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Cosmic alchemy: Colliding neutron stars show us how the universe creates gold

Cosmic alchemy: Colliding neutron stars show us how the universe creates gold

Illustration of hot, dense, expanding cloud of debris stripped from the neutron stars just before they collided.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab, CC BY

Duncan Brown, Syracuse University and Edo Berger, Harvard University

For thousands of years, humans have searched for a way to turn matter into gold. Ancient alchemists considered this precious metal to be the highest form of matter. As human knowledge advanced, the mystical aspects of alchemy gave way to the sciences we know today. And yet, with all our advances in science and technology, the origin story of gold remained unknown. Until now.

Finally, scientists know how the universe makes gold. Using our most advanced telescopes and detectors, we’ve seen it created in the cosmic fire of the two colliding stars first detected by LIGO via the gravitational wave they emitted.

The electromagnetic radiation captured from GW170817 now confirms that elements heavier than iron are synthesized in the aftermath of neutron star collisions.
Jennifer Johnson/SDSS, CC BY

Origins of our elements

Scientists have been able to piece together where many of the elements of the periodic table come from. The Big Bang created hydrogen, the lightest and most abundant element. As stars shine, they fuse hydrogen into heavier elements like carbon and oxygen, the elements of life. In their dying years, stars create the common metals – aluminum and iron – and blast them out into space in different types of supernova explosions.

For decades, scientists have theorized that these stellar explosions also explained the origin of the heaviest and most rare elements, like gold. But they were missing a piece of the story. It hinges on the object left behind by the death of a massive star: a neutron star. Neutron stars pack one-and-a-half times the mass of the sun into a ball only 10 miles across. A teaspoon of material from their surface would weigh 10 million tons.

Many stars in the universe are in binary systems – two stars bound by gravity and orbiting around each other (think Luke’s home planet’s suns in “Star Wars”). A pair of massive stars might eventually end their lives as a pair of neutron stars. The neutron stars orbit each other for hundreds of millions of years. But Einstein says that their dance cannot last forever. Eventually, they must collide.

Massive collision, detected multiple ways

On the morning of August 17, 2017, a ripple in space passed through our planet. It was detected by the LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave detectors. This cosmic disturbance came from a pair of city-sized neutron stars colliding at one third the speed of light. The energy of this collision surpassed any atom-smashing laboratory on Earth.

Hearing about the collision, astronomers around the world, including us, jumped into action. Telescopes large and small scanned the patch of sky where the gravitational waves came from. Twelve hours later, three telescopes caught sight of a brand new star – called a kilonova – in a galaxy called NGC 4993, about 130 million light years from Earth.

Astronomers had captured the light from the cosmic fire of the colliding neutron stars. It was time to point the world’s biggest and best telescopes toward the new star to see the visible and infrared light from the collision’s aftermath. In Chile, the Gemini telescope swerved its large 26-foot mirror to the kilonova. NASA steered the Hubble to the same location.

Movie of the visible light from the kilonova fading away in the galaxy NGC 4993, 130 million light years away from Earth.

Just like the embers of an intense campfire grow cold and dim, the afterglow of this cosmic fire quickly faded away. Within days the visible light faded away, leaving behind a warm infrared glow, which eventually disappeared as well.

Observing the universe forging gold

But in this fading light was encoded the answer to the age-old question of how gold is made.

Shine sunlight through a prism and you will see our sun’s spectrum – the colors of the rainbow spread from short wavelength blue light to long wavelength red light. This spectrum contains the fingerprints of the elements bound up and forged in the sun. Each element is marked by a unique fingerprint of lines in the spectrum, reflecting the different atomic structure.

The spectrum of the kilonova contained the fingerprints of the heaviest elements in the universe. Its light carried the telltale signature of the neutron-star material decaying into platinum, gold and other so-called “r-process” elements.

Visible and infrared spectrum of the kilonova. The broad peaks and valleys in the spectrum are the fingerprints of heavy element creation.
Matt Nicholl, CC BY

For the first time, humans had seen alchemy in action, the universe turning matter into gold. And not just a small amount: This one collision created at least 10 Earths’ worth of gold. You might be wearing some gold or platinum jewelry right now. Take a look at it. That metal was created in the atomic fire of a neutron star collision in our own galaxy billions of years ago – a collision just like the one seen on August 17.

And what of the gold produced in this collision? It will be blown out into the cosmos and mixed with dust and gas from its host galaxy. Perhaps one day it will form part of a new planet whose inhabitants will embark on a millennia-long quest to understand its origin.The Conversation

Duncan Brown, Professor of Physics, Syracuse University and Edo Berger, Professor of Astronomy, Harvard University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The post Cosmic alchemy: Colliding neutron stars show us how the universe creates gold appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

The 10,000 Hour Rule: Will it Really Make You a Master at Your Trade?

The 10,000 Hour Rule: Will it Really Make You a Master at Your Trade?

It is theorized that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice will turn one into a master of their trade. When starting out as a photographer (or any other skill), you were told practice makes perfect. But is this true for everyone ?

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Think You Know What Goes Into Creating a Great Image? Technically, Not That Much

Think You Know What Goes Into Creating a Great Image? Technically, Not That Much

The process of creating technically solid images can seem a bit daunting. But there aren’t actually all that many variables a photographer has to contend with, nor that many things those variables directly influence. But, as with everything, the devil is in the details.

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The Art and Science of Photography: Why Is Photography So Hard? Part I.

The Art and Science of Photography: Why Is Photography So Hard? Part I.

Ever felt a little overwhelmed at the prospect of creating a great image? Ever wonder why it seems to happen so rarely? Creating a great photograph that resonates with your audience is really complicated. But in this three-part series, we’re going to try to bring a little bit of order to that chaos!

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Our obsession with taking photos is changing how we remember the past

Our obsession with taking photos is changing how we remember the past

Shutterstock

Giuliana Mazzoni, University of Hull

I recently visited the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia – one of the best art museums in the world. I was expecting to serenely experience its masterpieces, but my view was blocked by a wall of smart phones taking pictures of the paintings. And where I could find a bit of empty space, there were people taking selfies to create lasting memories of their visit.

For many people, taking hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures is now a crucial part of going on holiday – documenting every last detail and posting it on social media. But how does that affect our actual memories of the past – and how we view ourselves? As an expert on memory, I was curious.

Unfortunately, psychological research on the topic is so far scant. But we do know a few things. We use smart phones and new technologies as memory repositories. This is nothing new – humans have always used external devices as an aid when acquiring knowledge and remembering.

Writing certainly serves this function. Historical records are collective external memories. Testimonies of migrations, settlement or battles help entire nations trace a lineage, a past and an identity. In the life of an individual, written diaries serve a similar function.

Memory effects

Nowadays we tend to commit very little to memory – we entrust a huge amount to the cloud. Not only is it almost unheard of to recite poems, even the most personal events are generally recorded on our cellphones. Rather than remembering what we ate at someone’s wedding, we scroll back to look at all the images we took of the food.

This has serious consequences. Taking photos of an event rather than being immersed in it has been shown to lead to poorer recall of the actual event – we get distracted in the process.

Relying on photos to remember has a similar effect. Memory needs to be exercised on a regular basis in order to function well. There are many studies documenting the importance of memory retrieval practice – for example in university students. Memory is and will remain essential for learning. There is indeed some evidence showing that committing almost all knowledge and memories to the cloud might hinder the ability to remember.

Smile.
Just dance/Shutterstock

However, there is a silver lining. Even if some studies claim that all this makes us more stupid, what happens is actually shifting skills from purely being able to remember to being able to manage the way we remember more efficiently. This is called metacognition, and it is an overarching skill that is also essential for students – for example when planning what and how to study. There is also substantial and reliable evidence that external memories, selfies included, can help individuals with memory impairments.

But while photos can in some instances help people to remember, the quality of the memories may be limited. We may remember what something looked like more clearly, but this could be at the expense of other types of information. One study showed that while photos could help people remember what they saw during some event, they reduced their memory of what was said.

Identity distortions?

There are some rather profound risks when it comes to personal memory. Our identity is a product of our life experiences, which can be easily accessed through our memories of the past. So, does constant photographic documentation of life experiences alter how we see ourselves? There is no substantial empirical evidence on this yet, but I would speculate that it does.

Too many images are likely to make us remember the past in a fixed way – blocking other memories. While it is not uncommon for early childhood memories to be based on photos rather than the actual events, these are not always true memories.

Take a couple.
Grigvovan/Shutterstock

Another issue is the fact that research has uncovered a lack of spontaneity in selfies and many other photos. They are planned, the poses are not natural and at times the image of the person is distorted. They also reflect a narcissistic tendency which shapes the face in unnatural mimics – artificial big smiles, sensual pouts, funny faces or offensive gestures.

Importantly, selfies and many other photos are also public displays of specific attitudes, intentions and stances. In other words, they do not really reflect who we are, they reflect what we want to show to others about ourselves at the moment. If we rely heavily on photos when remembering our past, we may create a distorted self identity based on the image we wanted to promote to others.

That said, our natural memory isn’t actually perfectly accurate. Research shows that we often create false memories about the past. We do this in order to maintain the identity that we want to have over time – and avoid conflicting narratives about who we are. So if you have always been rather soft and kind – but through some significant life experience decide you are tough – you may dig up memories of being aggressive in the past or even completely make them up.

Having multiple daily memory reports on the phone of how we were in the past might therefore render our memory less malleable and less adaptable to the changes brought about by life – making our identity more stable and fixed.

But this can create problems if our present identity becomes different from our fixed, past one. That is an uncomfortable experience and exactly what the “normal” functioning of memory is aimed to avoid – it is malleable so that we can have a non-contradictory narrative about ourselves. We want to think of ourselves as having a certain unchanging “core”. If we feel unable to change how we see ourselves over time, this could seriously affect our sense of agency and mental health.

So our obsession with taking photos may be causing both memory loss and uncomfortable identity discrepancies.

It is interesting to think about how technology changes the way we behave and function. As long as we are aware of the risks, we can probably mitigate harmful effects. The possibility that actually sends shivers to my spine is that we lose all those precious pictures because of some widespread malfunctioning of our smart phones.

So the next time you’re at a museum, do take a moment to look up and experience it all. Just in case those photos go missing.The Conversation

Giuliana Mazzoni, Professor of Psychology, University of Hull

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The post Our obsession with taking photos is changing how we remember the past appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

How we identified brain patterns of consciousness

How we identified brain patterns of consciousness

Brain connections have been linked to consciousness.
whitehoune/Shutterstock

Davinia Fernández-Espejo, University of Birmingham

Humans have learned to travel through space, eradicate diseases and understand nature at the breathtakingly tiny level of fundamental particles. Yet we have no idea how consciousness – our ability to experience and learn about the world in this way and report it to others – arises in the brain.

In fact, while scientists have been preoccupied with understanding consciousness for centuries, it remains one of the most important unanswered questions of modern neuroscience. Now our new study, published in Science Advances, sheds light on the mystery by uncovering networks in the brain that are at work when we are conscious.

It’s not just a philosophical question. Determining whether a patient is “aware” after suffering a severe brain injury is a huge challenge both for doctors and families who need to make decisions about care. Modern brain imaging techniques are starting to lift this uncertainty, giving us unprecedented insights into human consciousness.

For example, we know that complex brain areas including the prefrontal cortex or the precuneus, which are responsible for a range of higher cognitive functions, are typically involved in conscious thought. However, large brain areas do many things. We therefore wanted to find out how consciousness is represented in the brain on the level of specific networks.

The reason it is so difficult to study conscious experiences is that they are entirely internal and cannot be accessed by others. For example, we can both be looking at the same picture on our screens, but I have no way to tell whether my experience of seeing that picture is similar to yours, unless you tell me about it. Only conscious individuals can have subjective experiences and, therefore, the most direct way to assess whether somebody is conscious is to ask them to tell us about them.




Read more:
The way you see colour depends on what language you speak


But what would happen if you lose your ability to speak? In that case, I could still ask you some questions and you could perhaps sign your responses, for example by nodding your head or moving your hand. Of course, the information I would obtain this way would not be as rich, but it would still be enough for me to know that you do indeed have experiences. If you were not able to produce any responses though, I would not have a way to tell whether you’re conscious and would probably assume you’re not.

Scanning for networks

Our new study, the product of a collaboration across seven countries, has identified brain signatures that can indicate consciousness without relying on self-report or the need to ask patients to engage in a particular task, and can differentiate between conscious and unconscious patients after brain injury.

When the brain gets severely damaged, for example in a serious traffic accident, people can end up in a coma. This is a state in which you lose your ability to be awake and aware of your surrounding and need mechanical support to breathe. It typically doesn’t last more than a few days. After that, patients sometimes wake up but don’t show any evidence of having any awareness of themselves or the world around them – this is known as a “vegetative state”. Another possibility is that they show evidence only of a very minimal awareness – referred to as a minimally conscious state. For most patients, this means that their brain still perceives things but they don’t experience them. However, a small percentage of these patients are indeed conscious but simply unable to produce any behavioural responses.

fMRI scanner.
wikipedia

We used a technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which allows us to measure the activity of the brain and the way some regions “communicate” with others. Specifically, when a brain region is more active, it consumes more oxygen and needs higher blood supply to meet its demands. We can detect these changes even when the participants are at rest and measure how it varies across regions to create patterns of connectivity across the brain.

We used the method on 53 patients in a vegetative state, 59 people in a minimally conscious state and 47 healthy participants. They came from hospitals in Paris, Liège, New York, London, and Ontario. Patients from Paris, Liège, and New York were diagnosed through standardised behavioural assessments, such as being asked to move a hand or blink an eye. In contrast, patients from London were assessed with other advanced brain imaging techniques that required the patient to modulate their brain to produce neural responses instead of external physical ones – such as imagining moving one’s hand instead of actually moving it.

In consciousness and unconsciousness, our brains have different modes to self-organise as time goes by. When we are conscious, brain regions communicate with a rich temperament, showing both positive and negative connections.
Credit: E. Tagliazucchi & A. Demertzi

We found two main patterns of communication across regions. One simply reflected physical connections of the brain, such as communication only between pairs of regions that have a direct physical link between them. This was seen in patients with virtually no conscious experience. One represented very complex brain-wide dynamic interactions across a set of 42 brain regions that belong to six brain networks with important roles in cognition (see image above). This complex pattern was almost only present in people with some level of consciousness.

Importantly, this complex pattern disappeared when patients were under deep anaesthesia, confirming that our methods were indeed sensitive to the patients’ level of consciousness and not their general brain damage or external responsiveness.

Research like this has the potential to lead to an understanding of how objective biomarkers can play a crucial role in medical decision making. In the future it might be possible to develop ways to externally modulate these conscious signatures and restore some degree of awareness or responsiveness in patients who have lost them, for example by using non-invasive brain stimulation techniques such as transcranial electrical stimulation. Indeed, in my research group at the University of Birmingham, we are starting to explore this avenue.

Excitingly the research also takes us as step closer to understanding how consciousness arises in the brain. With more data on the neural signatures of consciousness in people experiencing various altered states of consciousness – ranging from taking psychedelics to experiencing lucid dreams – we may one day crack the puzzle.The Conversation

Davinia Fernández-Espejo, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology and Centre for Human Brain Health, University of Birmingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The post How we identified brain patterns of consciousness appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

We’ve discovered the world’s largest drum – and it’s in space

We’ve discovered the world’s largest drum – and it’s in space

The Earth’s magnetosphere bangs like a drum.
E. Masongsong/UCLA, M. Archer/QMUL, H. Hietala/UTU

Martin Archer, Queen Mary University of London

Universities in the US have long wrangled over who owns the world’s largest drum. Unsubstantiated claims to the title have included the “Purdue Big Bass Drum” and “Big Bertha”, which interestingly was named after the German World War I cannon and ended up becoming radioactive during the Manhattan Project.

Unfortunately for the Americans, however, the Guinness Book of World Records says a traditional Korean “CheonGo” drum holds the true title. This is over 5.5 metres in diameter, some six metres tall and weighs over seven tonnes. But my latest scientific results, just published in Nature Communications, have blown all of the contenders away. That’s because the world’s largest drum is actually several tens of times larger than our planet – and it exists in space.

You may think this is nonsense. But the magnetic field (magnetosphere) that surrounds the Earth, protecting us by diverting the solar wind around the planet, is a gigantic and complicated musical instrument. We’ve known for 50 years or so that weak magnetic types of sound waves can bounce around and resonate within this environment, forming well defined notes in exactly the same way wind and stringed instruments do. But these notes form at frequencies tens of thousands of times lower than we can hear with our ears. And this drum-like instrument within our magnetosphere has long eluded us – until now.

Massive magnetic membrane

The key feature of a drum is its surface – technically referred to as a membrane (drums are also known as membranophones). When you hit this surface, ripples can spread across it and get reflected back at the fixed edges. The original and reflected waves can interfere by reinforcing or cancelling each other out. This leads to “standing wave patterns”, in which specific points appear to be standing still while others vibrate back and forth. The specific patterns and their associated frequencies are determined entirely by the shape of the drum’s surface. In fact, the question “Can one hear the shape of a drum?” has intrigued mathematicians from the 1960s until today.

The outer boundary of Earth’s magnetosphere, known as the magnetopause, behaves very much like an elastic membrane. It grows or shrinks depending on the varying strength of the solar wind, and these changes often trigger ripples or surface waves to spread out across the boundary. While scientists have often focused on how these waves travel down the sides of the magnetosphere, they should also travel towards the magnetic poles.

Physicists often take complicated problems and simplify them considerably to gain insight. This approach helped theorists 45 years ago first demonstrate that these surface waves might indeed get reflected back, making the magnetosphere vibrate just like a drum. But it wasn’t clear whether removing some of the simplifications in the theory might stop the drum from being possible.

It also turned out to be very difficult to find compelling observational evidence for this theory from satellite data. In space physics, unlike say astronomy, we’re usually dealing with the completely invisible. We can’t just take a picture of what’s going on everywhere, we have to send satellites out and measure it. But that means we only know what’s happening in the locations where there are satellites. The conundrum is often whether the satellites are in the right place at the right time to find what you’re looking for.

Over the past few years, my colleagues and I have been further developing the theory of this magnetic drum to give us testable signatures to search for in our data. We were able to come up with some strict criteria that we thought could provide evidence for these oscillations. It basically meant that we needed at least four satellites all in a row near the magnetopause.

Thankfully, NASA’s THEMIS mission gave us not four but five satellites to play with. All we had to do was find the right driving event, equivalent to the drum stick hitting the drum, and measure how the surface moved in response and what sounds it created. The event in question was a jet of high speed particles impulsively slamming into the magnetopause. Once we had that, everything fell into place almost perfectly. We have even recreated what the drum actually sounds like (see the video above).

This research really goes to show how tricky science can be in reality. Something which sounds relatively straightforward has taken us 45 years to demonstrate. And this journey is far from over, there’s plenty more work to do in order to find out how often these drum-like vibrations occur (both here at Earth and potentially at other planets, too) and what their consequences on our space environment are.

This will ultimately help us unravel what kind of rhythm the magnetosphere produces over time. As a former DJ, I can’t wait – I love a good beat.The Conversation

Martin Archer, Space Plasma Physicist, Queen Mary University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The post We’ve discovered the world’s largest drum – and it’s in space appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

We may just have solved the great mystery of why drops splash

We may just have solved the great mystery of why drops splash

CK Foto/Shutterstock

James Sprittles, University of Warwick

From the raindrops that soak you on your way to work to the drops of coffee that inevitably end up on your white shirt when you arrive, you’d be forgiven for thinking of drops as a mere nuisance.

But beneath a mundane facade, droplets exhibit natural beauty and conceal complex physics that scientists have been trying to figure out for decades. Recently, I have contributed to this field by working on a new theory explaining what happens to the critical thin layer of air between a drop of water and a surface to cause a splash.

At just a few thousandths of a second, the lifetime of a splashing drop is too rapid for us to see. It took pioneering advances in high-speed imaging to capture these events – the most iconic being Edgerton’s Milk Drop Coronet in 1957. These pictures simultaneously captured the public’s imagination with their aesthetic nature while intriguing physicists with their surprising complexity. The most obvious question is why, and when, do drops splash?

Nowadays, cameras can take over a million frames per second and resolve the fine details of a splash. However, these advances have raised as many questions as they have answered. Most importantly, remarkable observations, coming from the NagelLab in 2005, showed that the air surrounding the drop plays a critical role. By reducing the air pressure, one can prevent a splash (see second video). In fact, drops which splash at the bottom of Mount Everest may not do so at the top, where the air pressure is lower.

Ethanol drop at normal pressure splashes.
Ethanol drop at low pressure doesn’t splash.

The discoveries created an explosion of experimental work aimed at uncovering the curious details of the air’s role. New experimental methods revealed incredible dynamics: millimetre-sized liquid drops are controlled by the behaviour of microscopic air films that are 1,000 times smaller.

Coffee splash pattern on the right next to ring from mug.
Roger Karlsson/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Notably, after a liquid drop contacts a solid it can be prevented from spreading across it by a microscopically thin layer of air that it can’t push aside. The sizes involved are equivalent to a one-centimetre layer of air stopping a tsunami wave spreading across a beach. When this occurs, a sheet of liquid can fly away from the main drop and break into smaller droplets – so that a splash is generated.
From a coffee stain all we can see is the outcome of this event – a pool of liquid (the drop) surrounded by a ring of smaller drops (the splash).

Major breakthrough

Experimental analyses have produced incredibly detailed observations of drops splashing. But they do not establish why the drops splash, which means we don’t understand the underlying physics. Remarkably, for such a seemingly innocuous problem the classical theory of fluids – used to forecast weather, design ships and predict blood flow – is inadequate. This is because the air layer’s height becomes comparable to the distance air molecules travel between collisions. So for this specific problem we need to feed in microscopic details that the classical theory simply doesn’t account for.

How a microscopic layer of air affects water droplets.

The air’s behaviour can only be captured by a theory originally developed for violent aerodynamic gas flows – such as for space shuttles entering the Earth’s atmosphere – namely the kinetic theory of gases. My new article, published in Physical Review Letters, is the first to use kinetic theory to understand how the air film behaves as it is displaced by a liquid spreading over a solid.

The article establishes criteria for the maximum speed at which a liquid can stably spread over a solid. It was already known that for a splash to be produced, this critical speed must be exceeded. If the speed is lower than that, the drop spreads smoothly instead. Notably, the new theory explains why reducing the air pressure can suppress splashing: in this case, air escapes more easily from the layer and provides less resistance to the liquid drop. This is the missing piece of a jigsaw to which numerous important scientific contributions have been made since the experimental discoveries of 2005.

Important applications

While being of fundamental scientific interest, an understanding of the conditions that cause splashing can be exploited – leading to potential breakthroughs in a number of practical fields.

One example is 3D printing where liquid drops form the building blocks of tailor-made products such as hearing aids. Here, stopping splashing is key to making products of the desired quality. Another important area is forensic science, where blood-stain-pattern analysis relies on splash characteristics to provide insight into where the blood came from – yielding vital information in a criminal investigation.

Most promisingly, the new theory will have applications to a wide range of related flows where microscopic layers of air appear. For example, in climate science it will enable us to understand how water drops collide during the formation of clouds and to estimate the quantity of gas being dragged into our oceans by rainfall.

Do keep this in mind the next time you splatter coffee drops across your desk. Take a moment to admire the pattern and appreciate the underlying complexity before cursing and heading for your “mopper upper” of choice.The Conversation

James Sprittles, Assistant Professor in Mathematics, University of Warwick

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The post We may just have solved the great mystery of why drops splash appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

Rules: Love Them, Leave Them, or Break Them Just on Principle?

Rules: Love Them, Leave Them, or Break Them Just on Principle?

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?

[ Read More ]

Demystifying the psychedelic experience

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:

Psychological issues:

– 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

– egomania/hypomania

– 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.

……………………

www.psychedelicsocietynl.org

http://embodyingthemind.com/

The post Demystifying the psychedelic experience appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

How a trippy 1980s video effect might help to explain consciousness

How a trippy 1980s video effect might help to explain consciousness

Still from a video feedback sequence.
© Robert Pepperell 2018, Author provided

Robert Pepperell, Cardiff Metropolitan University

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.

Is the human brain a squishy digital computer or a delicate organic instrument for processing energy?
Installation shot of ‘I am a brain’, 2008. Cast of human brain in resin and metal. Robert Pepperell

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.

Does consciousness depend on the brain looking at itself?
Robert Pepperell, 2018

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.

Video feedback may be the nearest we have to visualising what conscious processing in the brain is like.
Still from video feedback sequence. Robert Pepperell, 2018

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 Conversation

Robert Pepperell, Professor, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The post How a trippy 1980s video effect might help to explain consciousness appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

Art, Ethics, and the Power of a Good Story

Art, Ethics, and the Power of a Good Story

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.

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What Is ‘Computational Photography’ Anyway?

What Is 'Computational Photography' Anyway?

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?

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