is rotten to the core.”

(At this point, the news anchors generally bring on rival experts to debate the merits of this stance, and we never delve further.)

Or a militant atheist might say: “They’re misguided because of Islam, sure — but are they any more misguided than Christian bombers of abortion clinics, whose actions are a pretty close parallel to what happened in Paris?”

This is a fair point.

But I still feel that fundamentalism-bashing, Islam-bashing, even religion-bashing, are all kind of looking at symptoms rather than an underlying problem.

I try to put myself into the heads of these killers and ask “what would it take to make me think, out of all the things I could do with my life, that killing some cartoonists is my best next move?”

The Story of a Sickeningly Awful Overreaction

I think we can all agree that the victims at Charlie Hebdo were never going to up the ante beyond drawing cartoons.  Certainly their killers were under no direct threat — other than to be, I guess, laughingstocks among the Charlie Hebdo readership.

So why bring guns to a pencil-fight?

The answer to that question is the seed of all overreactions:  Wounded pride.

Every one of us has had our pride attacked, and we know what it feels like.  We’ve all been held up for ridicule.  But few, probably none of us, have emptied Kalashnikovs into our ridiculers.  I think there are two general reasons for this:

1)  Revenge wasn’t worth it to us.  Either the punishment of society, or our own self-flagellation for venturing into such black moral territory, kept us cowed into a lesser response.

Or, that failing:

2)  Despite our pride in our beliefs, we also had confidence in them.  We were so sure we were right, that someone else’s mockery just didn’t matter that much.  Complete certitude has a way of deflecting ego-jabs.  Copernicus got mocked plenty for his wacky “beliefs” about the arrangement of the solar system.  But his pride had the psychic safety-net of confidence backing it.

Mock me all you want, Copernicus could think to himself.  I’ve got an internally-consistent framework for my ideas, matching all the available evidence.  I’m as right as I can be, given my limitations.  And I’m certainly righter than you.

I know that some televised experts examining the Charlie Hebdo story will lean on Islamic doctrine, and say that (maybe) these killers were Quranic literalists, and were thus compelled to act in a certain way — that their own emotions were essentially irrelevant.

To this I say: hooey.

It’s our emotions, largely, that make our decisions for us — and if emotions didn’t compel us, no one would choose to be, for example, a Quranic literalist.  (People who make this choice certainly aren’t doing so on the strength of demonstrable physical evidence.)

Diagnosis

I think what we have here — pathetically — is a group of killers with an abundance of pride, and a complete lack of confidence.

If they believed — really, really believed — in the truth of their religion, and that the cartoonists were misguided and idiotic heretics, would they have felt so threatened that they’d choose to sacrifice their own lives just to snuff out Charlie Hebdo?

I’m no psychologist.

And I’m not a religious scholar either.

But I am a guy who has been mocked, and has wanted to lash out.  And I know that my compulsion to anger is profoundly more powerful when I sort of suspect that what I’m being mocked for is actually kind of accurate.

You see what I’m getting at?

What if the killers’ almost-certain “martyrdom” (e.g. suicide-by-cop) is a psychic escape hatch to avoid confronting the profoundly unconvincing worldview their religion dictates?

I don’t think the so-called fundamentalists believed their own schtick.

European cartoonists mocked them, and the best they could come back with was “Shut up, or I’ll hurt you.”

[Mockery continues…]

“Okay, hurting you now.”

While this kind of response is emotionally satisfying in a really juvenile way — it’s never intellectually persuasive.

Not even to the person committing the violence.

We’ve all been kids.  We’ve all been in arguments where the best comeback we could muster was “shut up.”  And we all know, when “shut up” is all we’re left with, that we’ve lost the argument — unless we choose a weapon other than words, and take it to blows.

The horror at the root of this story isn’t that the Parisian killers “took it to blows.”

It’s that adult human beings, even today, live trapped in world-views so unconvincing that when challenged, the only retort they’ve got is “shut up.”  Violence like we saw this past week is the ugliest, and most newsworthy, response to this sort of anger — but anger isn’t even a necessary emotion when a person’s beliefs are backed by true confidence.

We all owe it to ourselves, and our fellow humans, to constantly challenge, and re-challenge, our beliefs.  Ideas that cannot withstand scrutiny — indeed, that cannot withstand open satire and mockery — do not deserve to be embraced.

We should fear and distrust any institutions — religious, cultural, or otherwise — that try to insulate or exempt themselves from the public acid-test of humor.

Failure to do so will lead to more Charlie Hebdos, of a greater or lesser degree, again and again and again.

We don’t let blind people drive cars. Or people who are bad at math program missile guidance systems.

If we did, it’d be “interesting” to see what happened.

But interesting in the “consequential, and most likely disastrous” sense. One that few of us would opt for.

Luckily, we’ve each got a little internal critic – a Jiminy Cricket of Logic, if you will – who aggressively pulls the e-brake on ideas that don’t measure up to his standards of logical prudence. No matter how interesting those ideas might be.

This probably saves our skins numerous times daily. These illogical ideas need someone whack-a-mole-ing them.

There is an exception, though: That class of ideas that is both decoupled from logic, and utterly inconsequential – since they can’t inflict themselves on the real world.

I’m talking about dreams.

Specifically, I’m talking about hypnagogic imagery – those dream-like images and ideas that flit through our minds as we down-spin from consciousness into sleep.

They’re like the thought equivalents of a Rube Goldberg Machine – where a normal idea as you lay down to sleep reminds you of something else… that was sort of like that time… when that song was playing… and what was that one lyric? It always made you think of…

And then you’re asleep.

You’ll probably recall hypnagogic imagery from your own life, because sometimes when you’re in this state, something will jolt you awake – a noise, an errant cat – and after you’ve got your bearings, you’ll realize that moments before, your mind was filled with absolute nonsense.

This past year, I’ve made a habit of trying to harvest ideas from this nonsense.

A Silver Lining on the Sleep You Don’t Get

I’m going to play my “I’m Not A Doctor” card and write something that if I were a medical professional, would be downright irresponsible.

There are certain upsides to being sleep-deprived.

Yeah, it’s not a popular position, and I know the counterarguments. They are logical, weighty, and relevant. But the Rationalization Engine that is my mind, thinks of it this way:

If circumstances are going to sleep-deprive me anyway, can I find a hidden upside?

And I do, in the form of creativity.

Allow me to elaborate.

In an earlier phase of my life, I did a lot of creative writing. I was one of “those people.” And I found, consistently, that I did my best first-draft writing late at night.

Editing was a different story.  At night I didn’t have the logical cojones to hold a double-handful of plot-threads and character arcs and prosaic flourishes all at once. My logical side, Editor-Jesse, was pretty good at that stuff. But he kept strict 9-to-5 hours. That guy wouldn’t stay up late.

“In hypnagogia, the Rails of Logic disintegrate before the Train of Thought itself disappears…”

But the other half of my writer-self, Creative-Jesse, could stay up until the wee hours. And though his command of logic was marginal, he came up with interesting ideas. It took time for him to articulate them, though. The initial burp of an idea-in-progress would sound ridiculous, headed straight for the waste-paper basket. But if he had some time to gum around with it, there was sometimes a worthwhile kernel in there.

(Think of how ugly babies are when they’re first born – but after a week they’re pretty darn cute. Am I wrong?)

Here’s the thing: If Editor-Jesse had the physiological staying-power of Creative-Jesse, and had been present for the late-night sessions, he would have stopped Creative-Jesse’s newborn ideas dead in their tracks.  In fact, this is what happened when I tried writing during the day. I could do it procedurally, but I never got the never-saw-that-one-coming creative breakthroughs that would happen at night.

Your Train of Thought, Minus the Rails

When we’re awake, we’re always thinking about something.  (Except you prodigious meditators, I know, but bear with me here.) We talk about our “Train of Thought” – the one that we lose when we try to remember what we were just talking about, and realize it has jumped the tracks.

All through the day, the Train chugs along… And at night when we sleep, it dissolves into the black of unconsciousness.

But this doesn’t quite happen all at once. The Rails of Logic disintegrate before the Train itself disappears. And unbounded by logic, the train can careen to some interesting destinations in those pre-sleep moments.

We’ve all slept before, so I’ll assume you’re familiar with this. (If you haven’t slept, stop reading right now and try it. You’ll like it.)

“If circumstances are going to sleep-deprive me anyway, can I find a hidden upside?”

While asleep, the brain behaves quite differently.  The motor cortex goes on standby, so you don’t physically act out your dreams. And your hippocampus shuts off your long-term memory’s writing systems, so you don’t remember your dreams, either1.

Thus, we rarely remember the Train of Thought’s itinerary during these off-the-rails, logic-free detours as we enter into a night’s sleep.

Which is a pity – because, unconstrained by logic, I’m at my creative best.

So I’ve been developing a little hack to capture this hypnagogic creativity-uptick…

I’ve become an expert napper.

Naps, You See, Are Hypnagogic Prime-Time

As opposed to night-time sleep, when you generally have to move through all the major sleep-phases before getting to REM (dream-state)… naps can short-cut you in straightaway. (There’s science behind this, but I won’t go into it here.)

I find that the shorter-duration, less-deep sleep of naps makes me better able to remember the content of my dreams, as well as pre-sleep hypnagogic imagery.

But for usefulness, it’s the hypnagogic imagery, not the dreams, where I get the real value.

By the time I’m dreaming, there is no conductor on the Train. The chances that my dreams will be applicable to anything in the real world are next-to-nil. But the hypnagogic state still has vestiges of whatever I was thinking about when I laid down to nap… So if I’m conscientious about it, I can “seed” my hypnagogia with the ideas I want to explore.

Since I’ve gotten good at this, I’ve started taking two, sometimes three naps a day.

I find my hit-rate on half-decent ideas is not bad – maybe something legitimately useful that I might not have otherwise come up with, one day out of two.

What Are Some Examples?

  • I’ve thought of solutions to business problems.
  • I’ve thought of approaches to difficult conversations.
  • I’ve thought of catchy names for boring things I needed catchy names for.
  • I haven’t cured cancer yet, but I’ve only been doing this systematically for about six months.

(And, to be fair, I rarely think about cancer as I’m taking my naps.)

Was I Going to Put a Pro-Sleep-Deprivation Spin on This?

Yes, I was. Here it goes:

I know that many people complain “I can’t nap.”

To which I reply: “If you cut your night-time sleep short, you’ll find daytime napping a heck of a lot easier.” And a few naps throughout the day are great for your alertness and your neurochemistry – whether you’re sleep-deprived or not.

A Hypnagogic How-To

Even if you’re not a fan of sleep deprivation (and I can’t blame you), the fruits of hypnagogia can still be yours.

Here are some shortcuts:

  1. Use the Nap Pose.  My ability to nap has been revolutionized since I discovered the “Nap Pose.” Flat on your back, arms just a little out from your sides, palms facing inward or downward.  If you feel the urge to switch positions, don’t.  Stick with it. The idea is to give your brain time to settle into hypnagogia.  Don’t make it about your body and “trying to find a comfortable position.” Just watch the show going on in your head. Keep watching. It’ll get interesting.
  2. Put a dark blanket over your eyes. Don’t cover your mouth or nose so breathing is difficult. But black out your vision. Not a wimpy blanket, a thick blanket. Keeping stray photons from penetrating your eyelids will make getting sleepy much easier. It also, I believe, makes the hallucinatory images stronger, since they’re not competing with real signals from your optic nerves.
  3. Look deep into the Nothing… I’m going to sound so damned Californian as I write this; please forgive me.  But remember being a kid and lying on your back, looking up at the clouds, trying to decide which ones looked like what animals, or whatever?  For me, a sure-fire way into hypnagogia is to do the same thing with the blackness in front of my closed eyes.  Look for the imperfections in the blackness.  What does that look like…?  What does that remind you of…?  Stir it a little bit, try to add an element, be a movie director…  I find that focusing on my sense of vision, while simultaneously depriving myself of visual input, is a great way of forcing entry into this state.  (This is similar to the idea behind a sensory deprivation tank, minus the auditory and tactile deprivation.)

Currently, I’m only a one-man study.  But I’m guessing that the combination of the above techniques will work for most people, to achieve a harvestable hypnagogic slideshow on a regular basis.

Needless to say, sometimes your hypnagogia will reveal to you nothing of consequence.

Sometimes it might be good, but you’ll forget it anyway.  After all, you’re falling asleep.

But remember, the little logical-you falls asleep first.

That pesky, dogmatic internal critic – who censors ideas he deems unfit for the waking world – falls asleep faster than your creative self.  And if you can catch him napping, you just might be able to smuggle some creative genius across the borders of sleep, back into reality.


1 Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to disable this feature in your brain’s Settings panel?

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