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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4286964]

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
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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Five_Love_Languages

5 Love Languages
5 Love Languages

Neuroplasticity

When I was growing up it was believed that the adult brain was done learning and only inevitable death from neuronal pruning would result. This was how we understood Alzheimer’s Disease worked – the decaying brain. It was thought that what you knew as you entered adulthood was all that you could know.

Clearly this is wrong. However it was the human biological model that was taught for a few hundred years – pretty much since it was recognised that the seat of consciousness was the brain and not the heart.

Research as early as 1923 by Karl Lashley was starting to buck the trend (his research was on rhesus monkeys showing changes in the brain pathways), however the momentum of assumptions took almost 60 years to shift. By the late 1980’s the idea of neuroplasticity was becoming real. With the advent of fMRI and direct brain observation via direct electrodes to the brain, the idea of the  adult brain actually changing because of experience was receiving recognition.

So what does this mean to us?

The first bit seems kind of obvious. We can continue to learn as adults. We instinctively know this because if you can remember yesterday, then you have learned things. Learning involves creating memories and using those memories to solve problems.

The next bit is a bit let obvious. Changing the brain’s software changes the brain’s hardware. That is, if we change our behaviour we change our brain pathways and chemicals. If we can change our brain pathways, then we can learn to be less anxious, learn to not be psychopathic and we can learn to recover from many brain injuries.

There are limits though. We can only go forwards, we cannot go backwards. What this means is if we have lost a memory, it is gone. We can’t go back to how we were. This may seem sad and not what we want, but really, growing means going forwards, not backwards. We grow up, not down. So go forwards to a new you.

Not all things can be learned new, some things just need to be compensated for. For example, one of the spectra for autism is not being able to pick up the social cues of others very well. Some people with autism do this quite well, some do it very poorly. An person with autism can learn to do this better with good coaching, but will generally not learn it well enough for reading social cues to be effortless.

What neuroplasticity tells us is that you can change the way your brain works. Change the software, you change the hardware. To do this well takes a good therapist, a good rehab worker or some dedicated research and effort on your own behalf.

There is no locked in stone and hopeless case. If you want to change – you can.

Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity is the brains ability to change itself

More can be learned at WikiPedia

Common presentations for help

As a mental health social worker, counselling people for the last 10 years, I have worked with a diverse group of people trying to recover their lives from, mostly, mental health issues. Not surprising when you look at the work I do…

However what I find fascinating in a statistical sense, is the reasons why people come to me.

The 3 most stand out reasons why people come to me for help are:

1) Someone is hurting them, but they think it is their own fault.

2) They have troubles regulating their own moods and reactions.

3) They are struggling against a real life situation – commonly unemployment/Centrelink or something like job loss / death.

The next category of things I tend to come across

1) Neuroatypical people trying to figure out what the heck is going on

2) Non-mood regulation types of mental heatlh disorder

3) Someone very concerned at another person’s struggles and trying to figure out what they can legally, resource, morally or ethically do.

Anxiety – Not something to get worked up about

Anxiety is a the fear that something is about to go wrong without a thing actually going wrong.

When we are in immediate danger – about to be hit by a truck, an attacker is aggressively moving towards you, you’ve just been caught doing something wrong – we have an internal button to get all systems on line. That includes focusing the attention to the immediate problem, suping up the body for immediate action and forcing that action into happening now. Because of the immediacy of the threat, we don’t have time to think about what to do – we act on instinct. Usually that is run, but sometimes that is attack – or in more common words, flight or fight.

When the threat is clear and present, you are not having an anxiety attack, you are having a justified fear response.

When there is no clear and present threat (such as worry about what comes next, the feeling of dread with no thing causing it, the feeling that everyone is watching you or the fear that someone is going to break into your house), and your brain presses the internal button to get all systems on line, you are having a panic attack.

Often a panic attack is mistaken for a heart attack, breathing problems or going crazy. It usually follows being very anxious – fearful – of what might be going on.

Anxiety is a feeling of powerlessness about something that is either prompting fear or anger, whether it is present or just anticipated.

Anxiety sucks.

To manage this requires retraining your brain to not be anxious. First assess – is there actually danger here? If there is, then deal with it or run. If there isn’t, then slow down – you’ve got time. If danger suddenly appears, go back to that first step. Now that you’ve slowed down, calm down. This is achieved through controlling your breath. It is the only part of “all systems on line” that we can take manual control of and mess up the automatic system that has erroneously been triggered. Grounding exercises come next. Once we are calmer, we can think more clearly. Now assess the problem – if it is a false alarm, stick around for a few minutes while continuing your calming exercise. This teaches the brain that this, here, is not a fear situation. If there is something to address but your brain over reacted to it, calmly plan a solution that addresses the actual problem rather than fighting it or fleeing from it. Do the plan. Afterwards congratulate yourself on not panicking and managing to remain in control. The rewards is very important.

If you want to know more about this, let me know.

Social Anxiety

Imagine, if you will, a time before cities, a time before agriculture, a time when it was human versus the untamed world, alone and unsupported. Imagine this is around 50,000 years ago.

 

Imagine you are alone in this part of the world. You are sitting by a river, sorting the plants you have gathered. Some of these plants are edible, some are useful for making tools, some are poisons/medicines and some are just useless to you. You have a few tools, a thumping stick, a spear and a bowl you have carved out of a slab of tree with some stones. You don’t carry the stones, because they are heavy.

 

There are dangers around you. A crocodile in the water, if you get too close, a venomous snake in the tree, and over there on the horizon is a thylacoleo, a nightmare cross of a tiger and marsupial, like a thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) on steroids. These things could all kill humans and would frequently do so given half a chance. However if you keep on your toes and are ready go hoof it if one gets too interested, you stand a chance.

 

Sooner or later you need to sleep. Different predators come out at different times of the day and night. The average person can stay awake for about 72 hours if necessary, however functional effectiveness usually begins to decline around hour 19. Basically, sleep at your own risk.

 

Time to get an ally. Someone who will watch over you while you sleep in exchange for you watching over them. This won’t work if you don’t actually honour your bargain. If you steal their stuff and leave, or kill them, then you’ve got no one. If they do the same, they have the same problem. Trust is very important. However what choice do you have? You need them and they need you.

 

Having an ally is great. When the Thylacoleo comes a stalking, you can work together to overcome it. Two are more likely to defeat this beast than one is. However if one of you gets seriously hurt during the combat, you are back to being alone. You need a spare.

 

Forming a trusted group of allies is even better than having just one ally. With one ally, someone has to be awake while someone sleeps. The average human needs 8 hours of sleep per 24 hours. This means that 16 hours in the day is spent sleeping for the two of you to remain optimal. With three people this drops down to 12 hours wasted on sleep, which is around the same number of hours as night time. With 5 of you, some people don’t need to interrupt their sleep – that is, every few days everyone gets a full nights un-interrupted sleep.

 

Other benefits of having a group is that you can exchange knowledge. “When I stick my spear in the fire and let it get slightly crispy, the end is harder and penetrates my prey easier”, “oh – that is how you start a fire, that seems really efficient” and so on. Another great advantage is keeping each other awake during wake shifts, collaborating in hunts, working together to build things and so on.

 

There is risk that comes with having a group. I like you, you like Jo, Jo likes Sasha, Sasha likes Alex, Alex likes Lee. But I hate Lee. If I have too much conflict with Lee then the rest of you might think you are better off without me. If a divide happens, and I am split off from the group, I am on my own while there are four of you to watch each others backs. I need the group more than the group needs me. When there were just two of us I had to put up with the irritating things about you and vice versa because we needed each other and we had a lack of choice. As the group expands, the need to put up with someone decreases. They either comply to the group rules or they suffer for it by being kicked out.

 

Often group rules are not explicitly stated. There are a few of them that are – we don’t kill each other, falling asleep during your wake shift is bad, don’t steal and so on. The ones that are really dangerous are less well stated rules, the unspoken rules, the implicit rules, the rules everyone else assumes but no one has told you about. The things you thought were fun but they think are taboo. Each group has them, and no one talks about them. Most people unconsciously adopt these rules and don’t really think about them until one is transgressed. At this point people look to the group to see if they all, or enough of them, agree with you. With support, you will look at the transgressor with disgust and they will either conform or get out. If I think an action should be taboo but no one else agrees, then I will either change my stance, or more likely begin a campaign to get everyone else to agree with me.

 

There are people that don’t pick up on social rules very well, and or miss social cues to say “you crossed a line” or “enough”. When the group recognises this, but sees value in the individual despite the difficulty they have with conformity, allowances can be made for that person. Some transgressions are frownable offenses (they get frowned upon, but tolerated) and some are zero tolerance, leading that person to be exited from the group. It is a sliding scale and not all group members will agree on what that scale is – either specific order or what behaviour crosses this part of the scale from acceptable to not acceptable.

 

Once you are fairly secure in your group, one tends to boundary test a bit. What can I get away with? Sometimes this is a power game – I wonder if I can get away with this… Sometimes it is a side effect of relaxing and being lazy – it’s a lot of effort to conform to that rule, so I’ll let it slide a bit. A consequence to this is risking being kicked out.

 

Once you are out, you need to quickly find another group to join. Humans don’t do well on their own. Once you find a group, you now need to learn their rules, because each group is different, has different goals and grows organically in different ways. Organic growth can look similar, but each is unique. When I hang out with the mercenaries, a certain kind of humour is not only tolerated but is welcomed. When I hang around religious people, that kind of humour is taboo. However there is no list of social rules, I am just supposed to know what these rules are.

 

Often it is easier for me to conform to the group than it is to get the group to conform to me. This works well when the new group is, for the most part, right. Or at least not blatantly wrong. They are a compatible level of right. 6 + 3 = 9 for my old group. This group prefers 3 + 6 = 9. Meh, close enough. However if they insist that 5 + 5 = 9, well that is just wrong. Now I need to work out – do I try to correct the group, put up with the wrong thing, or leave the group? If I try to correct the group, I may get kicked out of the group. If I put up with the wrong, I may become complicit with the wrong. If I leave the group, I’m on my own again – will the next group be equally wrong?

 

Conformity is a big thing in humans. We are biologically driven to conform or leave. Often, though, we aren’t conforming to the group per se. We are conforming to the leader of the group, who through strength of charisma, defines the explicit and implicit rules of the group. If they are good enough, they stay the leader. If they underperform, either the group suffers or the leader is replaced. If you cross the leader, you place yourself in quite a bit of danger. Non-conforming behaviour automatically brings you into conflict with that leader.

 

In this modern time, I live in a city with millions of people. Most of them are strangers. I have a few small groups that work with me, or perhaps, allow me to work with them, to survive. I have my family group, most of whom are allies, and some are Lee. I have my work, most of whom are friends of Lee – that is, associated and acquaintances – not friends, but not enemies either. I have social groups, the people I prefer to hang around with, but it is with a purpose.

 

For each of these I am expected to behave in a certain way to conform to their explicit and implicit rules. Behind these behaviours I need to hold on to who I am – me. If that “me” conflicts with a group, or where a group is going, I need to either decide to correct that group, correct me, or leave the group.

 

The thing I fear is discovering that I have transgressed a groups rules too late to correct and stay. That isn’t me choosing to leave a group, that is me being kicked out of a group. That lack of choice is a real kicker. Often I will feel like an imposter in the group while I try to figure out what enough of the rules are to survive.

 

Once I seem a bit more comfortable with the group, I can start to express my true nature a bit more. This has risk, but it also helps me to become a unique part of that group, where the good that I bring outweighs the odd that I bring, where odd is pushing that rule boundary a bit in non-conformity. After all, if there are multiple wood carvers and food is scarce, get rid of a surplus carver. However if I am the only one that makes high quality spears, then they don’t dare get rid of me. I need to find my niche in the group and make my “me” needed, yet at the same time, don’t cross enough rules that it is cheaper for the group to lose that niche than to keep me.

 

Social is complex. Social anxiety is the fear that we will be judged as not worthy of the group and we will be kicked out and end up on our own. We would often rather take on the isolated role through our own choice than risk being excommunicated by the group for transgressing some rule we didn’t know about, or some rule that doesn’t make sense. The danger of being rejected is real and the consequences can be devastating to the ego. Each rejection indicates that you failed to find a niche that was valued, and by simple logic it seems that there is nothing about you that is valued, that is, you think you are worthless. It is very hard to balance that role of being a conformed part of the group and being unique enough to be a niche filler. After all, if you are yet another woodcarver, what value are you? If your niche is rejected, again, what value are you?

 

The person working through social anxiety is hypervigilant to any signs of transgression – one’s own or that of others. Suggestions of rejection by group members will be klaxxon clarion bells warning you to comply, comply, comply, or run, run, run. Other people’s transgressions are used to try to understand the implicit rules better, or to work out which explicit rules are not as rigid as one was led to believe. It becomes baffling when Lee can transgress a rule and you get punished, and that is because part of the implicit rules is a scale of acceptance based on your perceived value to the group – a placement in hierarchy.

 

Hierarchy is often mistaken as a linear scale from least important to most important, when really it is more like a branching tree. The leader may be at the top of the hierarchy, but often they are actually the second top and the true power lies in the person behind the scenes. Or there isn’t so much a second in charge as there are several second in charges. Or George provides unique X so we allow them to get away with various Y, and since you don’t, you can’t.

 

I’ve covered here the basic biological establishment of groups and built up to some of the complexity of group engagement. This is just an introduction to some of the issues faced by people with social anxiety – the fear of people in groups and your place in them. It is distinct in many aspect to agoraphobia, which is the fear of being in a crowd [of strangers] and/or open space. I might cover that one in the future at some point.

Schizophrenia

All people have behavioural and psychological traits, such as being happy, being sad, being angry, having belief in a thing, being talkative, flinching from danger, being self centred and so on. The list is very long and changes subtly from culture to culture. When one of these becomes dominant they can progress into a disorder and then into a mental illness.

 

Frequently these disorders and mental illnesses can be managed by treatment, which can  include therapy, lifestyle changes and possibly medication. Most of these disorders are where there is an over expression or under expression of a normal human trait, possibly due to a chemical/hormone imbalance or a behavioural trait that is learned and can be unlearned.

 

Then there is schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is defined by positive and negative traits. Positive traits are behaviours and experiences that most people don’t have while negative traits are an absence of traits most people do have. An example of a positive trait is the soft drink dispenser asking you about your day where no one else hears it or experiences it (this excludes pranks or “smart dispensers” that talk to everyone), while an example of a negative trait is an absence of joy.

 

Along with positive and negative traits there is frequently a cognitive dysfunction. To a mainstream person, a person with schizophrenia will use chains of logic that almost make sense, but don’t. Dysfunction can also be lost memories, lost skill sets (I use to be able to do this, but now I can’t) and strange beliefs.

 

As with all conditions, schizophrenia presents on a spectrum. Simplistically we can look at a simple linear functionality spectrum, from managing fine in the community without medication, managing with medication and treatment, to not managing. However the reality is that the spectrum is multi-axial. That is based on how much of each of the above signs and symptoms are present and how capable is the person experiencing this is able to compensate and manage.

 

Schizoaffective disorder is a combination of Schizophrenia and Affective (mood) Disorder, where both symptoms of schizophrenia and mood disorder are present, but not quite enough of either to diagnose the person in either category. Often people will receive this diagnosis before being upgrade, if necessary, to the schizophrenia diagnosis later.

 

Please note that this is all a simplified version of what schizophrenia is and is not a diagnostic guideline.

 

Often people diagnosed with schizophrenia will be referred to, or refer to themselves, as schizophrenic. This is very common in mental illnesses and some other illnesses – to mistake oneself for the diagnosis. I am schizophrenic, I am autistic, I am diabetic, I am broken armian, I am chronic pain, I am momentary headache. The fact is, you are a person first, diagnosed with one or more of these issues as a description – not an identity.

 

Highly creative people are able to look at disparate information and make sense out of it. Examples of some of these creative people are artists and scientists. This ability is all about making unusual links and then testing to see if it is feasible and doable. Uncreative people are not able to make these links and follow more traditional means of connecting information together. People diagnosed with schizophrenia are thought to lack the second part of this ability – testing. That is, reality testing to check if it is feasible and doable. The hypothesis is that people with schizophrenia lack the important reality testing part that rejects ideas, thoughts and visions that shouldn’t work and/or exist and instead assume that these ideas are real and accurate.

 

Another angle on this hypothesis is that the brain misfires certain inputs (stimuli from outside the body, such as sight, touch, smell etc) or the processing of internal inputs (memories, thoughts) and ends up with a bizarre result. This bizarre result is then accepted as accurate rather than rejected before the conscious mind is aware of it. All brains misfire and come up with unusual result, but generally these ideas are rejected before much attention is given to them. A hypothesis about schizophrenia is that either this rejection isn’t very good, or that there are so many misfires that the brain assumes it must be true. Any lie told often enough takes on a hint of truth, so enough repeats of the wrong idea will start to seem right.

 

Schizophrenia seems to have a genetic component. If you have a family member with schizophrenia traits, then it is more likely that you will inherit it. This isn’t much of an increase though. Instead of it being about 1 in 200 people, you are now 1 in 100 people – which is not much of a shift. It can also be spontaneous, with no family history of schizophrenia. Most often it is developed during the early to mid teens. Some mind altering substances are thought to cause schizophrenia in some people, but the evidence for this is weak. Did the drug cause schizophrenia, or was the person already experiencing some symptoms that they were trying to treat with illicit drugs? Which was first? Or even if there were no preceding symptoms of schizophrenia, was the person going to develop them anyway, and drugs were a correlation rather than a causation? What has been evidenced is that some illicit drugs have a higher correlation with schizophrenia diagnosis than others.

 

Not all people with schizophrenia need treatment. It is estimated that roughly 1 in 3 people who experience these symptoms manage themselves without input from mental health teams and or medication. They experience full and generally happy lives. Another 1 in 3 of these people respond well to treatment, where they find the skills learned through therapy and or antipsychotic medication mean they can lead a fairly high quality community life. Unfortunately it is estimated that roughly 1 in 3 people don’t respond well to medication or therapeutic input, struggling to find meaning and quality in their life. The exact statistics are difficult to get as not all people who experience symptoms are diagnosed or have any interaction with mental health.

 

If you are in the last of these 3 subcategories, take heart. Many people who didn’t respond well to the medical model of treatment found good support from peers (those with similar experiences) via the Hearing Voices Network – a worldwide organisation. Even those in the first two categories have frequently found positive value in connecting to others. It isn’t for everyone, but it does exist and can help.

 

Another thing to look into is the recovery model. The idea here is that you have a thing, and it is big and somewhat disruptive. How can you manage that big and disruptive thing, minimising its impact? And wherever that big thing doesn’t disrupt your life, how much comfort and meaning can you get? Recovery is about recognising that this diagnosis is about a thing you have, it isn’t defining you. I have an arm – does that make me an arm? No. I am a person who is more than my arm. You have schizophrenia, that doesn’t make you schizophrenia.

Little Dog Syndrome

This is an analogy that I have thought up – it isn’t a clinical disorder. However it is an interesting perspective that can be useful.

Cats are gods. They know they are gods. They know that other cats are also gods. When they meet each other, sometimes they have a fight, but mostly they nod their head and basically say “sup”, as in “what’s up?” Cats don’t growl at humans or creatures passing by the fence, flying in the trees and so on. They know they are gods. They don’t have to prove it. If you can’t see their godhood, that is your loss.

Chihuahuas, on the other hand, wish they were rottweilers. They like to prance about, bark loudly and growl at everything to prove that they are rottweilers, despite their physical appearance. If you look at them, you see their posturing and say to yourself “wow – a powerful dog”. Really, though, despite their bluster, they only harm they can give you is a small nip, unless they trip you up and manage to get you in the jugular or something.

Generally they are all noise and no really threat.

They hate it when you know that. They must prove to you, impress upon you, that they are big and powerful and worthy of respect, which they only see in the form of fear.

Rottweilers fear that you look at them and think they are a chihuahua. So they have to defend their territory and be the biggest, scariest dog on the block. Go past their designated space? Barking ensues. Meet another dog, they must prove they are the dominant beast. Because when two dogs meet, only one can be the rottweiler, so the others must be the chihuahua.

When dogs look in the mirror, they see a chihuahua, regardless of what others see, regardless of their breed. “I could be bigger, more ferocious, more feared” they think, “that little dog – it is pathetic. That is nothing to be feared. That’s what others see. I have to be more ferocious”.

For a dog, there is nothing more terrifying than someone else seeing that you are weak. Even with the best of intentions, any reassurance that they are not weak, small and insignificant highlights that you can see that they think they are, and you will be seen as the enemy. Trying to help these people is a good way of getting your fingers nipped. Praising them for how big and fearful they are is a way to appeal to their delusion. It can keep you safe for a while, but it is time limited.

Mostly little dogs don’t get help with their fear, because first they have to acknowledge that they are, indeed, little dogs. And that is terrifying for them.

Domestic cats mass about the same as a little dog. Big cats, like tigers and lions, massively outweigh the biggest dogs. Yet domestic cats know they are gods, so don’t care, while little dogs only see themselves as inadequate big dogs.

So when you see one of these dog people yapping at you, realise that their yapping is telling you what they see in the mirror – a little dog wishing they were big and ferocious. Do what cats do. Get out of the way, see them for the dog they are and mostly ignore it. Be a god.

== please note, I have met some really nice chihuahuas, rottweilers and some very insecure cats. This is a thought idea rather than a statement that all chihuahuas have issues.