Relationship tips

Relationships can be hard, especially when you are not used to them, scared of being hurt, or there is some messy baggage with you. Here are some tips to cut through some of the more common problems.

Relationship Building

1. Work on the principle of Charity

When an ambiguous statement is made, such as “interesting hair”, assume the other person means the best version of that. Doing the opposite of this is looking for malice.

This also means that if you aren’t sure – that is, struggling to interpret with charity – you should ask for clarity. The other person needs to hear your request for clarity in the best light too. “What do you mean by that” should be a genuine request to explain, rather than “I think you mean me harm”.

2. Assume Trust

If you do not trust the relationship, it is time to call it what it is – over. If it isn’t over, then it is time to rely on that trust… even if you are struggling to feel it.

If the other person transgresses trust, then you have a discussion to have. Is the transgression major (cheating) or minor (didn’t call back when they said they would). Is a major transgression worthy of ending the relationship? Is it likely to ever happen again? How many transgressions do you allow before you end it? How many minor transgressions become a major transgression? These are all personal questions that you must figure out.

If it isn’t over, demonstrate trust, assume trust. Have conversations that build trust.

But when it is over, it is over.

3. Take things at face value

Frequently we try to read too much into what the other person means, just in case there is more. This is often fed by our own fears, or the other person being abusive.

When we take things at face value, we slow down the over processing that we are prone to when we try to work out tricky meanings. Instead assume that “it is” what “it appears to be”. For the majority of the time this is true. Sometimes things are different to how they appear and we can then adjust to that as needed. The overthinking comes in when you try to preempt the times things aren’t what they seem because we don’t trust our ability to adjust to that greater complexity.

If the other person is being abusive, there are some signs and symptoms of that (see Red Flags below). If the face value of a thing the other person said is not accurate to the situation, this may be a warning of deeper problems.

Often it is just poor communication.

4. Communication is key

We are not mind readers. We may make some excellent guesses, but that is both hard work and fraught with errors. What is better than assuming is discussing. Communication relies on trust, expectation that you are all working together for the greater good of the relationship and each other, and that there are no hidden agendas.

It is also very important that everyone actually have a say about how they feel, what they think and what they want without it turning into a tool to use against the other.

A temptation is for one person to do more of the communicating than the other, which unfairly gives them either greater responsibility for when things go wrong, or greater power for defining how things are going to be.

Safe and balanced conversation is tricky, but worth it.

5. Own your own stuff

Own when you make a mistake. It seems simple, but it can be really hard. Often we refuse to take responsibility for our mistakes, or we take far too much responsibility and own someone else’s mistakes.

It is time to get honest with ourselves. Did we do the thing? If so, own it. Own your part in it – it is rare that you are solely to blame, but don’t blame someone else for what you chose to do – don’t excuse it.

Also be real when you didn’t do the thing. If it wasn’t you, then don’t take the blame.

Most human interactions involve multiple people who are all partially responsible for what has happened. It can be tempting to start creating a false equivalence – you did this, I did that, so we are all to blame… but if you did 5% of the damage and I did 95% of the damage… then actually this is my thing to fix and I should accept my part in this. They are not equivalent parts.

Red Flags

Red flags are warnings that the relationship may be abusive. Just because one of these flags is true doesn’t mean that the relationship definitely is abusive – it may just be immature, poorly communicated, or full of various people’s baggage. Red flags indicate that there is a part of the relationship to be wary about and that work needs to be done to fix it.

Remember that it takes all parties to fix a problem.

  1. Shifting blame

A person who shifts blame is someone who does a thing wrong, but never accept responsibility for their actions. They will always blame someone else as the cause of the wrongdoing – for example: “I’m under a lot of stress at work”, “it isn’t me, it is you”, “look what you made me do”, or “I wouldn’t have had to do this if you hadn’t…”. Even when presented with evidence that they are directly responsible for what happened they try to shift the blame elsewhere.

While it is awful when other things are creating stress for an individual and a short temper can be understood, it is not a valid excuse to hurt another, nor can the blame for one’s actions be placed at the feet of another.

2. Movinggoalposts

If you feel that you can never win because the rules keep changing, or the measure of success keeps being redefined, then you may have a problem with moving goalposts.

It is important to have mutually accepted rules that are fair and understood. What is good for the goose should be good for the gander. There are limits on this, such as “I have an alcohol problem so won’t drink alcohol, but you are free to as you don’t” is fine, but “I can see my friends when I want, but you can’t” is not.

3. Walking on eggshells

This is where you are walking on eggshells, that is: waiting for the problem to crop up, or to be in trouble, or trying to avoid feeling guilty. There is an underlying fear to your interaction where you are very worried about how things will go because you will feel awful or be hurt in some way as a result of the outcome.

If you find that these red flags are dominant in your relationship and the other person in your relationship isn’t interested in addressing them, you might be in a domestically violent relationship [link]. If you are all interested in addressing these red flags, then following the first section will help to minimise the problems.


In the early days of psychotherapy the legal process influenced how people saw sanity and insanity. One of the laws that were very influential in many countries was the illegality of homosexuality, specifically male to male. As a reflection of this, it was medically defined that homosexuality was a mental illness.

Many men were defined as insane because they desired love from another man
and or were attracted to men. The legal aspect attacked the body, the psychological aspect attacked the mind, the combined effect added to societies message which attacked the heart and soul of a large proportion of people.

Some men hid who they were, pretending to be straight, denying the aspect of themselves that was homosexual. Some men hid from society instead. Some men pushed back. Many men died.

Those who denied themselves often sought help to “be straight”. Gay conversion therapy in the USA was created by a psychologist who was trying to use the best tools of the time to address the distress of his clients who came in “wanting to love their wives properly” as society demanded, or “not to feel attracted to men”, which was defined at the time as wrong.

We now look back at this and are generally revolted. Gay conversion is banned in a number of countries. It does not “work” and misleads people into thinking that being homeosexaul is wrong and an illness to be cured. We now know that homosexuality is an aspect of being human. Not all people have it, but it is normal.

Homosexuality is like having blue eyes. Imagine if blue eyes were defined as a weakness, a failure to be part of the brown eyed majority, something to hide behind shaded glasses or contact lenses. Eye colour is a thing about you that is part of you. You cannot will your eyes to change colour, you can’t talk your way to changing the nature of your eyes and you shouldn’t have to hide it. Not all people have it, but it is normal.

Not all of society has caught up to the latest science and social attitudes.

People who have grown up in the transition phase from where homosexuality was defined as illegal and a mental illness to now where it is embraced by enough of society that people can be very open about their sexuality have a natural anger and outrage that who they are was once defined as wrong, as deviant, as insane.

We once thought that slavery was normal and fine. Well, those who weren’t slaves thought so. Now we know better.

I work with many clients over various representations of the human norm. The section that is filling my mind of late is the neruodivergent section. The diversity of mind that doesn’t really fit the current societal model and expectations. Sometimes this divergence comes with a handful of considerations, and sometimes people with a divergence happen to also have other things going on that are actual problems.

An example of a consideration is white skin at the equator. There is nothing wrong with having a low melanin count in your skin. If you do, it is important to note that you have a higher sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation, increasing your risk of sun damage in the forms of temporary burns and long term exposure can increase your risk of skin cancer. Sunburn and skin cancer are secondary to over exposure to ultraviolet radiation while at the same time having pale skin. People who have a high melanin count are less likely to get sunburn and skin cancer, but with a high enough exposure will also do so. They are just less sensitive to it. The flip side is, people who have a lot of melanin in their skin away from the equator are more prone to vitamin D deficiency, which can lead to a secondary problem of brittle bones. There is no “right” skin colour, because that implies a “wrong” skin colour.

A common secondary problem that comes with being divergent to the defined normal is anxiety and depression. Being told that who you are is an error enough times will make anyone terrified of being caught and exposed, lost in who you are and where you fit and your sense of self can be very damaged. Often you will spend a large amount of your early childhood resources trying to “fit in”, that is, camouflage yourself. This takes away from the resource you may use for learning and other things.

Imagine if we stopped this. Instead of telling kids “be like Johnny and Sue”, we said “be you” and embraced them. There goes the secondary anxiety and depression.

It is important to note that secondary anxiety and or depression are often mistaken for primary anxiety and or depression. Primary anxiety is a condition all on its own, which often has a neurological component to it. Secondary anxiety is a reaction to things you have experienced.

Look back at the example of homosexuality being defined as “wrong”. Many men spent a lot of personal resource not being found out, denying their own nature and feeling generally horrible about themselves on the assumption that society was right to define “them” as wrong. The suicide rate amongst homosexual people was very high (it still is, but it has dropped compared to 50 years ago).

Homosexual men often came to therapy anxious and depressed. Only once trust was made (rapport), would they also talk about their feelings of alienation and self loathing, their confusion about sexual identity and finally revealing, often reluctantly and with mixed denial, their homosexuality. In those early days, the next question would be “can you fix me?”

The answer to that, now, is “there is nothing to fix”. Instead of trying to fix homosexuality, the focus is to embracing who you are, finding like minded people and letting go of those who judge you, as they are backwards members of society.

There is understandable outrage at being judged by society as wrong when there is nothing wrong.

Experiments have been done with random “in group” and “out group” assignments with many school kids. It doesn’t matter what the arbitrary grouping is – eye colour, the flip of a coin, male vs female, the hidden witch etc – the results are the same. People form inclusion and exclusion for no good reason.

This is happening right now, and like the early days of society reform around sexuality, there is a burgeoning outrage by the divergent populations who are being currently defined as “wrong” for being a normal variance of “human”. We now understand that this idea of “wrong” is, in fact, wrong.

I work with people who use suicidal ideation,self harm and intoxication to manage their experience. A large proportion of them have no medical condition – such as gross perceptual hallucinations; psychosis; various neurological conditions; terminal illness; chronic pain – to explain their experience.

They have a social condition to explain their experience.

They are currently rejected by society because who they are is defined as “wrong”.

You are currently reading this, or listening to someone/thing else reading this. I wrote this on a computer, stored in the “cloud” on a website, displayed on a screen connected to “the net”, or printed on a page by a device – none of which was conceived or developed by “normal” people. Our entire technological “advancement” was made by people society defines as abnormal. The irony is that while we applaud the result, we deplore the people.

The outrage is good.

The outrage is normal.

The outrage is the first stage of standing up and fighting the false assumptions of wrongness.

It will drive us to become loud and normalise being us. I encourage those who have the strength to follow the example given to us by the homosexual community, the slaves, the women, the people of colour, all of the oppressed peoples – to have divergent pride and stop allowing people to condemning those who are different.

Get outraged.

Public Service Announcement…

If you find yourself often wondering what people mean when they say “that”, or how others know what to do so easily in social situations, or you keep waiting to find out what the rules are…

If you find yourself feeling anxious because there are people about, but you don’t have a really good reason for it…

If you find yourself wondering why you are alive, where you belong, what is the point of your life…

If a core thing about who you think you are is always being defined as wrong, and people tell you to be more like someone else, less like you, to stop being weird, or strange, or different…

If others are just exhausting to be around…

If you find that you keep holding onto people who are bad for you, because you fear being alone, and you just want those people to accept you for who you are, or who you pretend to be, if they would just acknowledge you for … you…

If you suspect you aren’t stupid, but you have doubts because people keep treating you like you are stupid, but you can do complex stuff, but you invalidate that complex stuff because you think you are stupid…

If you feel like a black sheep, an ugly duckling, alien, or just born in the wrong country, era, body…

If you find yourself in the crowd of people you should get on with, but never really one of the crowd…

If you’ve been diagnosed with anxiety and or depression that just doesn’t seem to shift, regardless of therapy for those and trying every medication under the sun…
If any one of these rings true… then you might be neurodivergent.

While there may not be many specifically like you, there are plenty of people who are not neurotypical. About 30% of the population – that is 1 in 3 people – are not typical.
It’s like the blue colour in the rainbow saying “we’ve got the biggest chunk of the rainbow, so if you aren’t one of us bluish colours, you are wrong”, and you are all like, …. “I think I’m yellow”, and blue says “you are a defective blue”. Green will get you not being blue, but green isn’t yellow either. You are both “not-blue”, or “neuro-atypical”, but you aren’t the same “not-blue” or “neuro-type” either.

Often we give a diagnosis for feeling like you don’t fit in, or for acting oddly when you do try to fit in, instead of saying… oh, you aren’t like that small bit of the rainbow. The diagnosis can be handy for working out what to do to compensate for those blues, but it will not make you blue, or define you as okay to not be blue.
Remember, you are normal for you, not a broken them.

Personal resource management

We humans react in different ways to different things, however this gives you some ideas about what to expect and what some of the traps are depending on where you are at verses stress.

Dead – nothing to do except go through the pockets looking for loose change… No resources available. This is the thing to avoid.

Crisis – A thing is happening right now that means you might die, so you have to get through this. Can last from minutes to a few hours. After that, it isn’t really a crisis and you have time to think, plan and resource. A misstep in crisis is critical, so resource management is often wasteful, the real cost of the thing is hard to determine because we are more focused on “will it keep me alive” than “what is the real cost of this to me later”. Any person who keeps you alive is someone you’ll use, regardless of the cost.

Survival – Trying to get through to tomorrow or the day after. Might have vague plans for next week, but really, it’s all about getting through today to get to tomorrow. There is time to think and plan, but the plans are about tomorrow. Resource management is poor because there is no point being frugal if you die. Solutions are survivable or just good enough rather than optimal. You will often attract people who will take advantage of you because you depend on them to survive.

Coping – waiting for the next pay day and trying to work out how to get to it. Often the timescape is about 14 days. Anything past that is ephemeral, while things within that are more concrete. You can take risks with your resources because dropping down to survival won’t kill you, it just sucks. This means you don’t have to put everything into getting through to tomorrow, so you can save a bit for later. You begin to weed out people who are abusive.

Managing – month to a few years worth of planning. Resource allocation is quite efficient, but you have enough daily costs that you need to continuously work to get things paid. Life is a grind, but it is a fairly pleasant and low risk grind. You have the resources to manage a few semi-abusive people because of some of the benefits of having those people in your life, but mostly your associates are positive and nice people.

Thriving – assets are paid off, you don’t really need to work much, the people you associate with are prosperous, life is good.

Camouflage and Autism – a quick study

Article Title: Quantifying and exploring camouflaging in men and women with autism

Sixty participants were scaled on their internal state of autism vs their observed level of autism (that is, their inherent traits vs their chosen behaviour) to rate how the level of camouflaging (trying to appear neurotypical) affects the individual (stress, anxiety, depression etc). and if there is a sex based predictor for who camouflages better.

Autism Awareness Ribbon – source Wikipedia

An example of camouflage is someone who would normally avoid eye contact having learned to maintain appropriate eye contact, even though it is uncomfortable for them. This effort is costly and increases stress which may affect anxiety and depression.

It was found that women generally camouflage better than men, but with a lot of variability in both (so not a clear winner).

Men who camouflage well had more associated depression, while women who camouflaged well had also developed better social detectors.

Keep in mind this is a small and targeted study that as of writing this post, has yet to be repeated by others.

Observationally in my practice as a counsellor working with various neurodivergent peoples, this is fairly cromulent – matches what I have seen. I would expect that the depression noted in both, but more prevalent in men, is to do with internal identity mismatch – who am I? Why can’t I just be me? Why aren’t I valued, just my behaviours? I would be interested in a study that looks at people who are comfortable with their identity and camouflage well to see if they still have associated depression.

I’m also interested in the anxiety that may come along with not camouflaging well. This was not looked at as far as I could read in this study. Is it a thing, or just something I have noted in counselling? Does learning to camouflage make a difference?

Authors: Meng-Chuan Lai, Michael V Lombardo,
Amber NV Ruigrok, Bhismadev Chakrabarti,
Bonnie Auyeung, Peter Szatmari, Francesca Happé
and Simon Baron-Cohen; MRC AIMS Consortium

Link to article…/abs/10.1177/1362361316671012…

The Despair of No Progress

A client – I will call them Lee – was telling me about how bad their weekend was, with a negative family interaction prompting a negative personal reaction to it. I am being purposefully vague about the details because not only don’t they matter per se, but confidentiality.
Anyhow Lee felt they had made no progress because here they are, right back in the slump, having to start all over again. Lee felt that everything was bad, bad, bad. They listed their faults in great detail, lamenting that they would never improve.
I listened for a while and then asked if this is how they would have responded to the crisis 6 months ago. Lee started to say yes, hence their slump … when they paused, and admitted that a number of things had gone different this time over previous. I asked what those differences were and my client began to list quite a few. I asked why they were different and Lee admitted that they had made different choices because of the therapy opening up different options, that they were able to see some of the patterns as they evolved and paused long enough to not react, but rather act.
So, not the same slump?
It just felt that way at the time, because of that similar negative reaction. Even here, though, Lee admitted it wasn’t as bad, and lasted nowhere near as long. So even this was different.
I drew a diagram on the whiteboard (I use a lot of visual diagrams) of a valley going up a hill, then a small dip in the hill and up again, to another dip, before finally peaking at the top of the hill.
I pointed out that 6 months ago they were in the valley, now they are in the first dip. From the bottom of the dip, it looks like a valley, but when we pause to look at that bottom trough and compare it to before, it is quite different, despite looking and feeling the same at face value.
So be careful not to mistake feeling like you’ve made no progress for actually making no progress.

Anyway, I was looking at the board today before erasing it and thought I would share.

Goat jumping
Climb all the hills like a mountain goat

This Week in What Fills Me with Awe: We are in the Big Bang

Time is a funny thing.


We know that the universe is about 14 billion years old, which seems incredibly old. A brief history of the universe goes thusly: Before the Big Bang is unknown and unknowable – time is the passing of events, that is change.  If there is no change, there is no time. “Prior” to the Big Bang, there was nothing to change, so there was no time. Then there was something. The entire observable universe existed in a spec smaller than an atom as we know it now, and it got really big. Within a fraction of what we call a second, the observable universe expanded to the size of about a grapefruit – approximately half a litre. While this doesn’t seem big from our standards now, if you consider the change in scale, this was the biggest and fastest expansion of the universe in relative scales in the entire history of the universe. We call this expansion the Big Bang. We tend to think that it happened in the past and we compare it to an explosion.


A slightly trippy thing to consider is that this is what we know about the *observable* universe. That first bit is really important. The bit outside the observable universe could just be more universe, or it could be nothing. As we observe the edge of our observable universe, the distribution of galaxies seems even and more or less uniform, implying that on the other side of that event horizon is just more universe. So at the point of the big bang, there could have been an universe the size of our observable universe of the start conditions. This can be a bit hard to visualise, so imagine the universe is flat and just an ink dot on an elastic sheet. Zoom in until all you can see is that dot. Now stretch the elastic sheet and zoom out at the same speed so that you can still only see that dot – the ink dilutes as the space expands. That is what we see. Now start again, but realise that the entire sheet of elastic is filled with ink, not just one dot. Consider how big our universe has got from that dot smaller than an atom to our current scale – 90 light years across – and apply it from a starting point of not less than one atom, but to Big Bang Stuff 90 light years across. And we will never know what it is out there.


About 300 million years after the Big Bang, the universe cooled down enough that matter formed and light was impeded. This is the first point where we can observe things – that is, matter. This is when our own Galaxy, the Milky Way (so named, because it looks like a milk road on the sky – blame the Romans) first formed. We have a few stars in our system that are still burning from that first coalescence of matter. Hydrogen was the first atom to form and it clumped together to form the first stars. These stars are very, very pure. All stars that have formed since have some impurities (known as metals when they aren’t hydrogen or helium – even though chemists don’t call those elements metals).


Our own Earth is about 4.5 billion years old – it came into creation about 2/3 of the age of the universe ago. Traces of life in the form of fossils have been found on Earth that date to about the time that the Earth’s crust cooled down after the late bombardment period. The Earth started as a big ball of molten rock, then it cooled down and formed a crust. Earth then cleaned up its orbit and got hit, a lot, by asteroids and other bodies (including Thea, a mars sized planet which ended up splitting proto-Earth in two – our Earth as we know it, and our Moon). Finally it cooled down again to form a new mineral rich crust and life formed almost immediately after it. This is about 3.8 billion years ago.


This life forming as soon as conditions were approximately right gives me great hope that life exists on any planet that conditions are approximately right.


Zoom forwards a few billion years and life leaves the oceans and populates the land. Viruses and Bacteria were first, followed by plants, then followed by the insects that evolved from crustaceans. Eventually vertebrates follow (evolved from fish). That eventually evolved into us humans (modern humans are about 200,000 years old) and every other form of life we see on the Earth. Life is continuing to evolve, ensuring that no niece that can be exploited for energy (food) remains untapped. This includes bacteria evolving to eat stuff in nuclear reactors. On the scale of life, if all of life on Earth were scaled to be 1 day, humans are about 4.5 seconds old. Soon that scale is going to be useless, so let us convert instead to 1 year. If life on Earth were scaled to exist in 1 year, then modern humans are 28 minutes old.


Recall my earlier note that as soon as life could form on Earth it did? The earliest that life conditions (as we understand it) could form in the observable universe was around 12 billion years ago (give or take a billion). If life took the opportunity to start then, just like it did here on Earth, then there has been life in the observable universe for 12 billion ish years. That is pretty cool.  If we do our year scale, humans are 8 minutes old.


But we haven’t got to the best bit yet!


Eventually our sun will die out as we know it, leaving behind a red dwarf.  Don’t panic, we have about another 5 billion years before that will happen. We have much more immediate concerns to weather – like the weather. Anthropogenic (human caused) Climate change will make the Earth uninhabitable by humans in only a few hundred years (unless we fix it – hint, hint). If we survive that, the sun will have grown to the point of being too hot for us in about 100 million years, moving the “Goldilocks Zone” past our Earth. We can potentially engineer a few solutions to that, or become space faring to escape the ever increasing heat.


The sun won’t really be dead in 5 billion years though, because it will become a type of star called a red dwarf. That red dwarf will burn for about a trillion years. That is 1,000 billion years. Consider that our entire observable universe is only 15 billion years old. If we turn that trillion years of age into 1 year again,  modern humans are 6.3 seconds old.


We still haven’t got to the best bit. Red dwarfs degrade into white dwarfs, whose lifespan is measured in a conservative quintillion years (1×10^18 years). That is a million times longer than a red dwarf. The estimated upper limit to the lifespan of white dwarfs is a number I can’t write down that makes any real sense – between 1×10^30 years to 1×10^200 years. And then the white dwarfs finally break down to black dwarfs. We don’t know how long they will last. White dwarfs are the last point that we can conceive of life as we understand it managing to live, after that, there isn’t sufficient energy distribution. Philosophical question: if the universe exists and there is no one there to appreciate it, does it matter? If we use the conservative number of the white dwarves lasting about a quintillion years, and we scale that to our year, then modern humans are about 6.3 micro seconds old. That is, a million microseconds pass to get to 1 second. We haven’t really happened.


This assumes that the Big Rip, or something similarly universe ending, doesn’t happen first. We are looking at how long the universe can go for. The Big Rip is where the accelerating expansion of the universe (confirmed and verified), fed by Dark Energy (seems to be an emergent aspect of space) gets so powerful it rips everything apart faster than it can form. Estimates on when this might happen vary from as little as the universe being aged 20 billion (whe our suns turns into a red dwarf) to 80 billion. That range tells you that we really don’t know. If the Dark Energy is an emergent property of space, and space continues to increase, then Dark Energy will continue to increase and lead to the Big Rip – where the space between things is so great that matter no longer has access to other matter. If it is not an emergent property of space, the universe won’t rip apart and we are down to the lifespan of black dwarfs.


Ok, so the universe is going to get really, really old. What of it? Remember how we were looking at our current human age compared to the scale of universal time and it started to seem very small…? 15 billion years seems like a long time when we are here at the 15 billion year mark, but compared to the projected lifespan of the universe, it is nothing. It started in an explosion and pushed outwards. Our universe is still expanding.


If you think about an explosion – like a hand grenade (named after pomegranates – blame the French) where you pull the trigger, it goes bang and sends shrapnel everywhere – that’s us. Very shortly after the reaction that started the explosion of the hand grenade, one of the bits of shrapnel formed life which became us, which became you, reading this. When we project where the pieces of the explosion are going and how long it will take to get there, and look at our place on that scale, the grenade just went bang, and we are in it – we are in that explosion riding a bit of debris.


The Big Bang was not a long time ago, it is now, and we are riding it.


And that is awesome.

This week in what fills me with AWE: Life

At its most basic level, the universe seems to be made up of small packets of vibrating stuff, collectively known as subatomic particles. The things we consider to be matter are made up of quarks (we have found 6 types) and they don’t have mass. Three or more quarks of different types combine together to become neutrons or protons and now, for some reason, they have mass. Several different types of particles called leptons (which also comes in 6 different types – the most well known being the electron), gauge bosons (4 types, the most well known being the photon aka light) and the scalar boson (the recently discovered Higgs). We learn in high school science that the universe is basically protons, neutrons, electrons and photons (a simplified model, and good enough). Protons, neutrons and electrons have mass… but where did that mass come from?


None of these particles are alive.

Standard Model of Elementary Particles
Standard Model of Elementary Particles

[By MissMJ – Own work by uploader, PBS NOVA [1], Fermilab, Office of Science, United States Department of Energy, Particle Data Group, Public Domain,]

All of that above stuff is 4% of what we think the universe contains. There is another 26% of a similar but uncounted chunk of stuff that accounts for the extra gravity we see. It is made of something else and we call it Dark Matter (because we can’t see it directly, we can only see its effects). The universe is expanding for some reason, and that takes lots of energy. We don’t know what this energy is, so we call it Dark Energy (because we can’t see it, we can only see its effects – and because some physicists have pretty poor imaginations).


So far as we know, that Dark stuff isn’t alive either. Watch this space though – because one day we will figure out what it is and then we’ll have a much better understanding of whether it is alive or not. Right now, we just don’t know, but we assume not.


Using our high school understanding; protons, neutrons and electrons combine to make atoms. There is no life here. Atoms combine to make molecules. There is no life here either. Molecules can become quite large and do some interesting things, pretty much being nano scale machines. We don’t think there is any life here. Groups of molecules can be clumped together in things called viruses, which we also don’t think are alive per se. While they have a way to reproduce themselves, they need an external mechanism to complete that, thus they seem more machine like than life like. They are no more alive than a lever is. A lever can’t make more of itself, but it can trigger an external process that does. There is, of course, debate about this point. I can’t make more of myself without the help of another and without the help of other things… so, am I a virus? (The Matrix movie makes an argument that humans are bacteria…)


When we look at a cell in our body, we consider it to be alive. The difference between a living and a dead cell is quite noticeable. Yet each part of that living cell is dead. The cell is made up of not-alive stuff. The cyanovirus, a molecular machine, can turn a dead cell back into an alive cell that makes more cyanovirus, so the difference between the dead cell and a live cell seems to be some kind of on/off switch. The difference in how we measure a live cell and a dead cell is that the live cell does stuff while the dead cell doesn’t. That seems like a sloppy definition.


Tardigrades are fascinating micro-animals. They were first discovered in 1773 by the German zoologist Johann August Ephraim Goeze. Tardigrade is a phylum describing over 1,150 known species, averaging 0.3 to 0.5 mm in length, however some species get up to 4 mm in length. The most complex have about 40,000 of the above mentioned cells making up an individual mirco-animal. Tardigrades have been found pretty much everywhere on Earth that can contain life, and often places where other things can’t live. You can literally freeze them to near absolute zero, put them in a vacuum, heat them up to 150 degrees Celsius, and they’ll just keep on going. When they go out of their comfort range, they will desiccate themselves and seem dead. When

Standard Model of Elementary Particles
Standard Model of Elementary Particles

conditions return to reasonable, they re-hydrate and come back to life.

Tardigrade – one of the strongest survival machines we have on Earth

Come back to life.


An interesting phrase. When desiccated, they are basically dead. The cells do nothing. When they re-hydrate, they reanimate. Just like when the cyanovirus reanimates dead cells.


Archaea and Bacteria are the first orders of life that we consider living (remember that viruses are still controversial on whether they should be considered living or not). Both of these will move towards edible resources and away from threats. That suggests a level of awareness of their surroundings. However we can program machines to do this – so are these really alive, or just coincidentally programmed complex molecular machines?


Humans have consciousness. We are aware of ourselves, aware of our surroundings, can plan things in the future and dream up novel methods to overcome imagined problems. Some argue that this last bit – the imagination to dream up solutions – is what separates our particular species from all other life. Many “higher forms of life” have demonstrated the ability to solve present problems with novel solutions, but have not demonstrated the ability to solve problems yet to be presented.


By the same token, it is kind of hard to ask them when we don’t speak their language. We have taught some primates how to speak human language. Koko, who recently passed away, was a gorilla who was taught sign language and demonstrated some level of reasoning and emotion to circumstance (especially when her kitten passed away). However in her conversations, everything was very much in the “now”, with little to no examples of past and future tense, and has been reported to be similar to that of a very young child. Koko didn’t seem to look forward in time, however it could be argued that her grieving for her kitten shows an ability to look at the past.


Please note, racoons frequently break intelligence tests by solving problems in ways the experimenters didn’t expect them to be able to do. Racoons are probably the smartest creature on the planet.


Consciousness is more than solving problems though. It is an awareness of doing a thing. You are reading this. You are now aware of reading this. You are now aware of being aware that you are reading this. Some of you might even be aware of being aware that you just became aware of reading this… That awareness is different to a random problem solver, such as evolution. Evolution solves lots of problems by introducing a random generator and rewarding a type of success with survival and punishing a type of failure with death. We wouldn’t call evolution conscious or intentional – it solves problems, sometimes very elegantly, but it makes lots and lots of dumb mistakes too.


Assuming we do have consciousness and awareness, perhaps some other animals have it too. At what point do animals not have it? There are some very complex math problems to do with travel and networking. When bees were tested with this math problem, they came up with a very close to perfect solution. A solution that most humans would have difficulty figuring out. This wasn’t an individual bee that solved the problem, it was the whole hive of bees that solved the problem.


When we look at our bodies, we can’t point to which cell has intelligence, which cell harbours the seat of our consciousness. We have worked out that the organ called the brain is what makes decisions. Which brain cell is us? No individual brain cell seems to be it. The answer seems to be the collection of cells. If the hive is intelligent, that intelligence isn’t in any single bee, and if the brain is intelligent, it isn’t in any single brain cell. It is the collective. Kill a few bees and the hive continues mostly unaffected. Kill a few brain cells and the brain continues on, mostly unaffected. However kill enough bees and the hive collapses, and similarly kill enough brain cells and the human dies.


If you ask a single person in a farming village to estimate how much a cow weighs, that person has a chance of being accurate, but a much greater chance of being wrong. If you average the answers of the whole village, the cow is weighted pretty exactly via the collection of estimates. Are we like bees in a hive, having a much greater collective intelligence than the individual unit? When we look at human knowledge, it certainly seems that way. Humans know lots, while individual humans are pretty stupid. Believe me, I’ve met a lot of them.


One day we may leave our planet and join a federation or empire of other space faring intelligent species. Will our unit (humanity) join the bigger collective of intelligence? Destroy a single species and the collective continues, destroy enough of the collected species and the collective collapses?


It is interesting that the things that make up matter have no mass, but matter does. The things that make up life are have no life. The things that make up intelligence have no intelligence. The things that make up consciousness don’t have consciousness.


A common question in physics is “where does the mass come from?” while a common question in biology is “where does the life come from?”, and a common question in neuroscience is “where does intelligence come from?” and finally we also ask “where does consciousness come from?”


And the emergence of these aspects – mass, life, intelligence and consciousness – awes me.

This week in what fills me with AWE: Colour

We see the world in colour (or shades for those who are missing a set of cones). You are reading this from a screen that is projecting coloured light at you, it goes through your eyes and hits the cones and rods in your retina. That triggers a chemical reaction thanks to rhodopsin which uses 11-cis-retinal and light particles to form all-trans-retinal and an electric charge, which sends an ionic signal (that is, not electrons, but charged particles) to the brain.

White light being split into its component parts via a prism, which we interpret as colour
White light being split into its component parts, which we interpret as colour

The brain then looks at these chemical ions and interprets them into what you think you are seeing.

The light particle has a particular frequency which we interpret as light, and an amount of energy we interpret as brightness.

The colour we think we see does not actually exist. You made that up in the hallucination your brain creates that you call vision.

If we examine the light particle (photon) itself, it has no colour, just a certain frequency of vibration in the photonic layer of reality (we think). These frequencies are a certain type of energy amount, but there is no colour. Our eye has several different receptors that react differently depending on what frequency the photon has. The cone we call “red cone” will react to a certain level of strength to different photons around a certain wavelength (the flip side to frequency – they are inversely related). If the photon is dead on the right frequency, it fires at full strength, if it is further away, it fires less vigorously, and if it is too far away, it ignores the photon. So frequencies we call red, orange and yellow will trigger the red cone, but blue won’t. Also infrared won’t. The green cone is also triggered on these frequencies of photon, less for red, lots for green and a bit for blue.

The amount of these signals falls into a certain amount of red, green and blue being sent from that part of the eyeball (the image on your eyeball is upside down) and your brain assigns a value to that combination we call colour. At no point does the red or the orange or the yellow photon have the colour you think you are seeing. That assignment is similar to how computers interpret colour. We assign a level of red, green and blue in number levels, where [0,0,0] is black (no colour) and [full, full, full] is white, [full, 0, 0] is bright red. Do you see it? No? Neither does your eye or your brain.

You navigate the world via a hallucination that you made up based on these values, prompted by some clues out there, that doesn’t look at all like the thing you are fantasising about.

Prompting me to wonder, does the red apple I see look the same to you?

To the best of our ability to know, the red apple triggers a similar pathway and stimulates similar parts of the brain in both of us. That is, a similar part of the brain gets the photon with [full, 0, 0] for the brightest bit of the red apple. What we have no idea is if the conception you have for it is the same as mine.

Consider different languages. I speak English fairly well, so I understand words in English and a word will trigger a meaning in my brain. When I hear a word in a language I don’t speak, it registers as meaningless human speech. The pathway for the English word is fairly well known. The same pathway is travelled for the word in the other language for someone who speaks that language. Yet the meaning they have will likely be different because it means a different thing. We can’t see this bit.

If we had telepathy and I could look in your brain, would you be seeing the equivalent of a different language? Much like speech in different languages also travels a similar pathway and triggers similar parts of the brain for two different people, but is incomprehensible to someone who doesn’t speak that language. We kind of think this is how it works.

So, the colour you see is not real. You made it up.

Yet, it is very useful and that is why we do it.

And that is awesome.

The Five Love Languages

“The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate” is a book written by Gary Chapman in 1995. It talks about how we want to give and want to receive love (not necessarily the same thing) and how those we love also want to receive and give love.

The awkward part comes in when these are not the same, or worse, not really compatible.

Below is a generic chart of some of the dos and don’ts of these languages.

Figuring out the languages of those we love means we can consciously shift our expression and expectations to match theirs.

While it is difficult to scientifically test these and there may be cultural differences, it is still a useful concept to consider.

5 Love Languages
5 Love Languages