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Summer Days and the Conquest of Constantinople
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It seems my blogging is either feast or famine. Never enough time it seems. Or maybe I’m just spending too much time?! I was in a conference last week and a presenter was discussing his blog in passing and mentioned that he has been producing an average of four blogs a day or six years. I can’t imagine. Of course, that is his job. But even still, that is impressive.

It has been a cold summer so far here in San Francisco. That is until the last two days. Beating record highs and hitting a steamy 98 yesterday, it was quite a high for a city lacking in major air conditioning appliances. Look at that: the weather is feast or famining it just like me. :)

Most of my free time has been dedicated to reading for the last few months. I think the next few posts should focus on the best of the best. Here’s a quick overview of book #1:

1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West

I read this book as I’ve been dreaming about a second trip to Istanbul. That place really gets into the bones. The book is about the conquest of Constantinople by the hands of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II. I’ve read quite a few history books, but none like this. Author Roger Crowley hands us more just facts and information. You really get to feel the emotional distress involved with ancient conquest and the internal and external influences that lead to the event.

Considered impenetrable due to its thick double layer walls and sea side position, a successful siege on Constantinople was considered impossible for hundreds of years. Through a combination of pure force, technological innovation, and perseverance, it seems the walls did in act crumble.

Why read it? Well, if you have an interest in ancient battles, strategy, or the east west conflict this book is ideal. However, even someone without an interest in these topics would find the human aspects of the story to be stimulating and insightful. But its also a book on the conflict between Christianity and Islam. This is post crusades and the scars of previous campaigns were still fresh. The Ottoman Empire was still relatively new and placed between an older Persian and Arabic Islamic world and a newly emerging European world. Sure, the European nations are older than the 15th century. But Europe was a disaster until the end of the Black Plague. As devastating as the Crusades and Bubonic Plague had been for Europe’s morale, it seemed to pull a sleeping continent into a new life. The Ottomans were bold, sophisticated and calculated thinkers. They had a wealth of experiences picked up from older empires and had an economy that relied on further conquest.

To the young Sultan the conquest of Constantinople was his destiny. He believed in himself as much as he believed in the16 foot cannons he had made just for this occasion. Compared to the patient, careful Constantine XI of the Byzantine Empire, he was the Sultan was quick and impatient. Constantine wasn’t doing much more than trying to hold together the remnants of a population devastated by war and plague; as well as deep religious conflict. He was commanding, with the help of the few Europeans who came to help, an army of 7,000 against up to 200,000 Ottoman Turks.

Great book and well worth the $6 they just put the book on sale for this week. One of the more interesting history books I’ve read in a long time!

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04.27.2010
Identity and Social Acceptance
Categories: Uncategorized
Airports are wonderful places to people watch. Where else can you witness the comings and goings of thousands of people from all over the world as they interact and pass by quickly and (mostly) efficiently? It is almost like a cross section of regional, ethnic, and cultural traditions. What is really interesting about people watching is not just what people say and do but what they wear and design themselves to be and what message they are sending to the strangers they might meet. Why is it important to send that message to strangers and what are they trying to say to someone they will most likely never see again?

I live on the border between The Castro and The Mission in San Francisco. You could easily draw a line between these two neighborhoods based entirely on clothing and conversation. You could almost do the same based on the drink selected by recipients of the various neighborhood bars. People don’t just identify with each other locally but carry symbols or signs of this commonality. Symbols have deep and multiple meanings and it is up to the community to decide the interpretation of these symbols.

Semiotics is the science or study of signs and symbols, mostly discussed from an anthropological dimension. It looks at anything from the sounds we make and convert to words, body movements conveyed, to something so simple as red for hot and blue for cold water. Something as simple as clothing and hair treatment carry great cultural weight and convey to other’s the group to which you belong.

The interesting part is that these social groups are more than regional affiliations. A heavy metal fan in Kansas looks more or less like a heavy metal fan in Norway. A hipster in Ft. Lauderdale looks like a hipster in LA. Our “tribes” are no longer regionally created and developed demographic hubs of genetic or economic signifiers, but globally accepted subsets of the population designated by a preference and self imposed style of behavior and purchasing. We create our communities and use the symbols we register as being inclusive to designate who we believe our selves to be.

Its interesting when people say things in regards to clothing or lifestyle that “this is me!” Clothing and hair don’t determine an outlook on life but are a reflection of the values and interests of the group they find to be most interesting or matched to their preferences. For example, I met someone in college who considered her self a “California Girl” even though she had never been there. She subconsciously picked up on the signs and symbols of those she knew from California or what she saw in the media and consciously decided they best matched the symbols she saw in her self. A state became not a place of dwelling but a state of being.

I think its interesting that “not caring” also has a carefully crafted look. Remember how trendy “bed head” had been in the past? What message is being sent by such a look – cool, laid back, lacking the stress that is characteristic of the 21st century? How about the classic teenage bored look? Why is it cool to not care? How much time and effort is spent buying the clothing that designates the wearer as “not caring”? Its ironic.

So, is this systemic of globalization and branding; where McDonalds tastes the same everywhere people look the same as well? Or, are we faced with so many signs that we adorn our selves with symbols because its so hard to see those around us (like the Beatles wrote, “Got to be good looking ‘cause its so hard to see”)? Last but not least, do we struggle with identity because are bound into some form of accepted individualism, where you must be unique and present something new but still stay within a range of behaviors?

My vote is the last: individualism. But with individualism you can’t just stand out, you have to follow the rules. You have to stand out within a range of consciously or unconsciously observed criteria that is somehow determined and distributed without barely a mention of this action being performed. We learn without learning. We pick up on our social cues without realizing we are changing our views. It is perhaps the most ironic to want to fit in and stand out simultaneously and effortlessly, and those who are able to do this become the trend setters. Slavoj Zizek defines this behavior as unknown knows – you don’t know that you know something. The simple act of assembling and adorning the signs of a social group then becomes both a conscious and unconscious action: we are aware and conscious of our actions but the meaning is quietly obscured.

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04.26.2010
Thoughts on Fate
Categories: Uncategorized
1.) I have a long held assumption that fate in a secular culture lays claims to the position previously held by God or a deity/deities. It is not God directly but the unseen hand of the universe directing the actions and behaviors of all that is around in order to end at a mean that favors our future and outcome. “Love” functions in a similar vein. Those who are recently disgruntled by romance will say they fell out of love or that their love died. From a purely semiotic perspective the action and behavior responsible for the loss of love is love itself in this scenario. It is love that fades, not the expectations of the individual.

This is what we learn from movies, TV, and music. You don’t have to do anything except show up. By simply being in the right place at the right time, none of which you really control, you are about to participate in the fate that was arranged or you. Chick flicks most obviously make this claim. The guy is perfect for the girl but one of them has a tragic flaw (like everyone) that must be resolved. After they run away from each other there is an event that brings them together and the movie ends in blossomed romance and assumed forever-after bliss.

Less obvious but just as potent are action films. A simple look at almost any action movie will exhibit the same narrative: start with a guy with a broken history or past. After hitting a low point a situation occurs that forces the guy to jump into one action or another. Past situations or events that seemed meaningless suddenly become the answer or solution to an impossible or improbable situation. In the end he saves the day but only because fate confronted him with an impasse that resulted in the hero becoming his true self.

The danger with this ideology is that it removes the action from the individual. Rather than take action, the action is expected to happen to the person. We all know the value of hard work and dedication. But what is interesting about culture is what is not said but performed without conscious reaction. It is not what opportunity we option to take. It is what situation we must inevitably take out of lack of options.

2.) I and many of my friends wrestle with a simple question: what should I do with my life? More than career, the question is one of balance and opportunity. The what is not so much what will I do but what am I fulfilling and finding fulfillment in finding.

My guess that there are hundreds of thousands of us waiting, thinking, talking, and hoping “that thing” will appear from the sky and show us the future we semi-consciously believe we are “destined” for. We feel that we know there is something remarkable just around the corner just waiting to spring to life even if we don’t believe this is true in a purely rational sense.

3.) In the past you just found a job. You got married and had kids. You followed the rules and played the game and were rewarded as such. Further back than that you followed in your father or relative’s footsteps. If they were an ironsmith you were an ironsmith. With seemingly unlimited options comes unlimited need for navigating the confusion of option. There must be some balance between letting life hand you off to the next opportunity and completely steering your future and picking your options.

4.) I struggle with the idea of things happening for a reason. In theory I love the idea that there are no accidents and occurrences are not fully random. The idea that our life is a plot, a sweeping narrative that will lead us to our true opportunities keeps the self help industry in suits and Mercedes. Beside this romanticized notion is the idea that random is not satisfied with a conclusion, that there is no deep meaning to the occasions or moments that seem too perfect or to materialize in strange and wonderful ways. For actions to be meaningless or devoid of a greater, pre-conceived narrative seems dark and twisted. But why?

The Book of Job is a wonderful example of the meaning in meaninglessness. When faced with calamity, Job turned first to friends who told him that there was a reason such horrible things happened – like past actions or sins committed. But it was the figure of God who said, in many ways, there is no meaning to the calamity, good and bad happened despite the actions of the individual. In the end the only meaning to be gained was through reaction.

As G.K. Chesterton pointed out in much of his work, order is the greatest miracle. This is what I am starting to consider seriously. The actions and events of every day are miraculous in that they happen. The meaning we gain from our awareness is perhaps the propellant necessary to expand the opportunity with which we are inevitably faced. If this is the case, we live in the most miraculous period of human history. But with fate it is important to carefully and critically consider the work of what might be seen as an invisible hand as we just might see our fingerprints on the wheel or smoking gun.

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04.22.2010
Ramblings on Photography and Memory
Categories: Uncategorized
1.) I’m writing this from a flight to San Diego where I will eventually make my way to Binghamton, NY for my Grandmother’s 90th birthday party. Binghamton is where I was born roughly. It is where my parents fell in love, both sets of grandparents lived or a number of years, and was my home for a brief period as a child. Places like this are not locations, they are signifiers. History is not as important to personal remembrance as is the mythological representation of the past. You don’t visit a location you visit a complex web of narratives intertwined with deeply held meanings.

The house we lived in the longest, in Hickory, NC was purchased by a close friend’s family when my parents sold it. They would often invite me over to see it when I was in town but I could not do it. I was curious but couldn’t seem to go back. This is Hickory for me. When visiting I generally stick to my parents’ current house and rarely venture out. There is something strange and foreign about NC and I feel uncomfortable understanding the deep effect the location had on me. I feel that I am uncomfortable with feeling how much it means to me.

2.) A few months ago I and a few of my cousins were able to take a walk through our grandparents former house in Maryland. We all loved that house and remembered it as being larger than life. There was more then enough room for a dozen or so cousins to entertain ourselves for a week or two at a time. We loved every square inch of that house and the memories that were created. But it looked different 15 years later. The size was reasonable, the rooms had changed a bit, and the furniture was representative of its new owners. The physical structure of the house was there but the image had changed drastically. The image remembered did not match the house. To my mind it was connected to but was a whole new house entirely. It was as if I visited a caricature of their former dwelling.

3.) So much of my childhood is remembered through photographs. Do I remember those moments directly or build a probable story through what I’m told and what I know of my past? What does it mean to remember and keep those ideas active? I look at photographs from my childhood and don’t recognize the child I see. The child in the pictures seems like an image of my future children; a person I know closely but can’t picture.

The other day when I was falling asleep I thought about a situation in which I went back in time thirty years and knew no one. I would call my parents and ask for help and wondered what I would say in order to convince them it was me from another time. What would they say they saw me? Would they recognize their genes and mannerisms? Would I tell them of my childhood as though recounting something from the past that was their future?

This leads me to the simple conclusion that you can only be a spectator in the past.

4.) I’ve been spending a great deal of time taking pictures lately. Looking at the screen on my digital camera is an interesting experience. Facial expressions of those being photographed change dramatically every few seconds. When being photographed people have the potential to become rigid. The awkward smiling stance taken while the camera is flashing its initial rounds is more than a little bit interesting. The smile may represent a real feeling but it is not in itself real. It is a symbol which is wished to be recounted when viewed later. Why is a neutral pose not the generally excepted standard for being photographed? we are creating meaning through intentional gestures, but what does this mean for us to create these gestures when we and others are consciously aware that we are creating these gestures?

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04.15.2010
Go to the Woods…
Categories: General, Random, Uncategorized
When I was young, maybe 6-8, my family lived in a house with a significant field behind it. For those years this field was my playground. I built paths through the tall grass from the garage to the woods a few acres back. I would spend all afternoon back there, forging away through through my imagination and any scenario that would come to mind. ANYTHING was possible as it was all created. Now my world is made of concrete and brick. New paths are roads I have never walked on and the noise and chaos, as beautiful as it is, keeps my eyes pegged to the walkway looking three steps ahead for oncoming bicycles and pedestrians.

Harvey Cox once defined pre-modern man as living in a magical glen where the very rocks and trees had fiendish properties that would either make or break you. The Babylonian prophetesses of Ishtar would partake in ritual copulation, hoping their act would inspire the gods of rain to do their work. The cave drawings of Lascaux, France are said to be a form of sympathetic magic, meaning the act of drawing one’s self killing an animal inspired the action to occur in reality. The point is that for so long humanity saw itself as a series of interactions between nature and humanity. Neither one controlled, but both played a part in what became. Nature was every bit as alive as flesh and blood.

There is something overwhelming about the outdoors: the organic systems in place, the flow of material and energy (not necessarily in the new-age sense), the awareness of your fragility. You know that you can not control. When you are camping and cooking over a fire you have to first build something. You don’t just flip a switch. You can’t just turn on an oven. You have to perform an action. It is you interacting with what is around you.

When I’m in the woods I carry a knife. Not for defense, but because I’m beginning to believe it is symbolic. The tool is a segue between man and nature. It is a simple way of breaking a divide between who we are and what our species came from. It is difficult to consider and thoroughly grasp the idea that we are tied in with our ecosystem. We are told that. We know that. But do we really know that? I for one, despite my experience outdoors, think in terms of man and nature. Two separate entities metaphorically separated at birth. But when you cut something real to build a fire you are changing the variables. You rely on it directly.

Being enchanted with nature is an old idea. Thoreau defined this poetically. He wanted to live deep, suck the marrow out off life. He wanted his interaction with the world around him to be meaningful. He wanted to take the actions that led to learning and find what he felt was missing. He is not alone. Why in a world of houses and hotels do people still camp? Why do people build fires on the beach? Why if we can see it on a screen would we step out in the cold to watch the northern lights? We are missing something deeply human.

When my parents lived in Alaska I visited a small pond behind their house a few times in the winter. At 40 below zero I laid down in a foot of snow and watched the sky for as long as I could take the cold. The sky was so bright and it was so quiet I could literally hear the snow land on my hood and around me. I felt so deeply satisfied.

I don’t have any problems with cities. I love the resources, the cultural events, people, and interesting food. But it isn’t enough. We, or I, need to be outside among the trees.

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Tags: , Camping
04.04.2010
First Two Months in San Francisco
Categories: Uncategorized
4370125173_7867ae4157_oI really thought I would be writing more about the DC to SF transition. Reality, it seems, is a little different than intention. Even as I write this post I think about the fact that it has been over two months since I left DC, my home for over 7 years, and joined Michal, who had been here since we arrived from our drive across the country at the end of December. I remember waiting for Christmas as a kid and how long just a few days would seem to take. Hours would never seem to end then. Now, at the ripe old age of 29 I can not believe how quickly the days pass. I woke up, unpacked some boxes, and now its April.

I will say it has been a great experience so far and not a day goes by that we don’t think our selves lucky to live in such a beautiful and interesting city. We have been trying to make the most of the sites and are balancing whether we feel more like tourists or locals. Either way the sun, the sites, and the food are there for everyone.

But its not the sites and the sounds so much as the movement of a place that makes it what it is. There are streets here that seem to be transplanted from Manhattan, hills that seem to take on an almost Greek feel. Its the little things that characterize the individuality of a living city, just as it is the individual makeup of muscles that allow us to walk.

I’ve been thinking about home a lot lately and have been struggling to find its meaning. The dichotomy between home, the location in which you keep your possessions and the place in which you are connected at an emotional level brings up an interesting series of questions. If home is where the heart is then why do we feel a longing for a connection to a location? How do we connect to our place and create home? Why is it that when we change our address we might keep all the belongings and the people involved, but merely the change of physical location involves a change in our perception?

No answer yet but I will be looking into this as we further settle in and find our place in this crazy world.

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12.16.2009
In Defense of Facebook Status Updates
Categories: General, Social Media
I just came across an email I sent to WSJ journalist Elizabeth Bernstein after her article “How facebook Ruins Friendships”, where she argues that something went wrong when we took our friendships online. She says that there is something odd about discussing so many aspects of our lives that are basically irrelevant to most people. Rather than post my response in full, here is the crux of my argument:

People post this information because they like to share their lives. I often share what I ate for lunch with my coworkers. Not everything, but the interesting bits. But now that our “community” is not a local village where we would share our daily lives, but spread out across the world, the daily aspects of our lives are lost to all but those in our immediate vicinity. I would argue it is the little things that truly make a community.

Online tools are simply that: tools. Websites such as facebook and Myspace are used to satisfy a niche that is currently unsatisfied – otherwise they would not become popular. The market demand determines the success of the tool. I agree that people go too crazy with it and post bits that are irrelevant to me. Then again not a day goes by where someone says something to me about their life that to me is also irrelevant. In WebLand I have the choice to gloss over whereas in the real world I must say something.

The crazies have the loudest voices and always will. But these are the exceptions not the standards. I read through my friend’s statuses a few times a day. I love to hear what people of whom I was once very tied in with locally are now doing.

I’m beginning to view these exceptions as a kind of growing pains. Much like a teenager will blurt out a socially awkward statement or tell someone too much information out of a lack of knowing what is relevant and what is not, the language and style of online communication is much the same.

I’ve noticed a difference between age demographics and the kind of information users post. 20-somethings post only the most interesting content. 30-somethings will post EVERYTHING. And over 40 generally only post information that will be relevant to family or work. I think this in some ways can be traced to the digital native/digital tourist divide and whether people are able to unconsciously understand the unstated rules and behaviors of a group.

Through facebook I’ve reconnected with family that I haven’t seen in years. I’ve shared aspects of my life with my Grandfather and cousins that were all but lost in the only occasional visits we seem to be able to achieve. I can keep tabs with my parents beyond our biweekly phone calls and chat with my sister about our lives in ways that were impossible in the past , even with cell phones that never leave our sides.

I understand the point of your article and applaud your honestly. We should pick up the phone more often than not. But the distance between “worth calling about” and “don’t bother with the little stuff” is sometimes where the real substance lives.

What do you think, oh world of online users? Is facebook just an annoying portal for those who don’t understand the method and meaning behind the post-your-daily-lives madness, or is there a purpose to the sharing at a deeper, human level?

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Tags: , Community, Facebook, Social Media, Status
05.28.2009
Oprah, Myth, and the Truth/Fact Dilemma
Categories: Books, Brain, Myth, Neuroscience, Random, Religion, Uncategorized
Truth and fact are two words that seem synonymous initially. However, in thinking over these words it seems they operate at different semiotic levels. At a surface level, fact is set in stone. It is not changeable, it is the reality of the situation. Truth is a little more subjective. The meaning is a little more idiosyncratic. Something can be true without being a fact.

Angel at the Fence bookFor example, look at the scandals brewing around a few of Oprah’s book selections, mainly the latest Angel at the Fence. Author Herman Rosenblat wrote of his time in a concentration camp and of meeting his now wife from opposite sides of the fence. In truth only about 40% of his story checks out, according to the investigative reporter taking credit for the find. In fact, once news broke and he admitted to how little of his story was accurate the book was pulled from shelves and discontinued. If this book was published as fiction or even historical fiction a controversy never would have arisen. What is interesting to me about this is the reliance on truth as being fact and fiction as being imagined.

Closely related to the division between truth and fact is the subject of myth. Commonly understood to be the stories of ancient Greek gods or the mythology of some obscure people groups, myths are quite common and can relate to any set of words in which a meaning is attributed. We carry personal mythologies about our experiences and relationships, making the events we participate in more concrete and satisfying.

What is strange about myth is that it is outside the boundaries of fact and fiction. We live by myths recognizing them as not “factual” but partially true, or culturally important. An apple a day will not keep the doctor away, but eating vegetables and fruit will go a long way towards healthy living. Working hard does not always mean you will succeed, but it is a good step in the right direction.

Roland Barthes once said, “Myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflection.” It makes me wonder, are we looking for a deeper expression of being alive by living vicariously through those who have experienced unimaginable circumstances? Is the day-to-day a dream world of repetition leaving fantastic circumstances as the only real world around us? Perhaps the experiences of a “hero” allow for the inflection of reality we crave – the hero’s story gives meaning to our personal circumstances.

According to some researchers, our brains have not evolved, or adapted to understand media such as television, and even to a lesser degree, books. For all intents and purposes what we see, read, and hear is to us real. Why do we get emotional or aroused at sights and scenes in movies? We know it isn’t real. But do we really know it isn’t real?

Why does it matter if it is factual? Isn’t the deeper meaning of a story of love and survival the love and survival of the characters? Is it, for entertainment’s sake, important to know if the details are completely true, or is the idea of the story the part that we need and are desperately looking for? If a story gives hope to people who have in many ways given up on ancient mythologies, is that hope then factual rather than fictional? If a story becomes part of a cultural consciousness, is it then true even if the details don’t match up?

In this sense religion takes a strange position. Taken more to claims of absolute inerrancy then the spirit of a text, it seems we do not want to believe something unless we can believe in it as testable and provable – even in questions of divinity. The Evangelical Christian doctrine of scriptural inerrancy is a perfect example. In order to counter claims of historical criticism and evolutionary development, a hard line approach was taken. The text has in some ways been reduced to a set of defined standards and convictions rather than a living, breathing document. How much of the mystery and meaning is lost in the pursuit of testable and provable theorems?

What we have lost in the era of investigative journalism and scientific determinism is the ability to see outside of the fact/fiction dichotomy. The myth is understood to be simply fiction placed into categories for easy consumption by literary students and scholars. But what if we looked at Rosenblat’s story from another direction. What if the book should be published under the banner of a myth as a third category of literature? It may or may not be true yet the ideas presented are human and necessary.

What is more important – to prove something as historically inaccurate and defend the claim to the death or indugle in the very human act of experience and of finding meaning?

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Tags: , Books, Fact, Myth, Religion, Truth
04.27.2009
Stimulants on the Brain, ADD, and Why I Stopped Drinking Coffee
Categories: Books, Brain, Neuroscience, Running
BrainI know more than a few people who think I’m out of my mind for claims at being able to feel differences in my mental activity based on the stimulants I’ve inflicted upon my brain. Honestly though, I’ve been pretty sensitive about my brain for a very long time. After a doctor prescribed too much Ritalin leaving me a shaky 10 year old for a few days, or my experimentation with spicy food before bed after discovering its connection to extremely lucid dreams, the effects of food and drugs on the brain has always been a source of fascination for me.
Over the past year and a half more than a few things have been sacrificed in effort to speed up performance in thinking and general living. The first to go was coffee. The motivation behind such an ultimately difficult decision was based primarily on the research of scientists into the effects of stimulants on the brain. Having struggled for a long time with ADD, or as researcher John J. Ratey defined it, Motivational deficiency syndrome, and wondering what caused this behavior, personal experimentation with alternative behaviors seemed completely reasonable.

The problem with coffee – the only problem as far as I’m concerned – is with the caffeine content. Caffeine is not a negative substance in moderation, but in large quantities effects the inner workings of the limbic system – the brain’s reward system. For every action you perform your brain releases a small amount of a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine, when absorbed into the brain and blood stream create a positive, happy feeling – a mild high. When someone wrestles with ADD essentially their brain is not releasing enough dopamine to keep motivated to perform the task. The brain, essentially, looks for behaviors and actions that will allow for the steady flow of dopamine. That’s why something so stupid as checking your personal email is easier to do than a simple assignment. You just need something a little more interesting to increase the flow of this happy drug.
The caffeine contained in coffee, much like the effects of nicotine and alcohol, is a stimulant, which unnaturally boosts the dopamine levels in the brain much, much more than you would naturally experience. This helps the user perform tasks they would normally find difficult to stay motivated in performing. Basically, you self medicate your problem. The body finds the easiest way to adjust. Sounds great in theory. The downside is that you can become a stimulant junky. Consuming that much caffeine and the resulting dopamine is not a good thing. Just like in physics, what goes up must come down. Even though caffeine stays in the system for 48 hours, after the initial effects wear off the user feels they need to get more to get to that level. The result is unnatural ups and downs that effect even the emotional state of the user. Why do people get moody when they quit smoking or if they don’t have coffee one morning? Dopamine effects the pleasure they feel for life in general. Being addicted to caffeine or any other stimulant hijacks the brain.
Having replaced three cups of coffee from my diet (Starbucks Grande x 3 = 540 mg of caffeine) with 6 cups of Green or White tea, two of which are caffeinated (total of 140 mg of caffeine) I am sleeping great and am feeling more consistent throughout the day. A little caffeine can be a good thing, especially in tea, as it carries GABA, an extremely positive chemical, straight to the brain where it can be used the most. I can honestly say I feel the effects deeply at work, home, and in my head. After the first few weeks I began to focus throughout the day, rather than for three hours a day. I felt more in control of my self, and with added sleep, was more rested which lead to better concentration.
I just started my second faze yesterday – running. Touted by leading researchers to be the very best way to get your brain in shape. Honestly, and perhaps strangely, this is more for my brain than anything else. After just two days I feel a little tired but pretty crisp. After years on the bench it will take time to build up to something very beneficial. For now, though, running for 30-40 minutes is enough to get my endorphins humming with production and dopamine pumping. My mood is positive and I have a good amount of energy. I walk a fair amount on a daily basis, but with the addition of a dedicated running schedule I’m hoping to get to the next step. My brain is very important to me. As many neurologists have said, the average person knows a good deal about the body – the heart, kidneys, and liver especially – but very few people know about the organ that keeps the others going. After noticing the drastic effects of removing one object from my life I am a believer. I have had one soda in 6 months and occasionally have a small cup of coffee or a beer. However, if I over do it even by just a little I notice the effects for days after. A brain is a terrible thing to waste.
PS – read A User’s Guide to the Brain as soon as possible.
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Tags: , ADD, Brain, Dopamine, Neuroscience, Ritalin, Running
04.25.2009
Making Decisions and the Mind
Categories: Books, Neuroscience, Random, Religion
True to form I’ve been splitting my time between two books. The first, How We Decide is a pop psych/neuroscience overview of the latest and greatest ideas as to how we process information. Author Jonah Lehrer, a 28 year old science writer (jealous anyone?) is an easy to read and a well thought out writer. What strikes me most so far in the book is the topic of emotions and the importance they play in the decision making process. We process an overwhelming amount of information on a regular basis. We continually evaluate the positives and negatives of every situation. It turns out, from what scientists have found, emotions actually play a critical role in the decision making process. Emotions help us decide by showing preference. To take this a step further, when people for one reason or another loose the ability to use their anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the part of the brain that is known for emotional processing, a few abilities become unavailable. First, they become unemotional and unattached. They cease to find connections between themselves and others and actually loose the ability to remember faces. The second is is the ability to make decisions. They will spend hours studying menus in deciding where to eat – scouting out the table arrangement, staffing, and location. In the end they are incapable of choosing based on preference. This has led scientists to understand the role emotion plays in the decisions we make.
For the last few years I’ve been pretty hard on emotions. I generally feel that America is a hyper- emotional culture. We purchase based on a feeling, form relationships on a sensation, and eat until we can not walk because of a desire. From movies to Hollywood romance, emotional sensation is greatly accelerated as though hyped up on steroids. But these emotions are something we can not do without. Unlike the post-apocalyptic-dystopic thriller Equilibrium, set in a world in which all humans are required to take a medication in order to control all emotional impulses, as these were seen as the origin of war, emotions and rationality are both necessary. The complexities of the brain necessitate the balance of opposing factors in the mind.
The irony in our current situation is the extreme to which emotions are carried out and trusted 100%. We listen closely and react to “what we feel”, not asking why we feel. Balance is much more difficult to obtain. Look at food consumption in the US for example. The draw towards fast food is completely biological. We have a natural propensity to consume sugar, salt, and fat whenever possible due to the limitations of these items in naturally occurring systems. Our bodies crave these foods as traditionally humans did not know when they would get it next. Now that fat and sugar are available all the time and salt is on every table, how do we keep up with the changes? Our genes have not transitioned to our lifestyle and culture, leading some researchers to suggest that 1 out of every 3 children under 20 will develop diabetes in their lifetime. Heart disease is at an all time high, and cancer is a story in every household. Beyond physical biology, clothing, electronics, and other purchases are seen as satisfying to purchase. But as any one has learned, this is a momentary impulse. In face, the brain is chemically rewarded (essentially you obtain a natural high) much more for a purchase than for the owning of the product.
Is this why Buddhism is such a growing trend in American culture? The simplicity of serenity in the midst of chaos and the ability to control one’s self in an indulgent culture is irresistible. According to Progressive Policy Institute, Buddhism is the fastest growing religion among native born Americans. The irony in this situation is that the chief goal of Buddhism is the eradication of suffering. Though Americans do suffer, I think the draw towards Buddhism has more to do with “future shock”, or the inability to deal with the trappings of modern culture. The more advanced and technologically connected we become, the more susceptible it is to retreat internally. The more purchasing power we obtain the more we realize it does not satisfy basic human cravings for satisfaction. The most logical option is to find a place in which your mind can take a vacation.
More on the other book to come…

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