31 May 2015

"Experience doesn't fit expectations, you have to recalibrate..."

Awe is the perception of something so physically or conceptually vast that it transcends your view of the world and you need to find ways to accommodate it. It's a basic sense that what you have experienced doesn't fit in with your expectations of the world, so you have to recalibrate.
Paul Piff, University of California, Irvine.

Piff and colleagues say that an exercise designed to inspire awe encouraged subjects to endorse more ethical decisions, lower their sense of entitlement and report more 'prosocial' values in which they pay more attention to the needs of others than their own.  Piff and Dacher Keltner write:
Our research finds that even brief experiences of awe, such as being amid beautiful tall trees, lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity people share with one another... 
We suggest that people insist on experiencing more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives them goose bumps, be it in looking at trees, night skies, patterns of wind on water or the quotidian nobility of others.

See also The science of awe

Image: Eucalyptus Regnans by Patche99z via wikimedia.

28 May 2015

'Colour is a way of seeing things'

Color is a mode of interpreting information, and sometimes it tells us more than pigment. It can tell us about motion: a black-and-white wheel set spinning reveals the rainbow. It can tell us about depth: Long distances appear blue because higher wavelength red light scatters less. “Color is not an object of sight but a way of seeing things,” writes Mazviita Chirimuuta. [1]
Does color even exist? by Malcolm Harris.
Perception belongs not to optics but to the study of the wonderful.
Johannes Kepler

Note [1] but colour reveals the shape of space and time in the universe.

Image: alphacoders.com


We know there's a law of nature, the second law of thermodynamics, that says that disorderliness grows with time. Is there another law of nature that governs how complexity evolves? One that talks about multiple layers of the structures and how they interact with each other? Embarrassingly enough, we don't even know how to define this problem yet. We don't know the right quantitative description for complexity. This is very early days. This is Copernicus, not even Kepler, much less Galileo or Newton. This is guessing at the ways to think about these problems.  
Layers of Reality, Sean Carroll

Image: Rhea in front of Saturn, NASA

26 May 2015

The glittering hour

And then one of your little days, like a kingfisher, will fly over the waters, diving own beneath the opaque golden surface of your mind, where swim your earliest, submarine memories. What is caught is a tiny primeval memory that should mean nothing, a throwaway. Yet when pulled out of the water, gripped in a birdbeak, lashing the air and throwing flashing grapefruit-coloured waterdrops from its glittering tiny perishing silver self, this forgotten, underwater matter will suddenly mean the world to you — the long lost glittering hour that means more than age, more than logic, more than lore.
Things That Are by Amy Leach (2012)

Photo by author

Maximum strangeness with maximum simplicity

It is cheering to think than an object so different from all others, a from that achieves the maximum strangeness with the maximum simplicity and regularity and harmony, is rotating in the sky. 
 “If the ancients had been able to see it as I see it now,” Mr Palomar thinks, “they would have thought they had projected their gaze into the heaven of Plato’s ideas, or in the immaterial space of the postulates of Euclid; but instead, thanks to some misdirection or other, this sight has been granted to me, who fear it is too beautiful to be true, too gratifying to my imaginary universe to belong to the real world. But perhaps it is this same distrust of our senses that prevents us from feeling comfortable in the universe. Perhaps the first rule I must impose on myself is this: stick to what I see.”
Mr Palomar by Italo Calvino (1983)

Image: NASA

22 May 2015

'Core features of spiritual experience'

According to one account, spiritual experience across history and culture has these core features: 
• A degree of aliveness and intensity that makes ‘normal experience’ seem vapid and attenuated. 
• A sense of belonging and connectedness, of being part of a larger whole, of being naturally ‘at home’, that highlights a common background feeling of loneliness or alienation in normal experience. 
• A sense of caring and compassion towards other people in general, and even aspects of nature and the environment, that makes their well-being matter in a non-possessive way, and compared to which normal experience seems apathetic or of less meaning. 
• A feeling of depth; of calm connectedness and open involvement with mystery and uncertainty without any insecurity, compared with a rather anxious dogmatism – a need to feel right or certain – that attends normal experience. 
• A feeling of ease and lightness, of peace, acceptance and harmony, that contrasts with a background sense of agitation, restlessness or unsatisfactoriness that seems often to accompany normal experience.
from Science and Spirituality: ‘Effing the Ineffable’ by Guy Claxton (2013) quoted in Spiritualise by Jonathan Rowson, RSA (2014), which also quotes Oliver Robinson:
Science and spirituality are streams of culture with a common source in the progressive, rebellious ethos of modernity. They are both premised on the values of exploration, questioning, continued innovation, and of never-ending search.

Photo: Douglas Griffin

21 May 2015

Riddle and microcosm

...The challenge of desert narrative thus nourishes a yearning to discover other chords, allowing our inner selves to be uttered, and raising up a spiritual chant capable of communicating the venture of a human who is both a riddle and a microcosm. In this process, dream replaces the traditional novelistic capital of relationship.  
Through the inspiring breath of mythology, the human becomes an axis, gathering existence around himself. Not content simply to encompass society, he contains existential experience in all its worldly dimensions. Borrowing talismans from the Unknown, he vanquishes the Ghoul. He is like Oedipus, whose own talismans defeated the riddles of the Sphinx, crouched over Thebes...
from Desert Narrative: Challenges and Possibilities by Ibrahim al-Koni at Vagabond Homelands

Image from New Desert Myths by David Parker

Perceiving without seeing

An octopus's skin possesses same cellular mechanism for detecting light as its eyes do. 
As Amy Leach notes, there is seeing without perceiving, and there is also perceiving without seeing.
image UCSB

20 May 2015

Radiant transition

Consciousness converges with the child as a landing tern touches the outspread feet of its shadow on the sand; precisely, toe hits toe. The tern folds its wings to sit; its shadow dips and spreads over the sand to meet and cup its breast. 
Like any child, I slid into myself perfectly fitted, as a diver meets her reflection in a pool. Her fingertips enter the fingertips on the water, her wrists slide up her arms. The diver wraps herself in her reflection wholly, sealing it at the toes, and wears it as she climbs rising from the pool, and ever after.
An American Childhood Annie Dillard (1977)

19 May 2015

How little we know

Increasingly, neuroscientists believe that the key to understanding how the brain works lies in its over-all neural circuitry, and the way that widely separated brain regions communicate through the long-range projection of nerve fibres...
Christof Koch...likens Karl Deisseroth to Galileo, whose early improvements of the telescope afforded a huge advance in our understanding of the cosmos. Even so, like Galileo’s telescope, which opened up the immensity of space, Deisseroth’s technologies have helped reveal how little we know about the brain—what Koch calls “by far the most complex piece of organized matter in the known universe.”
The Optogenetics Breakthrough

See image here

15 May 2015

Indistinguishable from magic

Most things [the natives] sawe with vs, as Mathematicall instruments, sea compasses, the vertue of the loadstone in drawing yron, a perspectiue glasse whereby was shewed manie strange sightes, burning glasses, wildfire woorkes, gunnes, bookes, writing and reading, spring clocks that seeme to goe of themselues, and manie other thinges that wee had, were so straunge vnto them, and so farre exceeded their capacities to comprehend the reason and meanes how they should be made and done, that they thought they were rather the works of gods then of men, or at the leastwise they had bin giuen and taught vs of the gods.
from A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia by Thomas Harriot (1588)

Image: drawing of moon by Thomas Harriot (1610)

14 May 2015

A math of dreams

Players will begin at the outer edges of a galaxy containing 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 unique planets... 
Every player will begin on a randomly chosen planet at the outer perimeter of a galaxy. The goal is to head toward the center, to uncover a fundamental mystery, but how players do that, or even whether they choose to do so, is open to them. People can mine, trade, fight, or merely explore. As planets are discovered, information about them (including the names of their discoverers) is loaded onto a galactic map that is updated through the Internet. But, because of the game’s near-limitless proportions, players will rarely encounter one another by chance. As they move toward the center, the game will get harder, and the worlds—the terrain, the fauna and flora—will become more alien, more surreal.
from Word without end - creating a full scale digital cosmos by Raffi Khatchadourian

Image: Messier 82 NASA, ESA

13 May 2015

'We have just awakened into this cosmos, as from a dream'

The ancient cosmos was not a complex mathematical structure. It was a sensory world, stitched together from people’s everyday experiences, people who had never seen Earth’s curves from orbit, or the night sky as magnified by a telescope...In the sacred Sanskrit text the Rig Veda, the universe begins as a symmetrical orb of pure potential, an egg surrounded by an infinite amniotic sea, which splits into two bowls of earth and sky, with the yolk-like sun hovering somewhere in the middle. 
The earth that emerged from this primordial separation was usually a flat, round disc, wrinkled by mountains, cut through with rivers, and surrounded by ocean on every side. Above this disc was the closed dome of the sky, and below it was an underground realm of equivalent size. Together, they formed a sphere. Every night, the sun would travel through the invisible underworld after teetering over the horizon’s edge. The ancients knew this because the sun reappeared at dawn on the earth’s opposite side.
from Is Cosmology Having a Creative Crisis? by Ross Anderson

Images: Nebra Sky Disk, mid second millennium BC (Rainer Zenz) and illustration from Thomas Wright's Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe (1750), an influence on Immanuel Kant's Universal Natural History and Theory of Heaven (1755)

12 May 2015

More than just music

Feelings of weightlessness may be experienced when listening to Lumbye's Champagne Galop, Bob Marley's Exodus, or Bach's St. Matthew Passion…  
Metaphors employed by the informants include snowflakes (Bach), stone pillars (Mozart), an incense holder (Beethoven), and a red-hot toaster (Wagner). Listening experiences are compared to having lemonade in one's legs, being cut by a piercing laser beam, going on a rollercoaster, or being nailed to the bench…  
Other kinds of feelings include satisfaction, gratitude, perfection, love, solemnity, humility, admiration, patriotism, and sex…  
Music may prove important in connection with illness and death (e.g., funeral music), as well as with love…  
Music may prompt epiphanies that suddenly change a situation completely… 
Strong experiences when performing music…include (total) involvement, experiencing no fear, no time, no self, trance, collective touch, universal humanity...
from a review essay by Sven Bjerstedt of Strong Experiences with Music: Music is Much More than Just Music by Alf Gabrielsson (2011)

See also Syncopation, Body-Movement and Pleasure in Groove Music

On the negative side: Pathways to Music Torture

Image: Ad Parnassum by Paul Klee (1932)

10 May 2015

'In this place the world is revealed to you'

She found a most precious necklace under her garment; and as she gazed closely at it, it seemed to spread such a blaze of light that it filled all Britain with its gracious splendour. [1] 
In this same time our Lord shewed to me a ghostly sight of his homely loveing. He shewed a littil thing the quantitye of an hesil nutt in the palme of my hand, and it was as round as a balle. I lokid there upon with eye of my understondyng and thowte, What may this be? And it was generally answered thus: It is all that is made. [2] 
What does it feel like to be dormant for a thousand years? Perhaps it feels like being dormant for a million years. Or for the twinkling of an eye...[3]

[1] Breguswith's dream, Bede (7th Century)
[2] Julian of Norwich (1342–1416)
[3] Things That Are by Amy Leach (2012)

Photo: at Bradwell Shell Bank by author

7 May 2015

Peripheral vision

Modern life trains us to see in tunnel vision. We focus on screens, books, faces, the road ahead, leaving the peripheries blind and forgotten.
Richard Grant
Novel things happen when you are concentrating on what you think you know and something occurs in left field.
Norman Doidge

Image: A.Fitzsimmons/ESO

6 May 2015

Omnicloakia Echolalia

The Patagonian vine Boquila trifoliolata.. is a thin-stalked woody climber which can spiral from ground level to high canopy, and is endemic to the temperate forests of South America. Its basic foliage pattern is composed of groups of three roughly spear-shaped leaves. What is not supposed to be possible is that these leaves are able to mimic the colour, shape, size and orientation of those of its host trees... Boquila’s leaves stay within the green-blue spectrum and keep their formation, but as the vine winds through the tree community over weeks and months, the leaves morph to resemble those of each new supporting species, even ones it may never have encountered before. In the space of few metres the leaves of a single vine can be as smooth as an ivy’s, more rounded like box, then bluish and deeply veined, then yellow-green, serrated, oval-ended...  
The Chilean researchers who discovered this mysterious legerdemain made a series of photographs of entwined trees, and had to insert arrows to point out which leaves belong to the vine and which to the host trees, so difficult are they to tell apart. ...They have no idea how the vine does its trick, except that, in being able to cope with unfamiliar situations, it is demonstrating the first principle of intelligence... 
from The Cabaret of Plants by Richard Mabey (2015).

See also Jerry Coyne 

5 May 2015

Giant dunes

Sand dunes in the Badain Jaran Desert in China. Many sand dunes are 200 to 300 meters (660 to 980 feet) high. The tallest exceed 460 meters (1500 feet).

Amid the dunes are dozens of saline lakes whose origin is unclear.

Image NASA

1 May 2015

A physical impossibility

White light contains a mixture of all wavelengths in the visible spectrum. It is the dirtiest, muddiest color possible. But the visual system does not model it in that way. Instead, the visual system encodes the information of high brightness and low color. That is the brain’s model of white light— a high value of brightness and a low value of color, a purity of luminance— a physical impossibility.
Consciousness and the Social Brain by Michael Graziano

Image from here