Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why did I just do that?

What exactly is cognitive dissonance? It sounds like an esoteric, psychological term that has little or no application to our daily lives. I feel it’s far closer to the everyday life than that. Let me explain.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when we hold two different views in our minds which contradict each other, or when our actions contradict our beliefs. For instance, I spent years smoking, knowing full well that it was shortening my lifespan. The effect of this was that I rationalized my smoking by thinking, “My father is 80 years old and smoked his whole life.” Well, the addiction helped too. I have since quit, but the effect was to draw down the intensity of the belief that it would eventually kill me.

Another example, a bit more personal, is the belief that we don’t have free will; that we live in a deterministic universe. The dissonance comes when I beat myself up for past mistakes. As it did in the above instance, this reduces my intensity of belief in the deterministic universe. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to completely let go of my guilt, but I have reduced it considerably by reminding myself of the deterministic universe in which we all live.

Other common instances of cognitive dissonance are in relationships- if you don’t like a person, but do something nice for them anyway, you may find yourself liking those individuals more than you did prior to the favor. Conversely, if you like someone and they hurt you, the dislike you feel towards them will be disproportionate to the amount of harm they have done.

This can be used to your advantage. If there’s someone who dislikes you, tricking them into doing you a favor (say, by asking them in polite company), they may come around to liking you. Benjamin Franklin famously did exactly this with a rival legislator, though whether he did it deliberately or accidentally is unclear. In any case, they became fast friends until the death of the legislator rather rudely ended their relationship.

Keep this framework in mind when you catch yourself rationalizing, or behaving oddly- you may have a lot more going on in your head than you thought!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Real Down Under

Growing up, I always dismissed Antarctica. It's just a giant block of ice, I thought, and not worthy of any consideration unless that ice melts and floods our worlds. Sure, I knew that some scientists used it for research, primarily NASA, for examining space rocks. Other than that, I didn't think about it much (clearly). It was an uninteresting block of ice floating at the bottom of the planet, impassible and ultimately uninteresting. NOVA showed me to be absolutely wrong in just about everything I had assumed.
For one thing, it's actually a huge continent, a land mass covered in ice, not a free floating ice berg of some sort. Something had to serve as the anchor, after all- a fact obvious on reflection. Did you know it has mountains the size of the Appalachians buried under miles of ice? I didn't. I didn't know the ice was so thick that it compressed the earths surface in some places. In many ways, I just didn't know how big it was. I also didn't know that it was once a teeming forest, with as much life as the Amazon has today, and that it is a source of amazing fossils, containing plant-life literally flash frozen by wayward glaciers.
Did you know that Antarctica has ancient landscapes, unchanged for millions of years, free of ice? Or that NASA uses these very landscapes, so alien to anything on Earth as to be more similar to Mars, as testing grounds for some of their robots? Again, if you didn't, at least you have company in that ignorance. In fact, many of the rocks have sat exactly where they are for millions of years! It's hard not to be humbled by that knowledge, that rocks older than humans themselves exist in relatively unchanged form somewhere, today.
I highly encourage anyone to watch the linked episode of NOVA, it's full of amazing facts. My main takeaway? If global warming continues unabated, and the water levels do rise by the end of the century, at least we'll have land we can transplant the hundreds of millions of disenfranchised people to. At least one of the things I thought I knew was validated.
My only complaint? They refuse to pronounce the first C in Antarctica. But maybe that's just a pet peeve of mine.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On the Brown Recluse

Given that a friend of mine was just hospitalized from one of these nasty buggers (or arachniders for you pedants) I decided to do a little bit of research and share my findings, so that any of you living in areas where they are common can take precautions. Like I said, my friend was put in the hospital, so they can be quite serious.
The brown recluse is generally non-aggressive; unlike certain nasty creatures, it usually doesn't go for blood. It bites defensively. The fact that they aren't very big, barely the size of a quarter, does little to help with recognition of their presence, however. Avoiding dark and cluttered areas is another good start. The thing to be concerned about is putting on clothes that have been lying around for a while, or disturbing bedding that hasn't been touched. Even then, it's only necessary for some people to be concerned- like poison ivy, many people will have different levels of severity when reacting to the bite. In the worst case scenario, like what happened to my friend, the tissue becomes necrotic (begins to die) in the area of the bite. This can cause all sorts of nasty complications, such as the second picture illustrates. The necrotic tissue can in turn cause more problems independent of the spider's bite, by releasing harmful chemicals into the victim's system. This is usually what leads to the need for hospitalization.
Symptoms of bites can range from anything from harmless to dangerous. Already mentioned is the necrotic tissue. Sudden or slow onset pain in the area of the bite, is the most common symptom. General itchiness, outside of the localized area, fever, chills, nausea and even going into shock can also result, though these are less common. Finally, and least common is the "volcano lesion" which looks like the picture above.
If you are bitten, here are a few things you can do:
  • Seek medical attention immediately.
  • Treat for symptoms such as shock.
  • Put ice on the wound- the longer you can delay the poison, the better.
  • Try to find the spider. It is important for proper treatment and identification.
  • If you already smacked it with your boot, it's mangled corpse can still help.
  • Get to the hospital as quickly as you can- the longer you wait, the more damage is done.
So, remember- brown recluses are far from the scariest things in this world, but they can do a lot of damage if ignored. Protect yourself by following simple cleanliness habits and avoid the chance of danger altogether. So, until next time, enjoy the pictures, and stay safe.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Anatomy of a Nightmare

I apologize to both of my readers for being away for so long- I recently deployed and just got back. I didn't have the time to get blogging as I'd like to.
Nightmares have always fascinated me- they've always seemed to me as a symbol of the demented masochism in human nature. The twisted and distorted halls of dreams, filled with beasts of untold horror and hair loss, are a bit of a blessing to me- they're a place where I can feel strong emotions. Fear. Panic. The fear I feel in the dreams is the purest emotion, even if it's not the most pleasant at the time. For me, the dreamscape of a nightmare is a hallowed, if harrowing, place for me to revel in humanity sometimes just out of reach in my waking life.
A quick primer on what a nightmare is. At night, you go through cycles in your sleep. The REM, or rapid eye movement phase, is where most of us dream. And most of our dreams are bad ones, full of fear and anxiety. They aren't nightmares, though- nightmares are the dreams bad enough to make you wake up. Your brain is almost completely active during REM sleep, including the parts controlling your body, sending signals to your arms and legs and so forth. While you sleep, a tiny part of the brain keeps your body frozen, so that you aren't injuring yourself while running away from Cthulhu. While you dream, your primary visual cortex and the neo-cortex are largely quiet. The secondary visual cortex is wide awake and working hard, however, making our dreams largely visual.
Why we dream is a sticky question, and to my knowledge there wasn't, and isn't, a definitive answer by any means. The one I was most familiar with was the notion that it was random cinema being played inside the skull on the sleeping visual cortex- a garble of random thoughts and raw emotion.
However, there's a fairly old story (October, 2007) I just stumbled across that says something quite different. Basically that our dreams may be a way of "scrubbing" our fears, allaying them by ludicrously persistent confrontation. Despite my original hypothesis, I like this new one. And it seems to make sense: older people have progressively less nightmares as they get older, their fears gradually fading. Even the apparent evil of nightmares have some purpose, some value for good. I also find it upsetting that I may be dreaming even less in the future, but knowing that it is because my waking fears are assuaged gives me some measure of hope. And, given that people continue dreaming their whole lives, I can expect more pleasant dreams as I age. Some tips for inducing (or avoiding, if you reverse them) bad dreams:
  • Eat spicy food or any food that will cause indigestion. This makes you sleep more fitfully, and you'll wake up, sometimes in the midst of REM sleep, where you'll be more likely to remember your dreams, negative or otherwise.
  • Drink lots of water. This will have a similar effect to the above suggestion, waking you frequently.
  • Alcohol in moderation, just before sleep.
  • Keep a dream journal. Write down your dreams, and you will train your mind to remember them, at least for a few more minutes each morning.
Remember, what you're dreaming about may have direct implications in your waking life- if you're always dreaming about being late to work, you're probably worried about the consequences. If you confront these directly, you'll likely see the nightmares fade more quickly.
So, dear reader, sleep well, and dream.

Now playing: Avenged Sevenfold - Nightmare (Official Music Video)
via FoxyTunes