One of the interesting trends in the comments on a previous article on the rule of thirds was a reaction not just to that rule specifically, but to “rules” more generally. That got me thinking a bit. What are “rules”? Where do they come from? Is breaking them an act of rebellion; or one of self-destruction?
Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Marta Kaczmarczyk: I have an MSc degree in Cognitive and Decision Sciences from University College London and Post-MSc in User System Interaction from the Technical University of Eindhoven (TU/e). I also worked as an academic researcher on medical and health-related mobile and web applications. What combines both of these backgrounds is my search for the most effective way to help people to get into an optimised mind and body health state.
This search for effective support tools is also a reason why I began to be interested in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. To enable discussion on the topic and connect with like-minded individuals, I co-founded the Psychedelic Society of the Netherlands. The Society is a non-profit organisation that advocates for an open, unbiased discussion on the topic of psychedelics and the prospects of using them for improved mental and physical wellbeing.
I am also a biohacking/optimisation consultant under the project name: Embodying the Mind. My main specialisation is stress management, which I see as the basis for any health improvement.
RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?
MK: In short, the main focus of my work is health optimisation. I believe that we all can achieve optimal levels of how our minds and bodies function. The basis for this work, in my opinion, is finding tailored for the needs and lifestyle stress management practices and tools for processing emotions in a balanced non-reactive way.
I work towards propagating these ideas in multiple ways:
- as a consultant and coach – I help people to find their way into a calmer life
- as a speaker – I give talks on the topic of biohacking and psychedelics
- as a psychedelic activist, blogger, and speaker highlighting good practices for the psychedelic experience
Regarding the psychedelics, unfortunately, there is very little out there on the good practices for the psychedelic sessions. Therefore, I focus a lot on informing people about crucial elements that should be met to have a beneficial outcome from the experience.
What I feel is also lacking in the psychedelic community is a discussion about these compounds from the broader perspective. I am a big fan of the systems approach, and I feel this perspective should be utilized for the psychedelic experience. That means we should be looking into how going through a session influences your body, brain, emotional state, social interactions, morality, spirituality and the way you relate to your old environment. By understanding this, we can research practices that could optimize both preparation and integration techniques.
RB: The psychedelic movement seems to be divided into two groups, those that believe in entities, beings or spirits and those who see these forms as constructs of the mind and as hallucinations. Can you say something more about the differences between these two groups and can they be reconciled?
MK: The psychedelic community is divided into people who believe in separate from self-entities or spirits and encountered them in their psychedelic experience, those who perceived them during the experience but consider them as the product of the mind, and those who have never seen them and they either treat all visions as the product of the psyche or are open to many explanations. The most common example of people who see entities as independent are shamans who communicate with those beings and bring information from them into an ordinary world. The more scientifically inclined camp sees psychedelic visions as products of the psyche, more like symbols in dreams.
Discussion about the topic is tricky because, for some people, belief in spirits and entities is part of their identity. Therefore those conversations sometimes become very emotional as some people see it as an attack on who they are.
I am on the side of those who believe that these concepts are a product of the mind. However, I am not dismissing the people who think that entities or spirits exist as autonomous identities. For me, this is just a different way of processing information about the world and the concept of self and others. A person with firm boundaries and feelings of individuality will see herself/himself as separate from the collective and will most likely lean towards the higher perception of agency and responsibility for own actions. A person who is more rooted in the collective and tends to see herself/himself as part of the group or tribe might see reality as more interconnected and more outside of the psyche. Hence, the latter type of a person is more likely to believe in spirits and entities.
If a person who was born in our individualistic culture believes that entities and spirits are independent from their mind, I think they should ask themselves why that is so? Is that belief beneficial for them? Or maybe this is a form of coping strategy with some overwhelming emotions or unmet childhood needs? Because both options can be true – belief in independent beings can be either higher connection to others and nature and seeing yourself as part of the whole, but also it can be a protection mechanism from some uncomfortable truths or emotions. That belief can also be a sign that such a person grew up in the environment that led to fluid boundaries (for example, because parents did not respect child’s need for privacy or parent’s needs were put upfront child’s needs). People with fluid boundaries tend to have a lower distinction between self and others. So in a way, they are more interconnected with others, but in an unhealthy way because, for example, other people’s emotions can overwhelm them.
So to sum up, for me this all depends on your background and how you see the world in general. I feel that the reconciliation then could come from this perspective and not seeing the issue so black and white.
RB: You are the co-founder and a coordinator of Psychedelic Society of the Netherlands. Can you say more about this organisation and what are its aims?
MK: We established the Psychedelic Society of the Netherlands as a meeting place for people interested in learning more about psychedelics. We advocate for safe, responsible, and informed use of psychedelics as a means for exploring non-ordinary states of consciousness, for therapeutic and developmental purposes.
The Society organizes events related to the psychedelic experience. These are lectures, movie screenings, music events, art classes, and discussion groups. We aim for a holistic approach, discussing the social, cultural, therapeutic, and scientific aspects of the use of psychedelics. We provide opportunities for open discussions with experts in the field, including writers, scientists, therapists, and people with extensive personal experience. We are actively collaborating with other Psychedelic Societies around the world to spread the good news, safe practices, share speakers, and reliable information about these substances.
RB: What are the mental health and therapeutic benefits from the use of psychedelics and what are the detrimental effects?
MK: For me, the most prominent therapeutic potential of these substances is that they amplify autonomous patterns of subconscious behaviour, thoughts, and emotions, and even physical responses. In addition, the decrease in the activity of the default mode network (a network that is responsible for the control of self-awareness) dissociates a person from the process so one can become more like an objective observer of the self. Finally, psychedelics open the brain to increased plasticity. So with appropriate preparation, a participant of the psychedelic session can observe their subconscious patterns and immediately change the interpretation of those patterns. If a proper integration practice follows this, it can result in permanent improvements.
The detrimental effects usually appear if one opens to these subconscious patterns and finds material that is too disturbing or painful and has no tools to process them. If that happens, there is a risk that suppression or dissociation from difficult emotions will be amplified even after the experience. A skillful therapist can prevent this suppression. However, if the session is led by someone with less experience or done on its own, there is a risk that a person will magnify coping strategies. These coping mechanisms can vary from egomania, or a conviction that one touched the enlightened state, to decrease in self-worth or ridiculing the self or experience, daydreaming, dissociation, or depersonalization. Sometimes what is magnified are the obsessive thoughts and behaviours, which can be linked to anxiety or reward-seeking.
RB: What are the most common side effects that can result from psychedelic use?
MK: The side effects result from the destabilization of the human system during the experience and inability to bring the system back to homeostasis. Psychedelics disturb the inhibition/excitation balance of the nervous system and the brain and lead to a brief break of the usual patterns of functioning.
The most common side effects can be divided into:
– Dissociation and in extreme case depersonalization (feeling of being disconnected from one’s body, life feels like a dream, others seem to be mechanistic or not real)
– running into magical thinking
– excessive self-obsession
Physiological issues caused by dysregulated information processing:
– HPPD (Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder)
– inability to focus
As mentioned in my previous answers, the psychological issues are a result of uncovering suppressed emotions or patterns of thought that are too stressful, disturbing, or painful. They can be also linked to amplification of pre-session thought loops or behaviours. These loops can be either tied to anxiety or to reward-seeking. There is a possibility that if these loops become too extreme, the endogenous opioid system will try to control emotional pain and distress by releasing opiates, which act as a form of mild anesthesia and lead to an impression of disconnection from the body and eventually to depersonalization. The cortisol levels are dampened in the hope of forcing a recovery period from which a person is only able to get out when distressing thoughts/emotional loops are broken. The low cortisol puts a person in a fatigued state that causes further distress and disconnection, so this is a vicious cycle.
Manic effects are an amplification of reward-seeking behaviour. To avoid facing difficult emotions, the person chooses to cope with the pain by covering it with an increased need for rewards. This coping strategy can be further connected to magical thinking, which is an attempt to assign extra meaning to things that are ordinary or make forced connections between events that have no causal links.
Egomania seems to be a self-centred magic thinking during which a person compensates the felt pain by feelings of grandiosity and looks for signs supporting this coping strategy. If it is not linked to reward-seeking behaviour it is more excessive self-obsession that can be turned into self-sabotaging behaviour.
When it comes to physiological side effects, unfortunately, not much can be said about them because there is minimal research on the topic. There was even a debate in the scientific community, whether hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD) is a real thing because this side effect is highly unreported. HPPD is a disturbance of image processing persisting long after the experience is over. One can see trails, have blurry vision, etc. Many people do not report HPPD because this is not something that bothers them, or they are hoping that it will go away on its own. This destabilization is most likely caused by too much stress resulting from the experience and inability of the nervous system to go back to homeostasis. However, this is just my theory, and as I mentioned before, no one knows why HPPD occurs.
Less is even known about the inability to focus. Some people report brain fog after the experience. Again, this is probably linked to excessive emotional distress, but there are no publications on this topic.
RB: What is your own personal experience of psychedelics?
MK: I have been taking psychedelics for around fifteen years. I started to take them in a more “recreational” setting with friends in nature. Back then, hardly anyone was talking about these substances as a therapeutic tool. I had been lucky because we were always taking medium doses and in a safe environment, so I had never had a bad experience. Then, I read something about 5meo-dmt and decided to take part in my first ceremony. The facilitators did not have appropriate training, and I was not prepared for this experience properly. I also did not receive sufficient integration information. I ended up being depersonalized for around half a year after this experience. The ceremony unlocked some suppressed, difficult emotions in me that I struggled to process. I used a compensation strategy of disconnecting from my body and going into overly positive mania afterward to deal with the subconscious content that was opened but not appropriately processed. When I was depersonalized, I knew there was something “wrong” with me, but no one could help me. The depersonalization ended with a massive crisis because when I was depersonalized I tended to “trust the universe” too much and overlooked many responsibilities and proper self-care.
This is why informing people about possible side effects and how to prevent, spot, and deal with them is such a big focus of my work. There are many people out there who have a similar story to mine, and they are struggling because there is limited information about the topic.
After I came out of the depersonalization, I have started to use psychedelics to decrease dissociative tendencies. But this process requires a lot of preparation, a lot of self-honesty, ensuring a perception of safety and comfort, and giving myself time and space to process it afterward. I also always make sure that I have someone to talk to afterwards who understands these processes. The mind can be deceptive, and you might be thinking that you made some improvements while all you did is an amplification of coping or compensation mechanisms. It is good to check in with someone who understands it to verify where you are taking yourself.
RB: Can there be a Psychedelic Code of Conduct?
MK: I think a Code of Conduct is much needed. After the publication of Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind there has been a surge of people interested in trying psychedelics. This created a business opportunity, and many people are trying to make money out of guiding psychedelic sessions. The problem is that many of these people have no appropriate background or are themselves in the middle of a severe unresolved emotional process. If that is the case, their services can create a potential risk of breaching participants’ safety, whether on an emotional or physical level. So a Code of Conduct that would enlist a minimum that the facilitator has to cover for the participant is needed. It should also be widely published so people who are seeking these experiences can check whether these points are fulfilled. Such a code of conduct should honour multiple approaches and be inclusive of both traditional indigenous cultures but also therapeutic and scientific models.
Here in the Netherlands, we are working on the Guild of Guides, a form of code of conduct for truffles’ facilitators. The truffles can be legally purchased in smartshops in the Netherlands, and the market of individual or group sessions is booming. Many people choose the option based on the visibility on social media, which in many cases, is not useful decision metrics. Additionally, many facilitators encouraged by positive reports in the media accept people with serious mental issues even though they have no experience or background to deal with such people. We are worried that things might get out of control, so we see a high need for self-regulation of the community, and the Code of Conduct could be one of the key elements in that process.
Many international organizations give tips on how to choose a facilitator, which is a form of code of conduct in the form of a guide. One of these is ICEERs https://www.iceers.org/interested-taking-ayahuasca/. With the Psychedelic Society of the Netherlands, we published a guide on how to choose a psychedelic facilitator http://www.psychedelicsocietynl.org/how-to-choose-a-guide/ . I would recommend reading one of those articles before deciding to go for a psychedelic session.
RB: Can you say something about your project ‘Embodying the Mind’?
MK: First of all, it is a blog and informational platform on which I share my knowledge on the topics of psychedelics and health optimisation. My expertise is a blend of my education, and both work and personal experience. I mix such ideas as systems theory, stress management, biohacking, somatic therapy, working with behavioural and emotional patterns, psychedelic preparation and integration, psychedelic harm reduction, movement therapies, and embodiment.
In addition to sharing information on the blog and Facebook page, I also provide consultancy or coaching under this name. The majority of my clients ask me for help with preparation or integration for the psychedelic experience, but I also work a lot with stress-related problems like lack of energy or disturbed circadian rhythms. Sometimes I combine both topics of health optimization and psychedelics and cannabis to give clients and advice on how to use these substances for improved wellbeing both on an emotional and physical level.
How a trippy 1980s video effect might help to explain consciousness
Explaining consciousness is one of the hardest problems in science and philosophy. Recent neuroscientific discoveries suggest that a solution could be within reach – but grasping it will mean rethinking some familiar ideas. Consciousness, I argue in a new paper, may be caused by the way the brain generates loops of energetic feedback, similar to the video feedback that “blossoms” when a video camera is pointed at its own output.
I first saw video feedback in the late 1980s and was instantly entranced. Someone plugged the signal from a clunky video camera into a TV and pointed the lens at the screen, creating a grainy spiralling tunnel. Then the camera was tilted slightly and the tunnel blossomed into a pulsating organic kaleidoscope.
Video feedback is a classic example of complex dynamical behaviour. It arises from the way energy circulating in the system interacts chaotically with the electronic components of the hardware.
As an artist and VJ in the 1990s, I would often see this hypnotic effect in galleries and clubs. But it was a memorable if unnerving experience during an LSD-induced trip that got me thinking. I hallucinated almost identical imagery, only intensely saturated with colour. It struck me then there might be a connection between these recurring patterns and the operation of the mind.
Brains, information and energy
Fast forward 25 years and I’m a university professor still trying to understand how the mind works. Our knowledge of the relationship between the mind and brain has advanced hugely since the 1990s when a new wave of scientific research into consciousness took off. But a widely accepted scientific theory of consciousness remains elusive.
The two leading contenders – Stanislas Dehaene’s Global Neuronal Workspace Model and Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory – both claim that consciousness results from information processing in the brain, from neural computation of ones and zeros, or bits.
I doubt this claim for several reasons. First, there is little agreement among scientists about exactly what information is. Second, when scientists refer to information they are often actually talking about the way energetic activity is organised in physical systems. Third, brain imaging techniques such as fMRI, PET and EEG don’t detect information in the brain, but changes in energy distribution and consumption.
Brains, I argue, are not squishy digital computers – there is no information in a neuron. Brains are delicate organic instruments that turn energy from the world and the body into useful work that enables us to survive. Brains process energy, not information.
Recognising that brains are primarily energy processors is the first step to understanding how they support consciousness. The next is rethinking energy itself.
What is energy?
We are all familiar with energy but few of us worry about what it is. Even physicists tend not to. They treat it as an abstract value in equations describing physical processes, and that suffices. But when Aristotle coined the term energeia he was trying to grasp the actuality of the lived world, why things in nature work in the way they do (the word “energy” is rooted in the Greek for “work”). This actualised concept of energy is different from, though related to, the abstract concept of energy used in contemporary physics.
When we study what energy actually is, it turns out to be surprisingly simple: it’s a kind of difference. Kinetic energy is a difference due to change or motion, and potential energy is a difference due to position or tension. Much of the activity and variety in nature occurs because of these energetic differences and the related actions of forces and work. I call these actualised differences because they do actual work and cause real effects in the world, as distinct from abstract differences (like that between 1 and 0) which feature in mathematics and information theory. This conception of energy as actualised difference, I think, may be key to explaining consciousness.
The human brain consumes some 20% of the body’s total energy budget, despite accounting for only 2% of its mass. The brain is expensive to run. Most of the cost is incurred by neurons firing bursts of energetic difference in unthinkably complex patterns of synchrony and diversity across convoluted neural pathways.
What is special about the conscious brain, I propose, is that some of those pathways and energy flows are turned upon themselves, much like the signal from the camera in the case of video feedback. This causes a self-referential cascade of actualised differences to blossom with astronomical complexity, and it is this that we experience as consciousness. Video feedback, then, may be the nearest we have to visualising what conscious processing in the brain is like.
The neuroscientific evidence
The suggestion that consciousness depends on complex neural energy feedback is supported by neuroscientific evidence.
Researchers recently discovered a way to accurately index the amount of consciousness someone has. They fired magnetic pulses through healthy, anaesthetised, and severely injured peoples’ brains. Then they measured the complexity of an EEG signal that monitored how the brains reacted. The complexity of the EEG signal predicted the level of consciousness in the person. And the more complex the signal the more conscious the person was.
The researchers attributed the level of consciousness to the amount of information processing going on in each brain. But what was actually being measured in this study was the organisation of the neural energy flow (EEG measures differences of electrical energy). Therefore, the complexity of the energy flow in the brain tells us about the level of consciousness a person has.
Also relevant is evidence from studies of anaesthesia. No-one knows exactly how anaesthetic agents annihilate consciousness. But recent theories suggest that compounds including propofol interfere with the brain’s ability to sustain complex feedback loops in certain brain areas. Without these feedback loops, the functional integration between different brain regions breaks down, and with it the coherence of conscious awareness.
What this, and other neuroscientific work I cite in the paper, suggests is that consciousness depends on a complex organisation of energy flow in the brain, and in particular on what the biologist Gerald Edelman called “reentrant” signals. These are recursive feedback loops of neural activity that bind distant brain regions into a coherent functioning whole.
Explaining consciousness in scientific terms, or in any terms, is a notoriously hard problem. Some have worried it’s so hard we shouldn’t even try. But while not denying the difficulty, the task is made a bit easier, I suggest, if we begin by recognising what brains actually do.
The primary function of the brain is to manage the complex flows of energy that we rely on to thrive and survive. Instead of looking inside the brain for some undiscovered property, or “magic sauce”, to explain our mental life, we may need to look afresh at what we already know is there.
The post How a trippy 1980s video effect might help to explain consciousness appeared first on Interalia Magazine.
Many interesting ethical issues arise across the photographic genres from the perspective of the photographer, their subjects, and their audience. This video on the broader subject of art and ethics, generally, presents a number of questions and thought experiments designed to get us thinking about the roles that art and ethics play in our lives.
Researchers have developed a new pixel design that has the potential to revolutionize dynamic range in cameras.
Whether you’ve realized it or not, photography is moving away from pure optics. For the past few years, smartphone cameras have been relying on computational photography to overcome their physical limitations. But what does that even mean?
Camera sensors are incredibly complex pieces of engineering prowess, bringing together mankind’s attempt to replicate the behavior of the human eye in perceiving light, but there are still many limitations. Cameras are rarely good at capturing decent photographs of rainbows, but some cameras are significantly worse than others, thanks to a strange quirk of science.
Imagine you’re at a magic show, in which the performer suddenly vanishes. Of course, you ultimately know that the person is probably just hiding somewhere. Yet it continues to look as if the person has disappeared. We can’t reason away that appearance, no matter what logic dictates. Why are our conscious experiences so stubborn?
The fact that our perception of the world appears to be so intransigent, however much we might reflect on it, tells us something unique about how our brains are wired. Compare the magician scenario with how we usually process information. Say you have five friends who tell you it’s raining outside, and one weather website indicating that it isn’t. You’d probably just consider the website to be wrong and write it off. But when it comes to conscious perception, there seems to be something strangely persistent about what we see, hear and feel. Even when a perceptual experience is clearly ‘wrong’, we can’t just mute it.
Why is that so? Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) shed new light on this puzzle. In computer science, we know that neural networks for pattern-recognition – so-called deep learning models – can benefit from a process known as predictive coding. Instead of just taking in information passively, from the bottom up, networks can make top-down hypotheses about the world, to be tested against observations. They generally work better this way. When a neural network identifies a cat, for example, it first develops a model that allows it to predict or imagine what a cat looks like. It can then examine any incoming data that arrives to see whether or not it fits that expectation.
The trouble is, while these generative models can be super efficient once they’re up and running, they usually demand huge amounts of time and information to train. One solution is to use generative adversarial networks (GANs) – hailed as the ‘coolest idea in deep learning in the last 20 years’ by Facebook’s head of AI research Yann LeCun. In GANs, we might train one network (the generator) to create pictures of cats, mimicking real cats as closely as it can. And we train another network (the discriminator) to distinguish between the manufactured cat images and the real ones. We can then pit the two networks against each other, such that the discriminator is rewarded for catching fakes, while the generator is rewarded for getting away with them. When they are set up to compete, the networks grow together in prowess, not unlike an arch art-forger trying to outwit an art expert. This makes learning very efficient for each of them.
As well as a handy engineering trick, GANs are a potentially useful analogy for understanding the human brain. In mammalian brains, the neurons responsible for encoding perceptual information serve multiple purposes. For example, the neurons that fire when you see a cat also fire when you imagine or remember a cat; they can also activate more or less at random. So whenever there’s activity in our neural circuitry, the brain needs to be able to figure out the cause of the signals, whether internal or external.
We can call this exercise perceptual reality monitoring. John Locke, the 17th-century British philosopher, believed that we had some sort of inner organ that performed the job of sensory self-monitoring. But critics of Locke wondered why Mother Nature would take the trouble to grow a whole separate organ, on top of a system that’s already set up to detect the world via the senses. You have to be able to smell something before you can go about deciding whether or not the perception is real or fake; so why not just build in a check to the detecting mechanism itself?
In light of what we now know about GANs, though, Locke’s idea makes a certain amount of sense. Because our perceptual system takes up neural resources, parts of it get recycled for different uses. So imagining a cat draws on the same neuronal patterns as actually seeing one. But this overlap muddies the water regarding the meaning of the signals. Therefore, for the recycling scheme to work well, we need a discriminator to decide when we are seeing something versus when we’re merely thinking about it. This GAN-like inner sense organ – or something like it – needs to be there to act as an adversarial rival, to stimulate the growth of a well-honed predictive coding mechanism.
If this account is right, it’s fair to say that conscious experience is probably akin to a kind of logical inference. That is, if the perceptual signal from the generator says there is a cat, and the discriminator decides that this signal truthfully reflects the state of the world right now, we naturally see a cat. The same goes for raw feelings: pain can feel sharp, even when we know full well that nothing is poking at us, and patients can report feeling pain in limbs that have already been amputated. To the extent that the discriminator gets things right most of the time, we tend to trust it. No wonder that when there’s a conflict between subjective impressions and rational beliefs, it seems to make sense to believe what we consciously experience.
This perceptual stubbornness is not just a feature of humans. Some primates have it too, as shown by their capacity to be amazed and amused by magic tricks. That is, they seem to understand that there’s a tension between what they’re seeing and what they know to be true. Given what we understand about their brains – specifically, that their perceptual neurons are also ‘recyclable’ for top-down functioning – the GAN theory suggests that these nonhuman animals probably have conscious experiences not dissimilar to ours.
The future of AI is more challenging. If we built a robot with a very complex GAN-style architecture, would it be conscious? On the basis of our theory, it would probably be capable of predictive coding, exercising the same machinery for perception as it deploys for top-down prediction or imagination. Perhaps like some current generative networks, it could ‘dream’. Like us, it probably couldn’t reason away its pain – and it might even be able to appreciate stage magic.
Theorising about consciousness is notoriously hard, and we don’t yet know what it really consists in. So we wouldn’t be in a position to establish if our robot was truly conscious. Then again, we can’t do this with any certainty with respect to other animals either. At least by fleshing out some conjectures about the machinery of consciousness, we can begin
to test them against our intuitions – and, more importantly, in experiments. What we do know is that a model of the mind involving an inner mechanism of doubt – a nit-picking system that’s constantly on the lookout for fakes and forgeries in perception – is one of the most promising ideas we’ve come up with so far.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
The post Is consciousness a battle between your beliefs and perceptions? appeared first on Interalia Magazine.
Q & A with Kit Yates:
Maths is an unloved subject. It’s a commonplace view that maths is hard, that maths is abstract and removed from everyday concerns. Why do you think that is?
There’s no doubt that maths is perceived as polarising; despised by many and loved by just a few. As a mathematician interested in sharing the wonders of my subject, my biggest struggle is with this self-imposed false dichotomy: those who believe that they can do maths and those who think they can’t. There are far too many of the latter. But there is almost no-one who understands no maths at all, no-one who cannot count. At the other extreme, for hundreds of years there have been no mathematicians who understand all of known mathematics. We all sit somewhere on this spectrum; how far we travel to the left or to the right depends on how much we think this knowledge can be useful to us. Exposing the uses and importance of maths in everyday life is one way to shift people along the spectrum, to bring them into the middle ground.
This is exactly what I’ve tried to do in my book. It’s important to say upfront that The Maths of Life and Death is not a not a maths book. Nor is it a book for mathematicians. There isn’t a single equation in it. The point of the book is not to bring back memories of the school mathematics lessons you might have given up years ago. Quite the opposite. If you’ve ever been disenfranchised and made to feel that you can’t take part in mathematics or aren’t good at it, consider this book an emancipation.
I genuinely believe that maths is for everyone and that we can all appreciate the beautiful mathematics at the heart of the complicated phenomena we experience daily. If you’ve ever been made to feel that you can’t comprehend maths or aren’t good at it, I say this: you are experiencing it all the time, perhaps without even knowing it. Mathematics, at its most fundamental, is pattern. If you spot a motif in the fractal branches of a tree, or in the multi-fold symmetry of a snowflake, then you are seeing maths. When you tap your foot in time to a piece of music, or when your voice reverberates and resonates as you sing in the shower, you are hearing maths. If you bend a shot into the back of the net or catch a cricket ball on its parabolic trajectory, then you are doing maths. Part of the job I undertake in the book is to highlight the places where people are using maths, intuitively, perhaps without even realising it.
Unfortunately, all too often, mathematics is viewed as a sterile, abstract subject: at best an esoteric plaything for out-of-touch academics, and at worst a waste of school children’s time and taxpayers’ money. Few explanations of everyday mathematics filter through to non-specialists. Instead they are told that mathematics is inaccessible and inscrutable. Mathematics is often lauded for its beauty, its purity, its abstraction and otherworldliness; untainted by the messy details of reality. But for me, an applied mathematician, mathematics is first and foremost a practical tool to make sense of our complex world. Mathematical modelling can give us an advantage in everyday situations, and it doesn’t have to comprise hundreds of tedious equations or lines of computer code to do so. In fact, the simplest models are stories and analogies. For me, the stories that comprise this book – the most basic models – are the most useful of all. When viewed through the right lens we can tease out the hidden mathematical rules that underlie our common experiences.
Is this attitude to maths changing?
I think societal changes are slowly altering attitude towards the importance of maths. As our economies change, there is growing awareness that we need more mathematicians, engineers and scientists to fill the increasing numbers of jobs in the technology sector. To some degree this is reflected in maths’ rise to becoming the most popular A-level choice. This rise in popularity has also impacted on the number of students continuing to study mathematics in higher education. I always tell students who come to visit my department at open days, and who are trying to make up their mind about whether to study maths or not, that by studying maths they will only open doors for themselves and never close them. It’s so easy to jump out of mathematics and into another discipline, but much harder to go back the other way.
For example, I myself am a mathematical biologist. When I tell people this, the reaction I get is usually a polite nodding of the head accompanied by an awkward silence, as if I was about to test them on their recall of the quadratic formula or Pythagoras’ theorem. More than simply being daunted, people struggle to understand how a subject like maths, which they perceive as being abstract, pure and ethereal, can have anything to do with a subject like biology, which is typically thought of as being practical, messy and pragmatic.
I dropped biology at sixth-form and took A-levels in maths, further maths, physics and chemistry. When I went to university, I had to further streamline my subjects, and felt sad that I had to leave biology behind forever; a subject I thought had incredible power to change lives for the better. I was hugely excited about the opportunity to plunge myself into the world of mathematics, but I couldn’t help worrying that I was taking on a subject that seemed to have very few practical applications. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Whilst I plodded through the pure maths we were taught at university I lived for the applied maths courses. I listened to lecturers as they demonstrated the maths that engineers use to build bridges so that they don’t resonate and collapse in the wind, or to design wings that ensure planes don’t fall out of the sky. I learned the quantum mechanics that physicists use to understand the strange goings-on at subatomic scales and the theory of special relativity that explores the strange consequences of the invariance of the speed of light. I took courses explaining the ways in which we use mathematics in chemistry, in finance and in economics. I read about how we use mathematics in sport to enhance the performance of our top athletes and how we use mathematics in the movies to create computer-generated images of scenes that couldn’t exist in reality. In short, I learned that mathematics can be used to describe almost everything.
I think as people start to see the way in which mathematics is increasingly pervading their everyday lives and to understand how even a little mathematical knowledge can be of benefit in real life, its importance will be increasingly realized. I also believe that when students see that there is a point to the maths they are being taught, rather than just rote learning to pass an exam, that maths can be transformed into something enjoyable.
This is what the Maths of Life and Death is all about. I try to convince the reader that maths is so much more than the esoteric subject they left behind at school. It is the false alarms that play on our minds and the false confidence that helps us sleep at night; the stories pushed at us on social media and the memes that spread through it. Maths is the loopholes in the law and the needle that closes them; the technology that saves lives and the mistakes that put them at risk; the outbreak of a deadly disease and the best way to control it. It is the best hope we have of answering the most fundamental questions about the enigmas of the cosmos and the mysteries of our own species. It leads us on the myriad paths of our lives and lies in wait, just beyond the veil, to stare back at us as we draw our final breaths.
A common everyday use of maths is in shopping – a trip to the greengrocer is one of the most cited examples in school maths teaching – but what are some other everyday, and more unusual uses of maths?
It’s funny you should mention shopping, because there’s actually so much more maths to shopping than just working out your change. For example, stores have traditionally over-represented price tags which end in .99, .95 or .90. In the UK .99 is the third most common price ending after .00 and .50. The marketing theory goes that because we read left to right we take account of the first digits on price tags, but ignore everything to the right of the decimal point. Unwittingly we are being tricked into thinking products are cheaper than they are because our brains are always subconsciously rounding down. In the book I also provide a nice rule of thumb called ‘the 37% rule’ which uses the maths of optimisation to help you join the shortest queue in the supermarket.
Of course there are so many more places where maths appears in everyday life. In the book, we explore the true stories of life-changing events in which the application (or misapplication) of mathematics has played a critical role: patients crippled by faulty genes and entrepreneurs bankrupt by faulty algorithms; innocent victims of miscarriages of justice and the unwitting victims of software glitches. I follow stories of investors who have lost fortunes and parents who have lost children, all because of mathematical misunderstanding. I wrestle with ethical dilemmas from screening to statistical subterfuge and examine pertinent societal issues such as political referenda, disease prevention, criminal justice and artificial intelligence. I show that mathematics has something profound or significant to say on all of these subjects, and more.
Rather than just pointing out the places in which maths might crop up, I also try to arm the reader with simple mathematical rules and tools which can help them in their everyday life: from getting the best seat on the train, to keeping one’s head when on the receiving end of an unexpected test result from the doctor. I suggest simple ways to avoid making numerical mistakes and get my hands dirty with newsprint when untangling the figures behind the headlines. I also get up close and personal with the maths behind consumer genetics and display maths in action as I highlight the steps we can all be taking to help halt the spread of deadly diseases.
What are some of the benefits of a better understanding of maths?
A little mathematical knowledge in our increasingly quantitative society can help us to harness the power of numbers for ourselves. Simple rules allow us to make the best choices and avoid the worst mistakes. Small alterations in the way we think about our rapidly evolving environments help us to ‘keep calm’ in the face of rapidly accelerating change, or adapt to our increasingly automated realities. Basic models of our actions, reactions and interactions can prepare us for the future before it arrives. The stories relating other people’s experiences are, in my view, the simplest and most powerful models of all. They allow us to learn from the mistakes of our predecessors so that, before we embark on any numerical expedition, we ensure we are all speaking the same language, have synchronised our watches, and checked we’ve got enough fuel in the tank.
Half the battle for mathematical empowerment is daring to question the perceived authority of those who wield the weapons – shattering the illusion of certainty. Appreciating absolute and relative risks, ratio biases, mismatched framing and bias gives us the power to be sceptical of the statistics screamed from newspaper headlines, the ‘studies’ pushed at us in adverts or the half-truths that come tumbling from the mouths of our politicians. Recognising mathematical sleights of hand allows us to disperse obfuscating smoke screens, making it harder to fool us with mathematical arguments, be they in the courtroom, the classroom or the clinic.
We must ensure that the person with the most shocking statistics doesn’t always win the argument, by demanding an explanation of the maths behind the figures. We shouldn’t let medical charlatans delay us from receiving potentially life-saving treatment when benefits their alternative therapies are just a mathematical anomaly. We mustn’t let anti-vaxxers make us doubt the efficacy of vaccinations, when mathematics demonstrates that they can save vulnerable lives and wipe out disease.
As I hope I show throughout the book, it is time for us to take the power back into our own hands, because sometimes maths really is a matter of life and death.
Contrast extraction is one of the most important aspects of visual processing. It plays a tremendous role in how we view images, where our eyes are drawn to first, and where they linger. In this article we’ll learn a few simple tricks to create more engaging photographs — and why they work.
What do oversize truck tailpipes, paleolithic sculpture, and the vibrancy slider have in common? And what might they have to do with helping us create more engaging photographs? Why do some abstract paintings move you and others don’t? Why should we react to an abstract work of art at all?
In most lenses, the center of the frame might be razor-sharp, but the corners and edges always appear a little soft. It’s something that’s been a problem for thousands of years within optical devices, with many researchers giving up hope until a recent breakthrough from a Mexican physicist, who has now developed a formula that will change how lenses are manufactured.
War of the resolutions again. This time it’s a bit different. It’s not about the benefits of 4K or 8K for the filmmaker or a photographer, but for the consumer. The question is: can the “resolution” of your eyes match 4K?
The Hubble telescope has provided us some of the greatest images of the observable universe we’ve ever seen, but they’re black and white as standard. So how do scientists know what color to make them?
Missing Mass (2010) is a sculptural work created with the scientific guidance of Prof. Malcolm Fairbairn, an astrophysicist based at King’s College London. The piece ‘presents’ a specific number of dark matter particles alongside a legal disclaimer which proposes the particles as the only truly free entities in existence. The work centres on the idea of artistic freedom, suggesting that if dark matter particles are the only free entities in existence, by implication, art, the artist, and any other societal or cultural element held to be symbolic of freedom, are merely constrained, whether by gravity, bureaucracy, institutional ties, etc. The work also proposes links between sculptural works associated with Minimalism and Conceptual Art (such as the early work of Hans Haacke) and contemporary developments in astrophysics.
The work was developed through a research process which involved regular meetings with Dr. Fairbairn, plus an astrophysics reading list, which necessitated five months of study. From this process I derived the idea for the work, as well as others including Terminal Velocity.
The text on the plinth says:
5,461 dark matter particles present in perspex container, 18 x 18 x 18 inches.*
- i) Dark matter particles are governed by their own laws and may circulate freely.ii) The figure of 5461 dark matter particles represents an average according to current scientific thinking. Actual amounts may vary from time to time.iii) Dark matter is transparent and undetectable to the human eye.iv) Since dark matter may at any time pass through any surrounding man-made or natural structures, including the walls of this container, your body, and the whole material structure of the planet, any collector of this work should not expect to own the same 5,461 dark matter particles at any one time.
Since 2003, visual artist Carey Young has developed a number of artworks that are also functional legal instruments, and which have conceptualised and explored law as an artistic medium. Young collaborates with legal advisors to make artworks in installation, video, performance, print, sculpture and photography, which have been exhibited internationally. These works have embodied such diverse forms as contracts, disclaimers, offers, licenses, cautionary statements and a will, and addressed disparate legal fields including human rights, inheritance law, intellectual property and law relating to outer space. Experimenting with ideas of time, space and physicality, Young’s body of artistic work explores law as a separate kind of ‘reality’, one with its own inherent subjectivities and points of breakdown.
A new contact lens that works in the same manner as an advanced zoom lens for the human eye has been revealed by scientists. Reports claim users can zoom simply by blinking, or looking around.
Check out the Glenn Research Center’s new VR experience, and find out how they did it.