Monthly Archives: March 2018

Why Do Things Scare Us? What Makes Your Heart Beat? Inside; Fear Explained.

All of us have had moments when we have been scared out of our skin.  ‘Jumpscare‘ voyeurism, that is watching people react to horror, has become an internet fascination. With big YouTube gamers like Markiplier and Pewdiepie building their early success on playing games like Amnesia and Five Nights at Freddy’s, there is something oddly fascinating about horror.

But why do ‘Jumpscares’ cause us to ‘jump’. What is happening inside us and why?

There’s Something In There

‘Everything down here floats,’ that chuckling, rotten voice whispered, and suddenly there was a ripping noise and a flaring sheet of agony, and George Denbrough knew no more’ – Stephen King, It, p 27

Last night I was walking home along a familiar path. It was dark, and the only sounds were the rustling of the bushes and my footsteps on the leaves. It was calm, and the long shadows cast by the gentle moon were reassuring.  I was lost in thought, the humdrum of a busy mind, when, all of a sudden, something appeared. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a shadow rise from the bushes, the gentle ambience was broken by a rush of leaves.

Something had come from the darkness. Something unfamiliar, maybe dangerous. Wait no, certainly dangerous. Something inside me saw teeth, claws, my imminent evisceration at the whim of something ancient and devilish.

Immediately I stopped, straightened up and my body was filled with energy. But not good energy, a lance of fear. My heart rate increased, I became super focussed on the shadow, time seemed to slow down and my mind speed up. Within seconds I realised it was nothing, but my body still held on to the fear. Why? What is this emotion? And why did it cause such physical changes.

I would imagine you have had the same. Something moving in the darkness, a loud sudden sound, something out of the ordinary that puts you on edge. We, as humans, and like animals, have a simple and consuming reaction for the sudden imposition of the dangerous unknown, Fear. And the feeling of ‘Fear‘ is just part of a syndrome (a collection of symptoms and physical signs,) that characterises our ‘Fight or Flight (or Freeze) response.

It’s almost as old as life itself, and because of it, we are here.

Fight, Flight or Freeze (FOFOF)

Fear was the hand of the devil holding a scalding hot branding iron and touching your brain and your stomach and yelling at you to run with leaden feet. – Dan Groat, Monarchs and Mendicants

It all comes down to evolution, physiology and psychology. Simply put, those who reacted in an adaptive way to avoid death long enough to mate would pass on their genes. Evolutionary theory suggests that over time, those animals within a species with adaptive traits allowing them to survive and reproduce, would become dominant. Whether this trait is a large plumage, as with Peacocks, or lightening speed, as with Cheetahs, it doesn’t really matter, as long as it works.

So when the ‘monster’ in the bush appeared, I was left with three options. Fight, Flight (leg it,) or freeze (hide.)

Fighting is a solution in very specific circumstances. If you are larger, more powerful, or hold some advantage over the other, you can fight. Many animals faced with threat will make a very quick assessment (often based on simple things like size,) to judge their next move. Many will attack, convinced they will win.

Flight is more common, as most creatures are smaller than their hunters. They will rely on speed, camouflage and a near safe place to survive. This is the normal reaction of a mouse, cat, or anything smaller than you. Not all will run, a spider may attack instead, but this speaks of the system being more complicated than just size. Remember, nature is complicated.

Freezing is a third option, and can occur for a variety of reasons. If you have been spotted, and the eyesight and memory of your predator is good, it probably won’t help. But if you have heard a sudden sound, the predator may not have seen you. If you run, you give off sound, it can chase and find you. If you stay still, it may pass you by. Your natural camouflage is more effective when staying still. Especially in the night.

In my case, I froze. The situation was ambiguous, and humans have a tendency to analyse where they can. The FOFOF response surpasses this tendency, and for good reason, we could be eaten whilst we figure things out. Had it been a bear, my analysis would have given it time to kill me. But weirdly enough, humans tend to freeze quite a lot. It says something about our ancestry.

Where FOFOF Comes From

“Thousands of years ago, when our ancestors encountered a predatory animal like a lion, it was best to react immediately and not stand around thinking about the lion, admiring its beauty or wondering why it was bothering them instead of tracking down some tasty antelope. Thus, the fast track to the amygdala kept our ancestors alive.” – John B. Arden, Rewire your Brain..

The ‘FOFOF’ response is just one evolutionary adaption forged early on in the tree of life. Exposure to danger causes an instant chemical reaction, the secretion of adrenaline, with profound effects on the body. The substance causes the heart rate to rise, blood to be drawn into the limbs and brain, and diverted from our stomachs and pelvic areas**. The body is geared up to be focussed, strong and fighting fit.

And we feel terrified. This is a good thing in short bursts, it tells us that we are in danger. It gives significance to the bodily changes our brain has signalled. It compels us to act, to relieve that feeling by action. Adrenaline is a short lived substance, and ignoring it tends to make the feeling worse. Biologically, prolonged exposure to fear results in anxiety, which can become all consuming and repeated. Panic Attacks are just adrenaline surges caused inappropriately*.

Jumpscares And Entertainment

So with this all in mind, why do we love jumpscares, horror and adrenaline. The simple answer is addiction, the more complicated rooted in deep psychological explanations.  Fear in a ‘contained environment’ (i.e. one which presents no real risk, is often associated with the release of dopamine, our pleasure hormone. This is the same hormone released with cocaine and other drugs, as well as many things that make us ‘happy’.

We become addicted to the situational aspects of horror. It seems crazy to think about it, but it makes sense. If we survive an attack, we feel pleasure. It makes sense for our bodies to reinforce the behaviour that leads to pleasure. This is why we queue for horror films and buy ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’. Its why we love ‘Jumpscares’ and watching others view them. We take pleasure from it.

So  next time you are on the edge of your seat, remember that you are taking pleasure from an ancient system designed to save your life. Kind of macabre, right?

What’s Next?

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  • Donate. Running this blog requires coffee.
  • Learn more about ‘Evolution’ by reading ‘The Selfish Gene‘ by Richard Dawkins

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Image courtesy of Eden, Janine and Jim.

*The subjects addressed in this article have been simplified to reflect their effects on a majority of the population. There is always room for individual variation in behaviour (and this is fundamental to evolutionary theory anyway,) which means that not everyone will react the same way. Anxiety for example has many different syndromes, be it Generalised Anxiety Disorder or Panic Disorder, with different effects on behaviour and emotion. The aetiology (cause,) of these diseases are multifaceted, and deserve their own article as opposed to a throwaway clause.

** This is why we often feel a need to ‘shit our pants’ during fearful situations. It is also possibly why ‘Performance Anxiety’ is such an issue, if you are nervous around sex your brain isn’t focussed on diverting blood to the desired regions (and things are slack,) and the last thing we can focus on is sex. 

 

 

 

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What Stephen Hawking Can Teach Us. Lessons From A Great Man.

To eulogise Professor Hawking is not in my remit, I knew him too little and there are those much better deserving and placed of that honour. To obituarise him is also beyond my scope, as I possess neither the gravitas or right to do so. But to celebrate him, and all that he has achieved through his inexhaustible pursuit of knowledge, that is something that we  all can do. Stephen was a pioneer, philanthropist, physicist and inspiration, and it is only right that he be celebrated.

For Stephen. 1942-2018. 

Somewhere in Cambridge University, likely dog-eared and covered in dust, lies a paper written over 50 years ago.  Within its pages, between the rather impenetrable prose, lies a set of formidable equations. And these equations carefully examine the nature of our universe, in particular the properties of its expansion with relation to ‘singularities.

It may seem odd that thin wood and scattered ink can capture such dramatic notions, but I assure you it can. And with this first foray into the laws of the Universe, the late Stephen Hawking laid strong foundations for a future we can all dream of.

”Closed in a room, my imagination becomes the universe, and the rest of the world is missing out.” – Criss Jami

An Expanding Universe

In 1929 Edwin Hubble used an analysis of light wavelength change to demonstrate the expansion of the Universe. Each galaxy is rushing away from one and another, in a Universe oft described as ‘Infinite but bounded.’ This is a confusing concept for most (including myself,) and asks more questions than it answers. Will it expand forever (very possibly,) can we ever transverse all of it (disappointingly unlikely,) and why does it behave as it does?

The same questions plagued a young doctoral candidate called Stephen Hawking, who set about to answer them. Having graduated from Oxford University with a degree in Physics, Stephen was ready to prove his worth. His 1965 paper, titled ‘Properties of Expanding Universes’ (note the pluralisation of Universe,) along with many others of his own,  answered seminal questions that propelled this young man into infamy, and we still use his work today.

In his work on ‘singularities‘ (where matter becomes incredibly densely packed,) he investigated the nature of universal expansion, black holes and other phenomena. Alongside mathematician Roger Penrose, Hawking showed mathematical proof for the Big Bang, modelled the nature of Black Holes and even went as far to examine what happens to information devoured by such holes as they die.

In short, Stephen probed the darkest centres of reality and found light. And because of this, modern days physicists can begin to answer even more of the very questions that define our existence.

Stephen and the Universe

‘One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away – Professor Hawking

The young hands responsible for this work belonged to a brilliant mind, but one fraught with worry. An exceptional intelligence, Stephen Hawking’s quest for knowledge found little hindrance in the solemnity of disease. When diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (a diagnosis oft questioned,) he fell into a depression which marred his studies. But then the disease failed to progress as expected, Stephen found a new lease of life.

It is something wonderful that Stephens spirit was not crushed by his physical limitations. And even as he lost the use of his body, his mind became freer to set itself amongst the stars. Not only has he answered some of the greatest questions known to man, but propelled countless young minds outwards into the same abyss he explored. It is poetic that even confined physically, he explored more of space and time than many of us ever will.

With his passing today humanity can all feel a collective loss. All great men (and women,) must die, but their deeds are remembered in infamy. Although it is likely, and shamefully so, that many will have never heard his name, their descendants will use his work to transverse the stars, find new homes and spread humanity to the farthest reaches.  And for me at least, opening the pages of his books will always feel like home.

In his very equations are his legacy, the deepest paint on the extraordinary canvas that was a challenging and incredible story. Stephen showed us that the Universe is ours for the taking, and that you can do it from a wheelchair. He showed us that passion and spirit can conquer the greatest odds, and that generosity and determination can build great things.

Goodbye Stephen. And thank you.

What’s Next?

  • Read Stephen Hawkins ‘A Brief History of Time’
  • Learn more about ‘black holes’
  • Go do something wonderful.

The opinions above are those of Dr Janaway alone. You may note that this page still has ads on it, and all proceeds from this post will go to charities associated with Motor Neurone Disease. I hope you find this acceptable. Image courtesy of Lwp Kommunikáció

Why Does The Colour Red Mean The End Of The World? How One Colour Gave Life, And How It Spells Our End.

Consider your heart. It is built of a specialised network of muscle, nerves, blood vessels and sensors. And from some moment early in the womb, it will beat roughly every second of every day until you die. And during that time, you will fall in love, make friends,  be unbelievably happy, deeply sad,  and  sometimes (this ones up to you,) full of wonder.

And one wonderful thing, one thing that makes your heart beat a little faster, is the colour red. But why do we love red? How has it helped us survive? And why is it the key to our future?

What Is Red?

Red, at is most fundamental level, is a collection of light wavelengths between 622-780 nanometres (that’s 622-780 billions of a metre.) Our brain sees this as ‘Red.’ Philosophers debate over whether ‘my red’ is the same as ‘your red’, perhaps your ‘green’ looks like my ‘red’. Who knows? But aside from those with colour blindness, or ‘Achromotopsia’ (seeing only in black, white and grey,) we can all see that an apple is ‘red’.

And this is vitally important. And like many things in nature, it is no accident. And according to some evolutionary theories, its all about the relationship between our ancient ancestors and fruit.

Foragers And Flags

‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’ Theodosius Dobzhansky, Biologist.

Think back along the earth’s evolutionary tree. Its actually quite difficult. It isn’t very linear, and as you rush by its millions of splitting branches you will see all forms of odd creatures. But  most  of these creatures have a few similar traits. They need to eat for energy, to mate for reproduction, to spot and combat (or run from,) danger, and to find a home in which to pass their lives.

We don’t have to go back too far, just around 50 million years, to see our ape ancestors. Territorial tree foragers, they subsisted mainly on fruit. And their eyes were well adapted for spotting it, and certain familiar colours stood out. Spotting ‘ripe’ red* colour helped them survive, and with each subsequent generation those with better vision passed on the genes to better spot food.

And for the plants, it meant those with the most easily spotted food were eaten, digested, and their seeds spread. Together the plants and apes grew  reciprocal evolutionary path, and over time this was reinforced. Today we still see red things as ripe, attractive and life sustaining.

No wonder we like the colour red, it kept us alive. But has it served its purpose, or has ‘red’ got more in store for us?

 

Red Runs Away

“The greatest beauty is organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe.’ – Robinson Jeffers

As fascinating as our history with the colour red is, the familiar wavelength is also the key to one of the most fascinating discoveries of recent times. During the 1500’s Nicolaus Copernicus suggest the ‘Heliocentric Theory‘ of the Universe. That the solar system was centred (centric,) around a star (Helios.) Not long after, astronomers used telescopes to examine distant stars. We suddenly got our first glimpse of how small we really are.

But it wasn’t until 1929 that Astronomer Edwin Hubble made a startling discovery. When looking at distant galaxies, he found that all of the light coming from them was ‘red shifted’. This meant the wavelength of the light was stretched, as if the galaxy was moving away. He also found that those galaxies the furthest away were ‘redshifted’ further, as if they were moving faster.

Edwin Hubble, thanks to the colour red and some mathematics, had discovered that the Universe was expanding, and speeding up as it went. And from that, how it began, and how it is likely to end (a big crunch, rip or freeze.)

So consider again your heart, the little red thing that keeps you alive. Isn’t it just incredible that its very colour has told us so much?

What’s Next?

  • Follow Ben on Twitter so you never miss an article
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates.  Image courtesy of John Voo.

*Note. Red is not the only colour that is important to us. Think of bees, wasps, snakes, crossing signs, cheetahs, leopards… 

 

 

 

Should A Chair Fear Your Bottom? Well Actually, Science Says No.

Whilst sitting across from an empty seat, you can quickly begin to wonder who may sit opposite you. With a global population of around 7.6 billion people, it could be just anyone. The chances are that you may not know them or the story of their lives. But more than likely, they have a bum. And for a chair, their entire life is about waiting for the next one. But should a chair worry about being sat on? Physics tell us no.

Half And Half Again

You may be familiar with the old conundrum of infinite reduction. It goes something like this;

If you were to drop an object to the floor, it would cover half the total distance of the fall. Then half again, and again. If this continues, it will never reach the ground. So how is it that it can?

On paper, this makes total sense. But drop that paper, and it quickly becomes nonsense. Mathematics has a term for these rules that logically sound, but cannot be tested properly in our Universe, or don’t play out like they should in our day to day lives. These are called Axioms, and are designed to help us develop new tools to understand and change our world.

So for the chair, the foreign bum should never land, but it does. So perhaps the chair cannot find solace in Axioms. But actually, the bum will never truly touch it at all. That’s where physics comes in.

Bums and Bonds

Our universe is held together by four cardinal forces. There is gravity, the weak and strong nuclear forces and electromagnetism. Combined, they can be used to explain (to a high level of accuracy,) most of what we observe in our day to day lives, as well as in the distant past and far future. Their limits are found at the quantum level, but even now theoretical physicists are breaking those boundaries.

So what does this have to do with a Bum? Well a bum, mine, yours and Kim Kardashian’s, is made up of skin, fat, muscle and beneath that bone. These tissues are made of molecules, and those molecules, atoms. Those atoms are made of subatomic particles, such as quarks. No matter what, matter is what you are made of. And this matter must play by the rules.

At the atomic level, the strong nuclear force binds atoms together, gluing protons (which will repel each other,) together using substantial energy, (it is the breaking of these bonds that gives us nuclear fission, as opposed to their formation also utilising the weak force that fuels the stars.) The protons opposite number, the electron, also fiercely repels others. And its at this level that your bum atoms interact with those of the chair.

Very Small Distances

At this tiny level, the interactions between electrons are rather predictable. An electron is a curious thing, showing both the behaviour of a particle (like sand,) and a wave (like sound.) This is called wave/particle duality and plays a large role in how things interact. Even photons, the irreducible energy packets of light, share in these rules.

From a particle perspective, the electrons of two opposing atoms (and thus their larger molecules) cannot touch. They can get close, half by half, but never quite meet up. From a wave perspective, their ‘wave packets’ (i.e, the amplitudes of the signal in space-time) can overlap, but never fall in sequence. This means that the elections, and with them your bottom and a chair, can never quite touch.

So actually the old mathematical axiom runs true, but the explanation can be found in our universe as well as in the equation.

So Should Chairs Fear Bums?

From a perspective of touch, not really. But when it comes to smells, regardless of the physics, we still smell them. The interaction of a particle (of lets say, perfume,) and the cells in your nose still interact. You need a particle of something in your nose to smell it (and even then, it is your brain that creates the smell!) So although physics means that the chair can never  truly feel the bum rushing down upon it, it can smell it.

As can you.

What’s Next?

  • Follow Ben on Twitter so you never miss an article
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  • Learn more about physics at physics.org
  • Let me know what you want to learn about.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Remember, fear is natural, but how you choose to deal with it is a choice.  Image courtesy of Jes

 

 

 

 

Fed Up Of Feeling Sad? Learn The Trick To True Happiness. Stop Waiting, Start Doing.

“Happiness is different from pleasure. Happiness has something to do with struggling, enduring, and accomplishing.” – George Sheehan

Sadness is not just a human problem. It is a problem shared by animals, and likely present since soon after the dawn of life. What sets us aside from most animals, with notable exceptions, is our ability to question our purpose. Humans, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy, see self actualisation as the pinnacle of aspiration. Disregarding the basics of food, shelter, love and ego, it is making a change to the world that matters to us most.

A Loss Of Purpose

‘Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress.; working hard for something we love is called passion.’ Simon Sinek, Author, Consultant and Motivational Speaker.

In a popular video, Simon Sinek explains that millennials find traditional jobs difficult as they feel that they are not making a change. And whilst this generation is blessed like no other, it is also the most sad. Information is made easy to find, health is at an all time high, and opportunities almost endless. And yet, within this machine of progress, the very cogs are rusting and breaking apart.

But as the world gets smaller, so do we. Instead of being the centre of our community, someone who seems to matter, we are just one of seven billion. We are saturated by news of the successes of others, taught to envy and idolise celebrities, and regard great thinkers with a theological awe. We are set against impossibly high standards, and it can seem fruitless to even try.

For a species that thrives on purpose, and achievement through it, this could not be more troubling.

Achievement Is Not Happiness

Some of the happiest people in the world go home smelling to
high heaven at the end of the day (Morgan Freeman, playing God in Bruce Almighty.)

It is a common myth that achievement buys happiness. When you look at PhD students (as Psychologist Jordan Peterson explains,) they become sad, or even depressed, when they finally hand in their work. When you finish reading a book most often the thrill of the story dies, the elation of conclusion concluded. So why is it that when we work for something, its achievement leaves us hollow?

The answer may be something spiritual, cultural, biological, all or none. Religion teaches us to live as God would like, to aspire to holiness through his attribution. Spirituality promises unity between self and the universe, achievement through the dissolution of the delusion of separateness. Culture dictates that we must have the right job, make money, marry or have children. Biology rewards achievement with chemicals, and does so over and over. Each asks, with  the caveat of some spiritual beliefs, that we attain a malleable goal that can be recorded.

And yet those of religious faith, spiritual leaders, great men and women and even animals at the top of their ecological niche will continue to want and to be sad. So there must be something else. Something you can’t hold, display or record.

Define who you are to find your purpose

You may not associate actor Matthew McConaughey with sage wisdom (a tragedy of media and preconceptions,) but in a 2017 speech to the University of Houston, he explains that the start of self actualisation is the deciding what you are not. He argues passionately that by actively addressing who you aren’t, you are only left with who you are. He said;

“The first step that leads to our identity in life is usually not “I know who I am,” but rather “I know who I am not.” 

Finding identity is instrumental to happiness, as  the true and honest realisation of who you are can open your mind to what you want. What you dream, and the purpose that you have. And by purpose I do not mean achievement, but the process of following that process with all you are and what you have to give. But first we can ask, what can you forget?

What you are is not a job. It is not a document, or a bank account. It is not your Facebook, your diet or your friends. These are just measurements we give ourselves to place value on our existence. But we exist in mind, and indeed purpose, regardless of these things. To live in the knowledge that you are following your purpose, that honest dream, stripped of all accolade, is the true process of self actualisation.

It does not require applause or award, the pleasure is in the doing.

Living with Purpose is the key to happiness.

We know that many creatures can feel sadness, and that achievement of a goal will not always bring happiness. We know that although our opportunities are unparalleled  compared to any other time in history, depression is at its highest level. We know that who you are remains when all labels are removed, and that lesson is a Universal truth. So how can you find happiness by simply living?

The answer is to live true to your purpose. Find joy in the doing, regardless of the result. Reading a book is more pleasurable than finishing it, climbing a mountain more valuable than planting the flag, playing an instrument more challenging that listening back. Happiness is found when the future is forgotten, and the present is found joyful in its encapsulation of activity.

So instead of worrying about being great, remembered, rich or powerful, enjoy living toward your purpose without needing recognition. Whatever that may be.

What’s Next?

  • Follow Ben on Twitter so you never miss an article
  • Watch Matthew McConaughey’s speech to Houston University
  • What makes you happy? Tell me in the comments or on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. If you suffer from depression, or suspect that you may, please seek medical advice.  Image courtesy of Aainlm

 

 

 

 

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