January 27, 2015

How we got to now by Steven Johnson

How we got to now by Steven Johnson
Six innovations that made the modern world and the six innovations are "Glass," "Cold," "Sound," "Clean," "Time" and "Light.

Hummingbird effect - an innovation or cluster of innovations, in one field ends up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain together. Like a variation on the famous ‘butterfly effect’ from chaos theory, where the flap of a butterfly’s wing in California ends up triggering a hurricane in the mid-Atlantic.

Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press created a surge in demand for spectacles, as the new practice of reading made Europeans across the continent suddenly realize that they were farsighted; the market demand for spectacles encouraged a growing number of people to produce and experiment with lenses, which led to invention of the microscope, which shortly thereafter enabled us to perceive that our bodies were made up of microscopic cells.


Roughly 26 million years ago, something happened over the sands of the Libyan Desert. Grains of silica melted and fused under an intense heat that must have been at least a thousand degrees. When those superheated grains of sand cooled down below their melting point, a vast stretch of the Libyan Desert was coated with a layer of what we now call glass.

Scientist began to explore the idea that the Libyan glass rose from a comet colliding with the earth’s atmosphere and exploding over the desert sands. Scientists and space agencies have spent billions of dollars searching for particles of comets because they offer such profound insight into the formation of solar systems. The pebble from the Libyan Desert now gives them direct access to the geochemistry of comets. And all the while, glass was pointing the way.


Boston businessman named Frederic Tudor knew from personal experience that a large block of ice could last well into the depths of summer if it was kept out of the sun. And that knowledge would plant the seed of an idea in his mind, an idea that would ultimately made him an immensely wealthy man.

Ice powered refrigeration changed the map of America. Cooling rooms packed with natural ice that allowed them to pack pork year around, one of the principal innovations in the industry.

Places that had been intolerably hot and humid were suddenly tolerable to a much larger slice of the general public. By 1964, the historic flow of people from South to North that had characterized the post-Civil War era had been reversed. The Sun Belt expanded with new immigrants from colder states who could put up with the tropical humidity or blazing desert climates thanks to domestic air-conditioning.

Broad changes in demography invariably have political effects. The migration to the Sun Belt changed the political map of America. Once a Democratic stronghold, the South was besieged by a massive influx of retirees who were more conservative in their political outlook. In the first half of 20th century, only two presidents or vice presidents hailed from Sun Belt states. Starting in 1952, however, every single winning presidential ticket contained a Sun Belt candidate, until Barack Obama and Joe Biden broke the streak in 2008.

It is no accident that the world’s largest cities - London, Paris, New York, Tokyo - were almost exclusively in temperate climate until the second half of the twentieth century, All around the world, the fastest growing megacities are predominantly in tropical climates: Chennai, Bangkok, Manila, Jakarta, Karachi, Lagos, Dubai, Rio de Janeiro. Demographers predict that these hot cities will have more than a billion new residents by 2025.


The essential revolution in vision largely unfolded between Renaissance and the Enlightenment: spectacles, microscopes, telescopes, seeing clearly, seeing very far and seeing very close. The technologies of the voice did not arrive in full force until the late nineteenth century. The first breakthrough in our obsession with the human voice arrived in the simple act of writing it down.

The dream of recording the human voice entered the adjacent possible only after two key developments: one from physics, the other from anatomy. Edouard-Leon Scott invented the first sound recording device in history, but he forgot to include playback.

Our ancestors first noticed the power of echo and reverberation to change the sonic properties of the human voice tens of thousands of years ago; for centuries we have used those properties to enhance the range and power of our vocal chords, from cathedrals to Wall of Sound. But it is hard to imagine anyone studying the physics of sound two hundred years ago predicting that those echoes would be used to track undersea weapons or determine the sex of an unborn child. What began with the most moving and intuitive sound to the human ear - the sound of our voice in song, laughter, sharing of news or gossip - has been transformed into the tools of both war and peace, death and life.


Building a city on perfectly flat land would seem like a good problem to have; San Francisco, Cape Town or Rio would pose more engineering problem for buildings and for transportation. But flat topographies don't drain and in the middle of the nineteenth century, gravity-based drainage was key to urban sewer systems.

19th century Chicago (flat terrain city) had both human and animal waste to deal with, the horses in the streets, the pigs and cattle awaiting slaughter in the stockyards. Epidemics of cholera and dysentery erupted regularly in the 1850s. Sixty people died a day during the outbreak of cholera in the summer of 1854. The authorities at the time didn’t fully understand the connection between waste and diseases.

Ellis Chesbrough got appointed as chief engineer to solve the sewage problem. Chesbrough launched one of the most ambitious engineering projects of the 19th century: building by building, Chicago was lifted by an army of men with jack-screws. As the jack-screws raised the building inch by inch, workmen would dig holes under the building foundation and install thick timbers to support them, while masons scramble to build a new footing under the structure. Sewer lines were inserted beneath buildings with main lines running down the center of streets which were then buried in land fall that had been dredged out of the Chicago river, raising the entire city almost ten feet on average.

The result was the first comprehensive sewer system in any American city. Within 3 decades, more than 20 cities around the country followed Chicago’s lead, planning and installing their own underground networks of sewer tunnels. Today, entire parallel worlds exist underground, powering and supporting the cities that rise above them.

new jersey doctor John Leal experimented with many techniques for killing bacteria and thus the cholera. In almost complete secrecy, without any permission from government authorities, Leal decided to add chlorine to the Jersey City reservoirs. Unlike others, Leal made no attempt to patent the chlorination technique that he had pioneered at the Boonton Reservoir. Town by town, country by country, colorization became a standard procedure.

Chlorination wasn’t just about saving lives; it was also about having fun. After the World War I, ten thousand chlorinated public baths and pools opened across America, learning how to swim became a rite of passage. These new aquatic public spaces were the leading edge in challenges to the old rules of public decency during the period between the wars. Before the rise of municipal pools, women bathers generally dressed as though they were bundled up for a sleigh ride. By the mid 1920, women began exposing their legs below their knee; one-piece suits with lower necklines emerged a few years later. In total, a woman’s thighs, hip line, shoulders, stomach, back and breast line all become publically exposed between 1920 and 1940. At the turn of the century, the average woman’s bathing suit requires ten yards of fabric; by the end of the 1930s, one yard was sufficient.

We celebrate the things they make possible - towering skyscrapers and even more powerful computers - but we don’t celebrate the sewers and the clean room themselves. Yet their achievements are everywhere around us.


For almost the entire span of human history, time had been calculated by tracking the heavenly rhythms of solar bodies. Like the earth itself, our sense of time revolved around the sun.

In 1583, a 19 year old student at the University of Pisa attended prayers at the cathedral and while day dreaming in the pews, noticed one of the altar lamps swaying back and forth. No matter how large the arc, the lamp appeared to take the same amount of time to swing back and forth. As arc decreased in length, the speed of the lamp decreased as well. To confirm his observation, the student measured the lamp's swing against the only reliable clock he could find: his own pulse. The student was none other than Galileo Galilei.

Ships were in absolute need for split-second accuracy and sailors lacked any way to determine the longitude at sea. All across Europe, bounties were offered for anyone who could solve the problem of determining longitude at sea: Philip III of Spain offered a life’s pension in ducats, while the famous Longitude prize in England promised more than 1 million dollars in today’s currency.

Galileo’s memory of the altar lamp, his studies on motion and the moons of Jupiter, the rise of a global shipping industry and the new demand for clocks that would be accurate to the second, created the pendulum clock.

Pierre Curie had surmised that the decay rate of certain elements might be used as a ‘clock’ to determine the age of rocks. But the technique now popularly known as carbon dating, wasn’t perfected until the late 1940s. Most clocks focus on measuring the present: What time is it right now? But radiocarbon  clocks are all about the past. Different elements decay at wildly different rats which means that are like clock running at different time scales. Carbon 14 ticks every five thousand years, but potassium 40 clocks every 1.3 billion years. That makes radiocarbon dating an ideal clock for the deep time of human history, while potassium 40 measures geologic time, the history of the planet itself.

Why go to such extravagant lengths to build a clock that might tick only once in your life time? Because new modes of measuring force us to think about the world in a new light. Just as the microseconds of quartz and cesium opened up new ideas that transformed everyday life in countless ways, the slow time of the Long Now clock (clock that ticks once a year) helps us to think in a new ways about the future.


Today’s night sky shines six thousand times brighter than it did just 150 years ago. Artificial light has transformed the way we work and sleep, helped create global networks of communication and may soon enable radical breakthrough in energy productions

The Babylonians and Romans developed oil based lamps, but the technology virtually disappeared during the Dark ages. For almost two thousand years, all the way to the dawn of the industrial age, the candle was the reigning solution for indoor lighting.  Significant economic rewards awaited anyone who managed to harpoon a sperm whale. The artificial light of the spermaceti candle triggered an explosion in the whaling industry, building out the beautiful seaside towns of Nantucket and Edgartown. Thousands of lives were lost at sea chasing these majestic creatures, including from the notorious sinking of the Essex, which ultimately inspired Herman Melville’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick.

National Ignition Facility (NIF) labs in Northern California, where scientists have built the world’s largest and highest-energy laser system. At NIF, they are taking light full circle, using lasers to create a new source of energy based on nuclear fusion, re-creating the process that occurs naturally in the dense core of the sun, our original source of natural light.

When all of NIF’s energy slams into its millimeter-sized targets, unprecedented conditions are generated in the target materials - temperature of more than a hundred million degrees, densities up to a hundred times the density of lead, and pressures more than a hundred billion times Earth’s atmospheric pressure. These conditions are similar to those inside starts, the cores of giant plants and nuclear weapons - allowing NIF to create, in essence a miniature star of earth, fusing hydrogen atoms together and releasing a staggering amount of energy. One way or another, we are still chasing new light.

January 18, 2015

Stumbling on happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Stumbling on happiness by Daniel Gilbert
Think you know what makes you happy.

“One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that will make happiness; one only stumbles upon them by chance, in a lucky hour, at the world's end somewhere, and hold fast to the days...” - Willa Cather, "Le Lavandou"

Prospection - The act of looking forward in time or considering the future.

The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future. When people are asked to report how much they think about the past, present and future, they claim to think about the future the most. One of the main reason is merely thinking or imagining these possibilities is itself is a source of joy. When people daydream about the future, they tend to imagine themselves achieving and succeeding rather than fumbling or failing.

Why we worry too much about possible outcomes? Two reasons: First, thinking about unpleasant events can minimize their impact. The second reason why we take such pains to imagine unpleasant events in that fear, worry and anxiety have useful roles to play in our lives. We motivate employees, children, spouses, and pets do the right thing by dramatizing the unpleasant consequences of doing it wrong.

Prospection can provide pleasure and prevent pain and this is one of the reason why our brains stubbornly insist on churning out thoughts of the future. We have large frontal lobe so that we can look into the future, we look into the future so that we can make prediction about it, we make predictions about it so that we can control it . People find it gratifying to exercise control.

Subjectivity - The fact that experience is unobservable to everyone but the person having it.

We all steer ourselves toward the futures that we think will make us happy, but what does that word really mean? And how can we ever hope to achieve solid, scientific answers to questions about something as gossamer as a feeling?

The word happiness is used to indicate at least three related things which we might roughly call emotional happiness, moral happiness and judgmental happiness.

Emotional happiness is the feeling common to the feelings. For example, we have when we see our new granddaughters smile for the first time, receive word of promotion, help a wayward tourist find the art museum, taste Belgian chocolate toward the back of our tongue, inhale the scent of our lover’s shampoo, hear that song we used to like so much in high-school but have not heard in years. These feelings are different, but they also have something in common. It is an experience; it can only be approximately defined by its antecedents and by its relation to other experiences.

The novelist Graham Greene wrote, “Hatred seem to operate the same glands as love”. It is possible to mistake fear for lust, apprehension for guilt, shame for anxiety.

The dissociation between awareness and experience can cause the same sort of spookiness with regard to our emotions. Some people seem to be keenly aware of their moods and feelings and may even have a novelist’s gift for describing their every shade and flavor. others of us come equipped with a somewhat more basic emotional vocabulary that much to the chagrin of our romantic partners, consists primarily of ‘good’ or ‘not so good’ and ‘I have already told you’.

Realism - The belief that things are in reality as they appear to be in the mind

We use our eyes to look into space and our imagination to look into time. Just as our eyes sometimes lead us to see things as they are not, our imaginations sometimes lead us to foresee things as they will not be. Imagination suffers from three shortcomings that give rise to the illusion.

Our inattention to absences influences the way we think about the future. Just as we don’t remember every detail of a past event so do we fail to imagine every detail of a future event?

It is difficult to escape focus of our own attention - difficult to consider what it is we may not be considering and this is one of the reasons why we so often mis-predict our emotional responses to future events.

Presentism - The tendency for current experience to influence one’s views of the past and the future.

We have already seen how brains make ample use of the filling-in trick when they remember the past or imagine the future and the phrase ‘filling in” suggests an image of a hole being plugged with some sort of material. For example, when middle-aged people are asked to remember what they thought about premarital sex, how they felt about political issues, or how much alcohol they drink when they were in the college, their memories are influenced by how they think feel and drink now. The tendency to fill in the holes in our memories of the past with material from the present is esp. powerful when it comes to remembering emotions.

Pre-feeling often allows us to predict. our emotions better than logical thinking does. But pre-feeling has limits. How we feel when we imagine some things is not always a good guide to how we will feel when we see hear wear drive eat or kiss it. For example, why do you close your eyes when you want to visualize an object or jam your fingers in your ears when you want to remember the melody of certain song? You do these things because your brain must see its visual and auditory cortices to execute acts of visual and auditory imaginations and if these areas are already busy doing their primary jobs, then they are not available for acts of imaginations

Among life’s cruelest truths is this one: Wonderful things are esp. wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition. But human beings have discovered two devices that allow them to combat this tendency: variety and time (frequency)

We make mistakes when we compare with the past instead of the possible. When we do compare with the possible, we still make mistakes. One of the most insidious things about side by side comparison is that it leads us to pay attention to any attribute that distinguishes the possibilities we are comparing. All of the facts about comparison mean for our ability to imagine future feelings are: 1) value is determined by the comparison of one thing with another, 2) there is more than one kind of comparison we can make in any given instances and 3) we may value something more highly when we make one kind of comparison than when we make a different kind of comparison.

Rationalization - the act of causing something to be or to seem reasonable
Imagination has a hard time telling us how we will think about the future when we get there. If we have trouble foreseeing future events, then we have even more trouble foreseeing how we will see them when they happen.

The only thing more difficult than finding a needle in a haystack is finding a needle in a needle-stack. When an object is surrounded by similar objects it naturally blends in and when it is surrounded by dissimilar objects it naturally stands out.

The interesting question is how we disambiguate them - that is how we know which of a stimulus’s many meaning to infer on a particular occasion. research shows that context, frequency and recency are esp. important in this regard.

Why do people regret inactions more than actions? One reason is that the psychological immune system has a more difficult time manufacturing positive and credible views of inaction than of actions. If our action turned out to be wrong one, we can console ourselves by thinking of all the things we learned from the experience. However, if our inactions turned out to be a missing a fortune, we can’t console ourselves by thinking of all the things we learned from the experience because there wasn’t one.

Unexplained events have two qualities that amplify and extend their emotional impact. First, they strike us as rare and unusual. The second reason is that we are esp. likely to keep thinking about them.

Explanation robs events of their emotional impact because it makes them seem likely and allows us to stop thinking about them.

The eye and the brain are conspirators and like most conspiracies, theirs is negotiated behind closed doors, in the back room, outside of our awareness

Corrigibility - Capable of being corrected, reformed or improved.

There are many good things about getting older, but no one knows what they are.

When people are asked to name the single object they would try to save if their home caught fire, the most common answer is ‘my photo album’. And yet, research reveals that memory is less like a collection of photographs than it is a like a collection of impressionist paintings rendered by an artist who takes considerable license with his subject.

Imaginations have three shortcomings: First shortcoming is its tendency to fill in and leave out without telling us. Second shortcoming is its tendency to project the present onto the future. Third shortcoming is its failure to recognize that things will look different once they happen.

What makes us think we are so darned special? Three reasons: First, even if we aren’t special, the way we know ourselves is, We are the only people in the world whom we can know from the inside. The second reason is that we enjoy thinking of ourselves as special. The third reason is that we tend to overestimate everyone’s uniqueness - that is, we tend to think of people as more different from one another than they actually are.

Dutch polymath Daniel Bernoulli suggested that the wisdom of any decision could be calculated by multiplying the probability that the decisions will give us what we want by the utility of getting what we want. By utility, Bernoulli means something like goodness or pleasure.

Bernoulli correctly realized that people are sensitive to relative rather than absolute magnitude and his formula was meant to take this basic psychological truth into account. Without a formula for predicting utility, we tend to do what only our species does: imagine. Our brain have a unique structure that allows us to mentally transport ourselves into future circumstances and then ask ourselves how it feels to be there. If our great brains do not allow us to go surefootedly into our futures, they at least allow us to understand what makes us stumble.

The future of the mind by Michio Kaku

The future of the mind by Michio Kaku
The scientific quest to understand, enhance and empower the mind

[The concept of mind-reading research and programmable matter are quite interesting topics]

Nobel Laureate Eric R Kandel of the Max Planck Institute in Tubingen, Germany writes,” The most valuable insights into the human mind to emerge during this period did not come from the disciplines traditionally concerned with the mind - philosophy, psychology or psychoanalysis. Instead they came from a merger of these disciplines with the biology of the brain...”

A map of brain:

The outer layer of the brain divided into four lobes. It is highly developed in humans. All the lobes of the brain are devoted to processing signals from our senses, except for one: the frontal lobe, located behind the forehead. The prefrontal cortex, the foremost part of the frontal lobe, is where most rational thought is processed. The information you are reading right now is being processed in your frontal cortex. Damage to this area can impair your ability to plan or contemplate the future and this is the region where information from our senses is evaluated and a future course of action is carried out.

The parietal lobe is located at the top of our brains. The right hemisphere controls sensory attention and body image; the left hemisphere controls skilled movements and some aspects of language. Damage to this area cause many problems, such as difficulty in locating parts of your own body.

The occipital lobe is located at the very back of the brain and processes visual information from the eyes. Damage to this area cause blindness and visual impairment.

The temporal lobe controls language (on the left side only) as well as the visual recognition of faces and certain emotional feelings. Damage to this lobe can leave us speechless or without the ability to recognize familiar faces.

One analogy for the brain that I have found useful is that of a large corporation. In this analogy, there is a huge bureaucracy and lines of authority, with vast flows of information channeled between different offices. But the important information eventually winds up at the command center with the CEO, There the final decision are made. Using this analogy, it should be able to explain certain peculiar features of brain:

Most information is ‘subconscious’ - that is the CEO is blissfully unaware of the vast, complex information that is constantly flowing inside the bureaucracy and only tiny amount of information finally reaches the desk of the CEO who can be compared to the prefrontal cortex.

Emotions are rapid decision made independently at a lower level. Since rational thoughts takes many seconds, this means that it is often impossible to make a reasoned response to an emergency; hence lower level brain regions must rapidly assess the situation and make a decision, an emotion , without permission from the top. As per Rita Carter, author of mapping mind writes, “ emotions are feelings at all but a set of body-rooted survival mechanism that have evolved to turn away from danger and propel us forward to things that may be of benefit”.

There is a constant clamoring for the attention of the CEO. Various sub centers within the command center are in constant competition with one another, vying for the attention of the CEO. The concept of ‘I’ as a single, unified whole making all decision continuously is an illusion created by our own subconscious minds.

Final decisions are made by the CEO in the command center. The CEO located in the prefrontal cortex has to make the final decisions. While most decisions are made by instinct in animals, humans make higher level decision after sifting through different bodies of information from our senses.

Information flows are hierarchical.

Parallax: The retinas of our eyes are two-dimensional, but because we have two eyes separated by a few inches, the left and right brain merge these two images, giving us the false sense of third dimension. For distant objects we can judge how far an object is by observing how they move when we move our head. This parallax explains why children sometimes complain that moon is following them. Because the brain has difficulty comprehending the parallax of an object as distant as the moon, it appears as if the moon is always fixed distance ‘behind’ them, but it is just an illusion  caused by brain taking a shortcut.

Dr. Roger W Sperry won Nobel prize for showing that the two hemispheres of the brain are not exact carbon copies of each other, but actually perform different duties.

Consciousness is the process of creating a model of the world using multiple feedback loops in various parameters (e.g. in temperature, space,. time and in relation to others), in order to accomplish a goal (e.g. find mates, food, shelter). Animals create a model of world mainly in relation to space, and to one another, while humans go beyond and create a model of the world in relation to time, both forward and backward.

Sr. Daniel Gilbert has written, “The greatest achievement of the human brain is its ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real and it is this ability that allows us to think about the future.

Levels of consciousness for different species:

Level    Species    Parameter             Brain Structure
0        Plants     Temperature, sunshine None
1        Reptiles   Space                 Brain stem
2        Mammals    Social relations      Limbic system
3        Humans     Time (esp. future)    Prefrontal cortex

Space-time theory of consciousness: We define consciousness as the process of creating a model of the world using multiple feedback loops in various parameters (e.g., in space, time, and in various parameters (e.g. in space, time and in relation to others), in order to accomplish a goal. Human consciousness is a particular type that involves mediating between these feedback loops by simulating the future and evaluating the past.

I asked DARPA engineers (the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has spearheaded some of the most important technologies of the twentieth century, including GPS), why do have to rely on dogs to sniff our luggage for the presence of high explosives? Engineers replied that olfactory sensors of dogs, had evolved over millions of years to be able to detect a handful of molecules, and that kind of sensitivity is extremely difficult to match, even with our most finely tuned sensors.

With a budget of $3 billion, DARPA has now set its sights on the brain machine interface. Some of the potential uses are soldiers could communicate by thought alone.

When hearing of mind-reading machines for the first time, the average person might be concerned about privacy. Faraday cage invented by Michael Faraday is a sample mechanism to block mind reading attempt. Basically electricity will rapidly disperse around a metal cage, such that the electric field inside a cage is zero. This why airplanes can be hit by lightning bolts and not suffer damage and why cable wires are covered with metallic threads.

Avatars and surrogates:
These are science fiction today, but one day they may become an essential tool for science. The human body is frail, perhaps too delicate for the rigors of many dangerous missions, including space travel.

Solar flares from the sun can bathe a spacecraft in lethal radiation. A simple transatlantic flight from the United States to Europe exposes you to a millirem of radiation per hour, or roughly the same as dental X-ray. But in outer space, the radiation could be many times more intense, esp.,. in the presence of cosmic rays and solar bursts. During intense solar storms, NASA has actually warned astronauts in the space station to move to sections where there is more shielding against radiations.

In addition, there are many other dangers awaiting us in outer space, such as micrometeorites, the effects of prolonged weightlessness and the problem of adjusting to different gravity fields. After just a few months in weightlessness, the body loses a large fraction of its calcium and minerals, leaving the astronauts incredibly weak, even if the exercise every day. After a year in outer space, Russian astronauts had to crawl out of their space capsules like worms, and it is believed that some of the effects of muscle and bone loss are permanent, so that astronauts will feel the consequence of prolonged weightlessness for the rest of their lives.

The lack of industrial robots caused an acute problem and esp. when we consider a Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine. Workers sent directly to the accident site to put out the flames died horrible deaths due to lethal exposure to radiation. Eventually Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the air force to ‘sandbag’ the reactor, dropping five thousand tons of borate sand cement by helicopter. Radiation levels were so high that 250,000 workers were recruited to finally contain the accident. Each worker could spend only a few minutes inside the reactor building doing repairs. This massive project was the largest civil engineering feat ever undertaken.

In the future, even with an external power source to magnify our thoughts, it is unlikely that people with telekinetic powers will be able to move basic objects like a pencil or a mug of coffee on command. The technology called ‘programmable matter’ has become a subject of intense research for the Intel Corp. The idea behind programmable matter is to create objects made of tiny ‘catoms’ which are microscopic computer chips. Each catom can be controlled wirelessly; it can be programmed to change the electrical charge on its surface so it can bind with other catoms in different ways. By programming the electric charge one way, the catoms bind together to form say a cell phone. Push a button to change their programming, and the atoms rearrange themselves, to reform into another object, like a laptop.

Memory (short term and long term):
Scientists researching on NR2B gene and other such genes and these experiments may eventually explain many mysteries of our long term memory, such as why cramming for an exam is not the best way to study, and why we remember events if they are emotionally charged. Scientists have found that there are two important genes, the CREB activator (which stimulates the formation of new connection between neurons) and the CREB repressor (which suppresses the formation of new memories).

Scientists theorize that we have a fixed amount of CREB activator in the brain that can limit the amount we can learn at any specific time. If we try to cram before a test, it means that we quickly exhaust the amount of CREB activators, and hence we cannot learn any more - at least until we take a break to replenish the CREB activators. Hence the best way to prepare for a final exam is to mentally review the material periodically during the day, until the material becomes part of your long-term memory.

This may also explain why emotionally charged memories are so vivid and can last for decades. The CREB repressor gene is like a filter, cleaning out useless information. But if memory is associated with a strong emotion, it can either remove the CREB repressor gene or increase levels of CREB activator gene.

Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see - Arthur Schopenhauer.

All of us are born with certain abilities that are programmed into our genes and the structure of our brains. That is the luck of the draw. But how we arrange our thoughts and experiences and simulate the future is something that is totally within our control. Charles Darwin himself wrote, “I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work:”

Success in life and delayed gratification:

Dr. Walter Mischel did a series of tests with children and the results of these and other studies were eye-opening. The children who exhibited delayed gratification scored higher on almost every measure of success in life: higher-paying jobs, lower rates of drug addiction, higher test scores, higher educational attainment, better social integration, etc.

Dr. Michael Sweeny, author of Brain: The Complete Mind, notes, “Tests doesn’t measure motivation, persistence, social skills and a host of other attributes of a life that’s well lived”.

Dr. Nilli Lavie says, “Our study confirms our hypothesis that people with autism have higher perceptual capacity compared to the typical population... People with autism are able to perceive significantly more information than the typical adult”.

Genetics of intelligence

Only 15 million base pairs or letter that makes up our genome (out of three billion base pairs) separates us from the chimps, our closest genetic neighbor. Isolating genes could have enormous implications for our future. Once we know the genes that gave rise to Home Sapiens, it becomes possible to determine how humans evolved. The secret of intelligence might lie in these genes. It might eve3n be possible to accelerate the path taken by evolution and even enhance our intelligence.

Dr. Pollard knew that most of our genome is made of ‘junk DNA that does not contain any genes and was largely unaffected by evolution. This junk DNA slowly mutates at a known rate (roughly 1% of its changes over four million years). Since we differ from the chimps in our DNA by 1.5 percent, this means that we probably separated from the chimp about six million years ago. Hence there is a ‘molecular clock’ in each of our cells. And since evolution accelerates this mutation rate, analyzing where this acceleration took place allows you to tell which genes are driving evolutions.

In the research Dr. Pollard identified a stretch of 118 bases that together became known as human accelerated region 1 (HAR1).  Primates separated from chicken about three hundred million years ago, yet only two base pairs differ between chimps and chickens. So HARI was virtually unchanged for several hundred million years, with only two changes, in the letters G & C. Yet in just six million years, HARI mutated eighteen times, representing a huge acceleration in our evolution.

Dreams can determine destiny:

Perhaps the most famous dream in antiquity took place in the year AD312, when Roman emperor Constantine engaged in one of the greatest battles of his life. Faced with a rival army twice the size of his own, he realized that he probably would die in battle the next day. But in a dream,, he had that night, an angel appeared before him, bearing the image of cross, uttering the fateful words, “ By this symbol you shall conquer”. Immediately he ordered the shield of his troops adorned with the symbol of the cross and the rest is history.

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams - Eleanor Roosevelt.

Dr. Allan Hobson cataloged dreams into five basic characteristics

  1. Intense emotions - this is due to the activation of the amygdale, causing emotions such as fear
  2. Illogical content - dreams can rapidly shift from one scene to another, in defiance of logic
  3. Apparent sensory impressions - dreams give us false sensations that  are internally generated
  4. Uncritical acceptance of dream events  -we uncritically accept the illogical nature of the dream
  5. Difficulty in being remembered - dreams are soon forgotten, within minutes of waking up

If it is possible to alter the course of someone's dream, is it possible to control not only that person's dream but that person’s mind as well? During the Cold War, this become a serious issue as both the Soviet Union and the United States played a deadly game, trying to use psychological techniques to control other people’s wills.

How drug alters mind
High of drug addiction is due to the drug’s hijacking of the brain’s own pleasure / reward system located in the limbic system. This pleasure/reward circuit is very primitive, dating back millions of years in evolutionary history, but it is still extremely important for human survival because it rewards the beneficial behavior and punishes harmful acts. Once this circuit is taken over by the drugs, however, the result can be widespread havoc. These drugs first penetrate the blood-brain barrier and then cause the overproduction of neurotransmitters like dopamine, which then floods the nucleus accumbens, a tiny pleasure center located deep in the brains near the amygdale. The dopamine, in turn, produced by certain brain cells in the ventral tegmental area called VTA cells.

Heroin and other opiates work by neutralizing the cells in the VTA that can reduce the production of dopamine, thus causing the VTA to overproduce dopamine. Drugs like LSD operate by stimulating the production of serotonin, inducing a feeling of well-being, purpose, and affection.

Optogenetics is one of the fastest developing fields in science today. The basic goal is to identify precisely which neural pathway corresponds to which mode of behavior. Optogenetics starts with a gene called opsin, which is quite unusual because it is sensitive to light. When an opsin gene is inserted into a neuron and exposed to light, the neuron will fire on command. BY flipping a switch, one can instantly recognize the neural pathway for certain behaviors because the proteins manufactures by opsin conduct electricity and will fire.

Artificial Intelligence:

There are least basic problems with confronting AI: pattern recognition and common sense. Honda Corporation manufactures 30% of all industrial robots.

Moore’s law cannot last forever. In fact, we can already see it slowing down. It might flatten out by the end of this or next decade and the consequence could be dire, esp. for Silicon Valley. Physicists are experimenting with a wide variety of alternatives after the age of Silicon draws to a close such as quantum computers, molecular computers, nanocomputers, DNA computers, optical computers, etc. None of these technologies, however, is ready for prime time.

Why Japan is leading in industrial robots where Honda has a 30 % market share? Culturally, the Japanese approach to robots is different from the West’s. While kids in the West might feel terror watching rampaging Terminator-type robots, kids in Japan are steeped in the Shinto religion, which believes spirits live in all things, even mechanical robots. Instead of being uncomfortable at the sight of robots, Japanese children squeal with delight upon encountering them

Reverse engineering the brain:

Because the brain is so complex, there are at least three distinct ways in which it can be taken apart, neuron by neuron. The first is to simulate the brain electronically with supercomputers, which is the approach being taken by the Europeans. The second is to map out the neural pathways of living brains, as in BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Newurotechnolisies). And the third, one can decipher the genes that control the development of the brain, which is in approach pioneered by billionaire Paul Allen of Microsoft.

The book concluded with exploring the existence of aliens in the universe.