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by Brian T. Lynch
This is purely my opinion, but my understanding of “Free Will” is very narrow compared to most people I talk to about it. I see it as something that emerges gradually along a continuum from actions that are totally coercive to purely rational and independent. It isn’t an all or nothing phenomenon, as some see it. I exclude all impulsive actions taken due to internal urges from my definition since urges aren’t rational and follow from completely different pathways in the brain. Also, actions that spring from emotions may or may not involve free will in my view. It is here that the gradual blossoming of free will is most evident.
When ever we act to satisfy urges or emotions we really cannot distinguish “free will” from the actions taken since acting on a urge feels identical to acting by choice.. That is why people don’t even know they are addicted to something until they discover they can’t simply choose to stop. Addiction in insidious that way. No one can say for sure that they smoke by choice after that first cigarette because even six months later the brain can trigger powerful urges for another cigarette.
The same holds true, by degree, with our emotions. We can’t know for certain if we are acting on free will when we acquiesce to our feelings since emotions can also overpower free will. We even say we are “acting on our emotions” to explain certain behaviors, but it still feels exactly like a choice, even if we can’t help it. So inwardly speaking, we can only no for sure that we are acting on free will when our actions are contrary to both our urges and our feelings. It is only when we place them in check that we can know for sure we are acting on our own free will.
That said, what about free will in circumstances when our only available options for action are proscribed by others, or by circumstances out of our control? If we have no choice but to act, do we have free will? If we have only bad choices, are we exercising free will by making that bad choice? Was Socrates exercising free will when he choose to drink hemlock rather than face a public execution? It so, and I believe he was exercising free will, then a limited form of free will must exist even under extreme forms of coercion.
How we define “free will” has enormous social and political implications because it thereby defines how responsible individuals are for their actions. It is here we see the continuum of emerging free will run its course. Some folks believe everyone is 100% responsible for their actions. They might then blame the poor for being poor, or the sick for being sick (live style choices) and would probably not accept an insanity defense for crimes committed by the insane. Speaking of justice, we see the role “free will” plays in our action played being calculated in criminal sentencing hearings when mitigating and aggravating circumstances are used to determine appropriate punishment. We punish people for criminal intent but not acquit them, or lighten their punishment if they were not in control of their actions.
These are just examples. In fact, we use these sort of calculations everyday with each other or our children in judging their actions and in modulating our responses. So the idea that free will is an all or nothing phenomenon just isn’t born out in our every day experience.
Anyway, here is an interesting article on the subject.
It has become fashionable to say that people have no free will. Many scientists cannot imagine how the idea of free will could be reconciled with the laws of physics and chemistry. Brain researchers say that the brain is just a bunch of nerve cells…
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
What I really want to write about are the practical implications of a new theory of human intelligences, but this will have to wait. The problem is that emerging knowledge about the workings of our cerebral cortex has not yet been widely shared. It hasn’t caught the attention of the popular press. Whenever I start to make some connection between an experience and how it relates to how our brain functions, I have to backtrack and offer an explanation of the new theory. Whatever point I was trying to make gets lost and my friends grow impatient.
What’s needed are brief summaries explaining aspects of how intelligence works. The summaries need to be clear enough to spark interest and promote more understanding. I know I am hungry for this kind of knowledge. Understanding the brain is truly the last frontier of science. Our mind, with its trillions of neural connections, is the deepest mystery in the universe. Everything we know of the world outside ourselves is contained in this single organ. The research that I will try to summarize here relates only to human intelligence and not to other functions of the brain. It doesn’t specifically relate to the mysteries of self-awareness or personality. And yet, understanding the workings of this thin, convoluted layer of cerebral cortex covering our more primitive brain is essential to solving the bigger mysteries of who we are.
Our Intelligent Brain
So, how does our intelligent brain work? There are some good and important books on the subject. The one I rely on here is called “On Intelligence”, by Jeff Hawking’s and Sandra Blakeslee. It is lay account of a theory on intelligence, but beware, some of its chapters are a bit technical.
Here is just one aspect of how the cerebral cortex works that I found interesting. Our intelligent brain is constantly detecting and anticipating patterns. The cortex is a pattern maker. It organizes sensory and worldly experience into patterns at every level of detail from the smallest sensory inputs to the biggest concepts of how the world works. It integrates these patterns into ever larger concepts or images until, at the highest levels, our brain creates an enduring image of the world around us. This image of the world, while enduring, is also malleable and responsive to new insights and information. Importantly, our intelligent brain is constantly predicting what to expect next from our sensory field.
Our brain anticipates everything that we see, feel, hear, taste or smell. It expects that similar circumstances will produce the same or similar sensory experiences. The strength of these expectations grows stronger the more they are reinforced by past experiences. Our brains also have a higher expectation of seeing certain patterns when these patterns are well integrated into the bigger picture of the world created in our brains. So strong are these patterns that even when we only see portions of them our brain recognizes the whole. For example, if we only see the eye and nose of a friend in a picture we recognize that person as our friend. If we see three dots on a page we might recognize that they form a triangle without seeing any lines between the dots. Seeing part of an image is enough for our brains to know what the whole pattern or image looks like.
The Intelligent Sub-Conscious
What’s remarkable about brain pattern recognition is that most of it happens at the subconscious level. Here is a little experiment to demonstrate what I mean. Place your hand on a wooden door near you and then grabbed the doorknob. Nothing about this experience surprises you, right? It’s just an everyday experience. And until I mention that the metal doorknob feels cooler than the door, you may not have noticed. That’s because your brain expected that pattern. Your brain knows metal feels cooler than wood every time you touch them in a room. You might even know the scientific reason for this is that wood and metal have different rates of conduction. Your brain expected these to items to feel different, so there was no need to alert your conscious brain. If the doorknob had felt warmer or soft your brain would have alerted your conscious mind immediately.
During every waking moment our senses are continuously bombarded with stimuli. What we see, or hear is constantly changing and billions of impulses reach our brain every instant. If our intelligent brain had to analyze every electro-chemical pulse it would be overwhelmed with data. Instead, our brain only has to recognize challenges to the familiar patterns stored within our cortex. Computers, on the other hand, have to process every byte of informational every time it is presented or else it freeze.
How Our Cortex is Structured
At every scale of human experience, our brain expects certain patterns to emerge from our sensory field. To accomplish this our cortex is made up of seven distinct layers on a horizontal axis and billions of distinct, hierarchical columns on the vertical axis. Additionally, each vertical column is connected to other vertical columns by a neural network, and information super highway system. The seven levels of each neural column is also connected to each other by neural pathways. This makes our cortex massively interconnected.
The first, or bottom layer of cortex only recognizes the electro-chemical patterns that come directly from the sense organs. The complexity of recognizable patterns grows with each ascending layer of cortex. For example, on the lowest level of the visual cortex area only specific geometric patterns will be recognized by particular columns. Combining this low level information from many nearby columns might cause the next level of cortex to recognize that these lower level patterns represent a human nose. At a subsequently higher layer of cortex the patterns represented by that nose and maybe an eye or other facial features recognized by still other columns might confirm that these patterns belong to the face of a friend. And so it goes until at the highest cortical levels our brain creates an enduring mental representation of the person we are visiting with, the room in which we are standing and all of the surroundings around us.
Another feature of our cerebral cortex is that it has more neural feedback connections then uptake, or feedforward connections. That means there are more neural connections from higher layers of the cortex to the lower layers of the cortex. This structure enables the higher levels of the cortex to tell lower levels what patterns they should expect to emerge from the sensory field. When columns in the lower cortex see an anticipated patterns, they signal back that they are satisfied. But when the lower levels of the cortex see something unexpected, they pass this additional information up the line to the next higher level. If that level of the cortex can’t resolve the pattern conflict, it passes these signals on to the next higher level, and so on, until some higher level of the cortex can make sense of the information. Most of these pattern conflicts are resolved subconsciously, but occasionally they pop into our highest executive level, which is our conscious mind. Our attention will suddenly focus on this unexpected thing that has disrupted our stream of conscious thoughts.
Intelligence and Consciousmess
As we move through the day our brain alerts our conscious self to only those things which need our attention. For example, we might slip on an old pair of shoes and walk around without thinking much about how they feel, but if a pebble suddenly gets caught in our shoe we become aware of the new sensation. (“Excuse me, self, but a pebble may have entered your shoe.”) If we put on a new pair of shoes we notice how differently they feel until we get use to them. If they don’t fit correctly we are annoyingly aware of them until we take them off. But for the most part we are not conscious of the millions of patterns, large or small, that our intelligent brain processes every day. Most of our intelligence activity is at work in our subconscious mind.
This ability to expect and process normal pattern activity without having to attend to everything we see or hear allows our brain to focus attention on the rapidly changing information that is most important to our survival. It allows us to listen and process what someone is saying while ignoring a passing car. It allows us to assess traffic movements at an intersection without being distracted by the radio. This is important because our capacity for consciousness is a limited resource. Our intelligent brain must conserve this executive function and use it for only the most salient and important aspects of our sensory field.
Introspection and Intentionality
But we are also able to focus attention on patterns of thought or behavior that are not otherwise calling for our conscious attention. We can introspectively direct our focus to examine the patterns and associations stored in our cortex. We are not a passive audience to our senses. We have a conscious mind with which we can look inwardly to examine our intelligent brain. We can learn things about how the real world is structured from the patterns created in our cortex. We can also rearrange or re-associate these patterns when we find errors in the way they have formed (cognitive therapy being one dramatic example). We can perceive gaps in our knowledge of things and direct our own behavior to gather more information.
Implications for Conscous Thoughts
Our brain forms patterns from sensory input whether we are aware of it or not. This leads me to one of the major implications that I would like to discuss further in a future post. Our intelligent brain is forming patterns and associations based on what we may be seeing or hearing even when we aren’t paying conscious attention. We know that repetition strengthens patterns and associations.
Advertisers and marketers know this as well. They choose words and images to invoke associations most favorable to their purposes and use repetition to reinforce and strengthen those associations within our cerebral cortex. The marketing of ideas and products is effective even when we aren’t paying conscious attention to the ads. Think about that the next time you are wandering around a supermarket. Think about it in connection with our political campaigns and the public dialogue we watch on TV or listen to on the radio.
When we commonly think about intelligence we usually limit our discussion to our conscious problem solving ability. We usually don’t consider that most of our brains intelligent activity happens at the subconscious level. We are not aware of the extent to which false patterns of information can subconsciously form to subsequently influence our conscious choices and opinions. In a future posting I hope to expand on this topic. I believe we can inoculate ourselves against propaganda and false advertising, but only if we have a better understanding of how our intelligent brain operates.
By Brian Lynch, MSW
During most of human history divine creation was the only paradigm for understanding our place in the universe. It was the grand context, the social ocean in which we lived out our lives. Human beings were divinely created in a special way that set us apart from the rest of God’s creatures. We were born, we lived and died in God’s world. There were no alternative perspectives. Our frame of reference, world view and the society in which we lived were profoundly influence by this inescapable constant. There were always questions and great disputes about nature, especially with the rise of science, but nobody seriously doubted our divine creation. Religion, and therefore religious leaders, held sway over every aspect of our social and intellectual development… that is until one reluctant scientist came to see that human beings arrived here by natural evolution and not a single act of divine creation. Charles Darwin glimpsed the profound impact his discovery would have on the world. He knew there would be unintended consequences and a contemporary backlash that would make his life difficult. He waited as long as possible before publishing “On the Origin of Species.”
At that moment a new paradigm for human understanding became inevitable. It spawned a natural view of creation and the universe that would successfully compete with mystical beliefs in a god-centered universe. It eventually opened up a vast new social space that could be occupied by those seeking an alternative to a religious view. Today we call this vast social space a secular society, but nothing like it ever existed before. It was (and can still be) liberating and wide open with possibilities that were unimaginable under the divine paradigm. It was a space where science and technology thrived. A new sense of objectivity was a direct outcome. Ethics and morality could be studied from perspectives that were independent from specific religious texts. New philosophies sprung up and took root. It allowed us to create secular institutions of learning, medicine and other scholarly disciplines . We created secular governments, secular economies, secular business corporations and all manner of social organizations not immediately related to religion. It allowed for the creation of truly pluralistic societies and more religious tolerance than the world had ever known. But it also challenged and diminished the power of religions across the globe.
The secular paradigm that has emerged is not antithetical to God or a rejection of religion or spirituality. It is just a social framework. It is a religion neutral space where individuals are free to explore spirituality, question their beliefs or challenge tenants of their faith traditions without fear of social reprisals. It also allows citizens to accept or reject a creator god. In these ways it undermines priestly traditions and the central authority of many world religions. Religious fundamentalists who view the world as either good or evil are prone to see secularism as evil.
It is almost unimaginable today to conceive of a world without a secular alternative to a totally faith based society, especially when the fault lines separating the secular and religious worlds are still so active. In my view, the growing religious fundamentalist movements around the globe are just the most recent reactions to the declining power of organized religions to effect social change. Among Christian fundamentalists, at least, Darwin’s theory of evolution still remains at the epicenter of competing beliefs, especially with respect to the belief systems to which children are exposed. So much of the polarity and apparent disconnect found in our current politics derives from these underlying tensions between the religious and the secular. In fact, many of the global conflicts today share these same roots. The denial of climate change and the mistrust of science by conservative or fundamentalist constituents are a further manifestation of this divide.
The 19th Century saw the rise of civil secularism and the 20th Century was its flowering period. Secular societies refer to themselves as the “modern world.” They are associated with the rise of free markets, powerful business corporations and the technological revolution that has transformed every aspect of modern life. The global rise of religious fundamentalism is a rejection of modernity and secularism. It is easy to see this play out in the Middle-East where Muslim fundamentalist have resorted to violence in efforts to regain control over their people and establish Shari law. Islamist groups openly reject modernity and refer to the United State, that great exporter of secular culture, as “the Great Satin.”
Here at home these same underlying tensions are hidden in plain view because our fundamentists happen to share America’s dominant religion. The rise of politically active religious conservatism should also be seen as a rejection of modernity and secularism, just as it is in the Arib world. In many Christian communities there is strong peer pressure for Christians to conform to social norms that most resemble 18th Century America. There is also a strong distrust of secular media, secular science and especially secular government. Christian fundamentalist often view the government as corrupt because it is non-thestic and therefore evil. Secular society is evil because individuals are free to reject God’s authority. They seek to change that and establish the centrality of God in government and all aspect of American life. A theocracy would not be out of the question for them. Theirs is a direct assualt on our constitutional government as it was originally intended. Out of “Christian love” the majority of American’s continue to tolerate the increasingly intolarent Christian Right.
Ironically, most Christian fundamentalists have no problem embracing godless corporations and the free market economy. Secular society has allowed capitalism to slip the bonds of religious morality. This launched a corporate movement that is currently challenging and overpowering civil control of government. Part of the reason for its success is this alliance with the Christian right. The dynamics between secular society, fundamentalist religious society and the corporate, free market elite account for most of the forces driving today’s social changes. The current government shutdown might signal the first crack in the corporate/fundamentalist alliance.
This conceptual outline of underlying social forces has helped me make sense of current events and today’s social movements. I find myself returning to these themes whenever I need to place new developments into context. I hope that other readers might find this framework as useful.
Here is information about a study on how exercise bio-chemically improves our physical health. This article caused me to jumped on my Treadmill and subsequently join a gym. From a bio-chemical perspective it seems that a little physical exercize initates a cellular process analogous to recycling the trash that builds up in our cell bodies.
Just why exercise is so good for people is, at last, being understood
Jan 21st 2012 | from the print edition
Changing brains: why neuroscience is ending the Prozac era
The big money has moved from developing psychiatric drugs to manipulating our brain networks
Daniel Lieberman: ‘Dieting is a disaster for everyone’
The big one is obesity. We evolved to put on fat wherever necessary, and that was a good thing in human history. Most people until recently had to work hard and they lived just at the margin of energy balance, and a little bit more energy stored in fat meant that you could have more babies, and your babies were more likely to survive. That was pretty powerful stuff, right? Now we’re in this bizarre situation that for the first time in billions of years of evolution we have an organism that is not energy limited any more.
The final point is that our instinct when we are sick is to try to treat each other – which is right and proper. But when we have a mismatch disease caused by this poor fit between our bodies and our environments we treat the symptoms only. On the one hand people are living longer and are healthier than probably ever in human history, but also suffering in new ways that are draining the economy. The US is the worst example but the UK isn’t far behind, in terms of how much you are spending in treating chronic non-infectious diseases that are preventable. We can prevent heart disease, we can prevent flat feet and myopia, but we can only do so if we consider our evolution.
The big one is obesity. We evolved to put on fat wherever necessary, and that was a good thing in human history. [snip] Dieting really is a disaster for everybody, it takes superhuman effort to lose weight, it can be done but it isn’t easy. And that’s because we’re evolved not only to gain weight but to hold onto it. So if that overweight person starts dieting that’s just as hard as if an underweight person starts dieting, you go into a negative energy balance and all kinds of mechanisms kick in that cause us to become less active, to reshuffle energy around our bodies to defeat that effort to lose weight. So of course obesity is our number one problem.[Stop]
How do social problems that may have exist for generations suddenly become urgent public issues and the subject of broad public debate (child labor ? How is it that a public consensus can suddenly coalesce around an issue that has been clouded by uncertainty and discordant opinions for years (gay marriage comes to mind as a recent example, or the drum beat of war leading up to the invasion of Iraq).
Everyone should watch this video and see it as a possible model to explain how public consensus or spontaneous collective perception is achieved in human society. It solves, at least in an abstract way, the mystery of the 99 monkeys, otherwise known as the 100th monkey effect.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundredth_monkey_effect
Of course the 100 monkey effect has not been empirically confirmed in the primate world, however it still serves as a parable that highlights a real phenomenon involving our collective cognition. Before I go on, please see the amazing video below.
Watch 32 discordant metronomes achieve synchrony in a matter of minutes
If you place 32 metronomes on a static object and set them rocking out of phase with one another, they will remain that way indefinitely. Place them on a moveable surface, however, and something very interesting (and very mesmerizing) happens.
The metronomes in this video fall into the latter camp. Energy from the motion of one ticking metronome can affect the motion of every metronome around it, while the motion of every other metronome affects the motion of our original metronome right back. All this inter-metranome “communication” is facilitated by the board, which serves as an energetic intermediary between all the metronomes that rest upon its surface. The metronomes in this video (which are really just pendulums, or, if you want to get really technical, oscillators) are said to be “coupled.”
The math and physics surrounding coupled oscillators are actually relevant to a variety of scientific phenomena, including the transfer of sound and thermal conductivity. For a much more detailed explanation of how this works, and how to try it for yourself, check out this excellent video by condensed matter physicist Adam Milcovich.
While the math and physics of coupled oscillators may be relevant to other aspects of physics, is it possible that it is relevant to some social phenomenon as well?
To help us see what’s going on, imagine the metronomes are sitting on a pool of water. With each tic the device sends a small wave traveling in the opposit direction. In the beginning, the water’s surface would appear chaotic as the metronomes are all out of sync. Over time some waves will start to cancel out others while some waves will reinforce others. The reinforced waves impart subtle resistance forces on the out-of-sync metronomes gradually stretching the swing in one direction and shortening it in the other until all the pendlums are in sync with the ever strengthening wave patterns beneth them. It is this interaction of forces between the metronomes and the movable surface on which they sit that is referred to above as “inter-metronome communication.”
I suggest that all human communications and actions are similarly played out on a movable social fabric capable of transmitting social forces that resist or reinforce an individuals cognitive perceptions. We are all influence by the strength and direction of these pre-cognitive social forces.
To illustrate, there is an old joke about a British mother watching a large military parade and upon seeing her son marching declared, “Look at that? Everyone is out of step but my Aire!”
Now imagine that Aire is highly regarded among his peers, so much so that they feel badly for him. Some of his friends might decide to provide cover for Aire by adopting his step. Other colleagues near by might see this a funny and join in while still others might become confused, thinking they are out of step. At some point Aire’s stride and the impact on those around him could become self-reinforcing, particularly in his units formation. Soon others begin falling into step adjusting their stride thus strengthening the pattern until a “tipping point” is reach and the rest of the marchers fall in step with Aire. Suddenly that British mother is proven correct!
This is only an analogy, but it is worth considering. I suspect that the physics behind coupled oscillators may point the way to actual solutions to certain unexplained social phenomenon that has perplexed social researchers for years.
What follows is my abridged version of one of the most significant summaries of research into diet and human health. This article was written by Moises Velasquez-Manoff for Mother Jones in April of 2013. When you go to the full text of this article you will also find a video and other helpful information. The focus of this abridgement is to present the key advances in our understanding of diet, obesity and metabolic syndrome. Omitted are the implications and recommendations with respect to dietary changes. I would recommend that you read the full article at Mother Jones. The URL Web address is below.
Are Happy Gut Bacteria Key to Weight Loss?
by Moises Velasquez-Manoff
[Abridged version for readers of DataDrivenViewPoints.com]
MOTHER JONES – April 22, 2013
In 2004 a curious diabetes specialist in Buffalo, New York, named Dr. Paresh Dandona, fed nine normal-weight volunteers an egg sandwich with cheese and ham, a sausage muffin sandwich, and two hash brown patties to see what effect this had on their bodies.
He found that levels of a C-reactive protein, an indicator of systemic inflammation, shot up “within literally minutes,” and remained elevated for hours. Inflammation is a natural and important part of our immune system response, but inflammation can also cause collateral damage, especially when the response is overwhelming—like in septic shock—or when it goes on too long.
Chronic, low-grade inflammation has long been recognized as a feature of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of dysfunctions that tends to precede full-blown diabetes and that also increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, and even dementia—the top killers of the developed world. The syndrome includes a combination of elevated blood sugar and high blood pressure, low “good” cholesterol, and an abdominal cavity filled with fat, often indicated by a “beer belly.” Could chronic systemic inflammation (CSI), in fact, be a major cause of metabolic syndrome disorder? A fast-food breakfast inflamed, he found, but a high-fiber breakfast with lots of fruit did not. A breakthrough came in 2007 when he discovered that while sugar water, a stand-in for soda, caused inflammation, orange juice—even though it contains plenty of sugar—didn’t.
This time, along with their two-sandwich, two-hash-brown, 910-calorie breakfast, one-third of his volunteers—10 in total—quaffed a glass of fresh OJ. The non-juice drinkers, half of whom drank sugar water, and the other half plain water, had the expected response—inflammation and elevated blood sugar. But the OJ drinkers had neither elevated blood sugar nor inflammation. The juice seemed to shield their metabolism. “It just switched off the whole damn thing,” Dandona says. Other scientists have since confirmed that OJ has a strong anti-inflammatory effect.
What caught Dandona’s attention was increased blood levels of a substance called endotoxin. This molecule comes from the outer walls of certain bacteria. If endotoxin levels rise, our immune system perceives a threat and responds with inflammation. Where had the endotoxin come from? We all carry a few pounds’ worth of microbes in our gut, a complex ecosystem collectively called the microbiota. The endotoxin, Dandona suspected, originated in this native colony of microbes. Somehow, a greasy meal full of refined carbohydrates ushered it from the gut, where it was always present but didn’t necessarily cause harm, into the bloodstream, where it did. But orange juice stopped that translocation cold.
If what some scientists now suspect about the interplay of food and intestinal microbes pans out, it could revolutionize the $66 billion weight loss industry—and help control the soaring $2.7 trillion we spend on health care yearly. “What matters is not how much you eat,” Dandona says, “but what you eat.”
Scientists now suspect that our microbial communities contribute to a number of diseases, from allergic disorders like asthma and hay fever, to inflammatory conditions like Crohn’s disease, to cancer, heart disease, and obesity. As newborns, we encounter our first microbes as we pass through the birth canal. Until that moment, we are 100 percent human. Thereafter, we are, numerically speaking, 10 percent human, and 90 percent microbe. Our microbiome contains at least 150 times more genes, collectively, than our human genome.
The importance of intestinal microbes to our health has grown increasingly evident. Animals raised without microbes essentially lack a functioning immune system. Entire repertoires of white blood cells remain dormant; their intestines don’t develop the proper creases and crypts; their hearts are shrunken; genes in the brain that should be in the “off” position remain stuck “on.” Without their microbes, animals aren’t really “normal.”
Scientists now suspect that our microbial communities contribute to a number of human diseases, from allergic disorders like asthma and hay fever, to inflammatory conditions like Crohn’s disease, to cancer, heart disease, and obesity. As newborns, we encounter our first microbes as we pass through the birth canal. Until that moment, we are 100 percent human. Thereafter, we are, numerically speaking, 10 percent human, and 90 percent microbe. Our microbiome contains at least 150 times more genes, collectively, than our human genome. Sometime in childhood, the bustling community of between 500 and 1,000 species stabilizes.
Our stool is roughly half living bacteria by weight. Every day, food goes in one end and microbes come out the other. The human gut is roughly 26 feet in length. Hammered flat, it would have a surface area of a tennis court. Seventy percent of our immune activity occurs there. The gut has its own nervous system; it contains as many neurons as the spinal cord. About 95 percent of the body’s serotonin, a neurotransmitter usually discussed in the context of depression, is produced in the gut. So the gut isn’t just where we absorb nutrients. It’s also an immune hub and a second brain. And it’s crawling with microbes. They don’t often cross the walls of the intestines into the blood stream, but they nevertheless change how the immune, endocrine, and nervous systems all work on the other side of the intestine wall.
Science doesn’t know exactly what goes wrong with our microbes in disease situations but a loss of intentional microbe diversity appears to correlate with the emergence of illness. Children in the developing world have many more types of microbes than kids in Europe or North America yet develop have fewer allergies and less asthma. In the developed world, children raised in microbially rich environments—with pets, on farms, or attending day care—have a lower risk of allergic disease.
Some studies find that babies born by C-section, deprived of their mother’s vaginal microbes at birth, have a higher risk of celiac disease, Type 1 diabetes, and obesity. Early-life use of antibiotics—which tear through our microbial ecosystems like a forest fire—has also been linked to allergic disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and obesity. Those who study human microbial communities fret that they are undergoing an extinction crisis.
If our microbiota plays a role in keeping us healthy, then how about attacking disease by treating the microbiota? After all, our community of microbes is quite plastic. New members can arrive and take up residence. Old members can get flushed out. Member ratios can shift. So the microbiota represents a huge potential leverage point in our quest to treat, and prevent, chronic disease. In particular, the “forgotten organ,” as some call the microbiota, may hold the key to addressing our single greatest health threat: obesity.
One-third of Americans are now considered overweight, and another third obese. Worldwide, one-fourth of humanity is too heavy, according to the World Health Organization. One-third of Americans are now considered overweight, and another third obese. Worldwide, one-fourth of humanity is too heavy, according to the World Health Organization.
The long-dominant explanation is simply that too little exercise and too many calories equals too much stored fat. The solution: more exercise and a lot more willpower. But there’s a problem with this theory: In the developed world, most of us consume more calories than we really need, but we don’t gain weight proportionally. If you run a daily surplus of just 500 calories you should gain a pound of fat per week, but we either gain weight much more slowly, or don’t gain weight at all.
Some corpulent people, meanwhile, have metabolisms that work fine. Their insulin and blood sugar levels are within normal range. Their livers are healthy, not marbled with fat. And some thin people have metabolic syndrome, often signaled by a beer gut. They suffer from fatty liver, insulin resistance, elevated blood sugar, high blood pressure, and low-grade, systemic inflammation. From a public health perspective, these symptoms are where the real problem lies—not necessarily how well we fit into our jeans.
In one study, mice raised without any intestinal microbes could gorge on food without developing metabolic syndrome or growing obese. But when colonized with their native microbes, these mice quickly became insulin resistant and grew fat, all while eating less food. Another researcher suspected that low-level inflammation might be the cause for this. To prove the principle, he gave mice a low dose of endotoxin, that molecule that resides in the outer walls of certain bacteria. The mice’s livers became insulin resistant; the mice became obese and developed diabetes. A high-fat diet alone produced the same result: Endotoxin leaked into circulation; inflammation took hold; the mice grew fat and diabetic. Then came the bombshell. The mere addition of soluble plant fibers called oligosaccharides, found in things like bananas, garlic, and asparagus, prevented the entire cascade—no endotoxin, no inflammation, and no diabetes. Oligosaccharides are one form of what’s known as a “prebiotic”.
Cani had essentially arrived at the same place as Dandona with his freshly squeezed orange juice. Junk food caused nasty microbes to bloom, and friendly bugs to decline. Permeability of the gut also increased, meaning that microbial byproducts—like that endotoxin—could more easily leak into circulation and spur inflammation. Simply adding prebiotics—in this case, Bifidobacteria—kept the gut tightly sealed, preventing the entire cascade. Our sweet and greasy diet changes gut permeability and alters the makeup of our microbial organ. Our “friendly” community of microbes becomes pathogenic, leaking noxious byproducts where they don’t belong.
Probiotics are bacteria thought to be beneficial to digestion, like the lactobacilli and other bacteria in some yogurts. In the future probiotics might be bacteria derived from those found in Amazonian Indians, rural Africans, even the Amish—people, in other words, who retain a microbial diversity that the rest of us may have lost.
Ultimately, the strongest evidence to support microbial involvement in obesity may come from a procedure that, on the face of it, has nothing to do with microbes: gastric bypass surgery. The surgery, which involves creating a detour around the stomach, is the most effective intervention for morbid obesity—far more effective than dieting.
Originally, scientists thought it worked by limiting food consumption. But it’s increasingly obvious that’s not how the procedure works. The surgery somehow changes expression of thousands of genes in organs throughout the body, resetting the entire metabolism. In March, Lee Kaplan, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center in Boston, published a study in Science Translational Medicine showing a substantial microbial contribution to that resetting.
He began with three sets obese mice, all on a high-fat diet. The first set received a sham operation—an incision in the intestine that didn’t really change much, but was meant to control for the possibility that trauma alone could cause weight loss. These mice then resumed their high fat diet. A second set also received a sham operation, but was put on a calorically restricted diet. The third group received gastric bypass surgery, but was then allowed to eat as it pleased. As expected, both the bypass mice and dieted mice lost weight. But only the bypass mice showed normalization of insulin and glucose levels. Without that normalization, says Kaplan, mice and people alike inevitably regain lost weight.
To test the microbial contribution to these outcomes, Kaplan transplanted the microbiota from each set to germ-free mice. Only rodents colonized with microbes from the bypass mice lost weight, while actually eating more than mice colonized with microbes from the other groups. In humans, some studies show a rebound of anti-inflammatory bacteria after gastric-bypass surgery. Dandona has also noted a decline in circulating endotoxin after the procedure. If we understand the mechanism by which the microbiota shifts, he says, perhaps we can induce the changes without surgery.
NOT EVERYONE ACCEPTS that inflammation drives metabolic syndrome and obesity. And even among the idea’s proponents, no one claims that all inflammation emanates from the microbiota. Moreover, if you accept that inflammation contributes to obesity, then you’re obligated to consider all the many ways to become inflamed. The odd thing is, many of them are already implicated in obesity.
Particulate pollution from tailpipes and factories, linked to asthma, heart disease, and obesity, is known to be a cause of inflammation. So is chronic stress. And risk factors may interact with each other: In macaque troops, the high-ranking females, which experience less stress, can eat more junk food without developing metabolic syndrome than the more stressed, lower-ranking females. Epidemiologists have made similar observations in humans. Poorer people suffer the consequences of lousy dietary habits more than do those who are wealthier. The scientists who study this phenomenon call it “status syndrome.”
Exercise, meanwhile, is anti-inflammatory, which may explain why a brisk walk can immediately improve insulin sensitivity. Exercise may also fortify healthy brown fat, which burns off calories rather than storing them, like white fat does. This relationship may explain how physical activity really helps us lose weight. Yes, exercise burns calories, but the amount is often trivial. Just compensating for that bagel you ate for breakfast—roughly 290 calories—requires a 20-minute jog.
Then there’s the brain. Michael Schwartz, director of the Diabetes and Obesity Center of Excellence at the University of Washington in Seattle, has found that the appetite regulation center of the brain—the hypothalamus—is ofteninflamed and damaged in obese people. He can reproduce this damage by feeding mice a high-fat diet; chronic consumption of junk food, it seems, injures this region of the brain. Crucially, the brain inflammation precedes weight gain, suggesting that the injury might cause, or at least contribute to, obesity. In other words, by melting down our appetite control centers, junk food may accelerate its own consumption, sending us into a kind of vicious cycle where we consume more of the poison wreaking havoc on our physiology.
Of course there’s a genetic contribution to obesity. But even here, inflammation rears its head. Some studies suggest that gene variants that increase aspects of immune firepower are over-represented among obese individuals. In past environments, these genes probably helped us fight off infections. In the context of today’s diet, however, they may increase the risk of metabolic syndrome.
Biologically simple, processed foods may cultivate a toxic microbial community, not unlike the algal blooms that result in oceanic “dead zones.” In fact, scientists really do observe a dead zone of sorts when they peer into the obese microbiota. Microbes naturally form communities. In obese people, not only are anti-inflammatory microbes relatively scarce, diversity in general is depleted, and community structure degraded. Microbes that, in ecological parlance, we might call weedy species—the rats and cockroaches of your inner world—scurry around unimpeded. What’s the lesson? Junk food may produce a kind of microbial anarchy. Opportunists flourish as the greater structure collapses. Cooperative members get pushed aside. And you, who both contain and depend on the entire ecosystem, pay the price.
[This abridged version is provided for public use. See https://datadrivenviewpoints.com/fair-use-notice/]
Beauty is average. This is truly a paradigm shifting truth. It is confirmed by both digital photography studies and new understandings of how our brains process information. It turns out Plato had it right when he said there was a place where ideal objects existed, he just didn’t know he was describing a function of our cerebral cortex. The ideal table, for instance, is a mental construct or image in our brain that allows us to recognize infinite variations in size, shape, purpose, color, aspect, texture, design, etc. as an object that is still a table. This is a remarkable fact in itself. But then comes the discovery that the most beautiful human faces ends up being the average face. This is mind blown.
|Individual Faces||Composite Face|
The idea that beauty is average comes from the digital age where photographs can be rendered in pixel formats. The size of the pixels determines the resolution of the photographs. High resolution photographs have many more pixels. Some researchers got the bright idea of taking a lot of high resolution digital portraits of men and woman and then averaging the value of all the pixels that comprised the human male and female face to create a composite image. The images they created of the pixel averaged faces for men and woman turned out to be strikingly beautiful.
Next the researchers took the composite images along with the digital photos of the faces that made up the composite face, and showed these to lots of people. They asked the subjects to rate or rank the beauty of the faces. The researchers found that the average pixel face was most often rated the most beautiful. And so we discovered that beauty is literally the average.
The researchers suggested that as a species the ability to identify beauty, or the average face, may have served a natural selection purpose. They speculated that people with an exactly average appearance are more likely to be healthy, normal and able to have children. Maybe so. Who knows.
What the study also proved, but what the researchers didn’t highlight, is the amazing ability of the brain to identify the exact average of so many faces it encounters. If you think of a bell curve from statistics, the exact average is a relatively small or thin line within the normal range while the normal range of human faces is huge. Just look around and you will see tremendous variations of human faces and body types. But the exact average, or median, of all faces or body types occurs in very few individuals within the population. This fact preserves the truth that beauty is actually very rare.
If it seems like an impossible task for the brain to identify the approximate average human face, then recent understandings of the hierarchical nature of how our cortex processes data suggest how this is done. It turns out that our cerebral cortex creates idealized images of every object we see in our world. This allows us to rapidly and correctly identify object no matter what portion of them we see or individual attributes they may have, such as color, size, texture, composition, design, etc. This attribute also allows us to create idealized images of a human face.
So beauty is average and our brains have a nearly universal sense of beauty. We share this sense because we all have a similar pool of faces from which to identify the average face.
This has profound implications for the arts, but even more profound social implications. It explains how in my desire to be different as a young man I found myself conforming to my peers. When I was young and wanted to distinguish myself from my parents generation. One way I did this was by crudely cutting off the legs off my jeans to create cut-off. It turns out everyone else in my generation was wearing them. I was one of the crowd. In trying to be different from my parents I conformed to others who, like me, also wanted to be different. I identified with an image of who I wanted to be that happened to be the idealized, or exact average, of every other young person wishing to make the same statement.
As it turns out, this self-identified peer conformity is a ubiquitous feature of our human nature. It is possible because of our ability to sort out and idealize groups of objects or people. If I asked you to imagine yourself as a Harley motorcycle biker, you would conger up an idealized version of a biker that approximately represents the average Harley biker. If you acted on this image you might buy and personalize a leather jacket, and do the same for other garments and accessories, until you were satisfied that you fit in with the self-identified peer group of Harley bikers.
We almost effortlessly do this sorting and self-identifying all the time. It explains how we are both so diverse and yet so conforming. We are always moving toward some idealized average image of the groups or things with which we identify even as those idealized averages are shifting over time. But when it comes to thinking about beauty, there is something reassuring about the fact that what makes beautiful people so special is the fact that they are so average. It somehow makes me more content being more or less “normal”.