A jaw-dropping video of all the 2299 currently discovered exoplanets and candidates, circling around one hypothetical star. This gives a good view of all the variation in size and orbit of currently discovered planets (including smaller, Earth-like ones).
This is pretty astonishing, if you remember that before 1988, no exoplanet had ever been discovered, and during the 1990s, only a few. But recent technological advances have made it possible to identify and confirm thousands of exoplanets – gas giants like Jupiter, but also Earth-like ones – only in the last couple of years. You can look them up in the Exoplanet Orbit Database or the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia.
As of 2012, 777 exoplanets in 623 planetary systems have been confirmed, and about 2300 are awaiting confirmation. It is estimated that more than 50% of Sun-like systems have planets (and planets have been discovered circling other types of stars as well). And of course, all of these have moons as well.
Yet, aside from on the internet, this facet of astronomy – unlike other big scientific projects of this era, such as CERN, the ISS and the Mars rover Curiosity – doesn’t get that much attention. Yet, NASA’s Kepler space telescope mission, searching for habitable planets, has done hugely important work, showing how even a small section of the universe is teeming with all kinds of objects.
The Drake equation is a theory, developed by astronomer Frank Drake in 1961, purportedly estimating how many extraterrestrial civilizations are likely to exist in the universe.
If you think about the gazillions of stars in the universe; and if you think about the gazillions and gazillions of planets likely circling these stars (the last five years, thousands have been discovered in our solar neighbourhood only!), the chance of alien life not existing must be very tiny. And the odds of intelligent life and civilizations developing must therefore also be high, just looking at the statistics of the universe.
The BBC has a very cool interactive infographic exploring the Drake equation. It also includes its detractors: after all, if alien civilizations must exist, why hasn’t any sign of them been found yet? The universe is already 13.5 billion years old, after all. Chances are that no civilization has ever developed to the point of interstellar communication without first destroying itself… More here.
Here’s a great example of the stupidity of public officials in many countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands – when it comes to drugs, and more specifically, marijuana policy.
In the US, marijuana is “classified” as being as risky as heroin and meth for a person. So, the Congressman above keeps asking the top administrator of the Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA) a simple question: are heroin and meth more dangerous and addictive than marijuana? Watch the reaction of the administrator as she keeps selling the “official” answer.
One wonders how long these fact-free policies can go on. In the Netherlands, kids are now on the streets selling marijuana, because of a government-enforced registration of marijuana smokers. We have, among others, the Christian Democrat party to thank for that. The smaller Christian Union is even proposing, out of pure religious zeal, to abolish the distinction between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ drugs, which will result in the same idiotic charade as witnessed in the video above.
I keep coming back to the same question: what goes on in the brains of these people? If anybody has an answer, I’ll be glad to hear it.
Lucid dreams – who doesn’t wanna have them? Online, since long guides have existed detailing how to dream lucidly. For example, you can create the routine of performing a ‘reality check’, like holding your breath, looking at your watch or switching the light on. If this happens in your dream, but you still breathe or the light doesn’t go on (for some reason, electric light doesn’t seem to work in many people’s dreams), then you know you are dreaming and can start controlling it.
It takes a lot of practice, though, to control a dream and not wake up. Now, however, apps exist to aid you in this endeavor. As the BBC puts it, lucid dreaming has moved from the margin – featured in New Age fare like Carlos Castaneda’s The Art of Dreaming- to the mainstream. Apps like Dream:ON play sound cues, like singing birds, and thereby attempt to instill a dream without waking you up. Other apps are Singularity Experience, Dreamz and Lucid Dream Brainwave.
I very much wonder whether it works, however. In my experience, lucid dreams happen at that moment right between being asleep and being awake. That’s usually (hopefully) not the state you’re in in the middle of the night, but more like in the morning. Maybe if you combine it with setting your alarm way early and then going back to sleep again – another old lucid dreamer’s trick – it’ll work, but I doubt whether most working people will go to such lengths. Still, great stuff!
Lucid dreaming technically refers to any occasion when the sleeper is aware they are dreaming. But it is also used to describe the idea of being able to control those dreams.
Once confined to a handful of niche groups, interest in lucid dreaming has grown in recent years, spurred on by a spate of innovations from smartphone apps to specialist eye masks, all promising the ability to influence our dreams.
“A couple of years ago there were about four or five people organising meetings” says Mac Sweeney, a dentist and lucid dreaming expert from Islington, London. “Now there are closer to 50, and that’s in the capital alone.”
In addition to the group meetings, Michael has toyed with Dream:ON, the most popular of the many new smartphone apps now available.
Created by psychologist Richard Wiseman, the app has seen over half a million downloads in just six weeks.
“The new wave of interest is led by technology,” says Wiseman, whose app claims to allow users to choose their dream before bed, and plays sound cues once they have entered the right phase of sleep.
“When I selected birdsong, for example, I found myself dreaming that I was in a green and sunny field,” says Cave.
Whilst this isn’t strictly lucid dreaming, as it doesn’t offer users control from within a dream, there are many more which promise just that.
Singularity Experience, Dreamz, Sigmund and Lucid Dream Brainwave all work in a similar way, by playing subtle audio cues whilst the user is asleep. Not enough to wake them, but hopefully sufficient to trigger awareness inside a dream.
[R]eferences to lucid dreaming stretch back at least as far as Tibetan Buddhists in the 8th century, for whom it was just one stage in the practice of “dream yoga”. In 1867 Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys even wrote an instruction manual entitled Dreams and How To Guide Them before a Dutch psychiatrist, Frederick Van Eeden, finally coined the term “lucid dreaming” in the early 20th century.
More recently it has been hinted at by films like Inception and the Science of Sleep, which have no doubt contributed to its allure.
Disappointingly, Hobson tells us, “lucid dreaming is very hard work and won’t happen for everyone”.
There’s no guarantee that the apps will help, either. Success rates in those we asked were low, even among experienced lucid dreamers.
Ultimately, the lucid dreaming adherents say attaining the revered state requires discipline and practice, and the key is being able to quickly distinguish dreams from reality.
A beautiful short movie, made of original pictures from NASA’s Cassini and Voyager missions. It’s always a bit amazing to me that these spacecraft have actually been there and taken this footage of these actual planets. For a normal human being these planets are kind of abstract, but they really exist out there floating in space, and can be observed. Hopefully even by people one day.
An absolutely marvous short movie of a number of galaxies and nebulas, with an appropriate musical score. Definitely recommended whilst high.
I wonder if it is based on real star maps – as science has only recently discovered what the large scale structure of the universe (in terms of solar systems, galaxies, clusters, superclusters and filaments) looks like.
Here’s a great-looking documentary about the legendary re-inventor of, among others, MDMA (xtc): the Berkeley resident Alexander Shulgin (1925). A psychiatrist, pharmacologist and chemist, Shulgin not only popularized MDMA by inventing a new synthesis method, thus jumpstarting the electronic music rave revolution, but an enormous host (about 230) of other psychoactive drugs. These include the 2C family, such as 2C-b and 2c-e. Together with his wife Ann Shulgin, he has collected and published his knowledge in the books PiHKALand TiHKAL.
Shulgin is, quite probably, one of the most influential chemists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And responsible for countless enlightening and liberating experiences for millions of people. Thus, a true hero, out there in the ranks with Albert Hoffmann, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Aldous Huxley, Simon Vinkenoog and other great minds.
I haven’t yet seen the entire thing but the first minutes look promising. Interestingly (but perhaps not surprising), Shulgin and his wife Ann come across as very kind, patient people. Even though they’ve tested literally hundreds of drugs, they themselves are not really fond of the scene they’ve set off, but would rather try things out in the vicinity of their home.
- Edit: Also check out this last interview of Shulgin with VICE Magazine (he has been in retreat since then).
Interesting stuff: historical research has shown that in the past, people used to sleep in two segments of four hours, with a waking period in between, rather than eight hours straight. This used to be the normal sleeping pattern until the late seventeenth century! Only by the 1920s, the eight-hour schedule had become the norm.
Different explanations, such as the development of street lights, account for this change. Historical documents also show that people used to do a lot in between two segments of sleep, such as pray, eat, write, have sex, visit the neighbours, etc. It may very well be that the current modern mass problem of insomnia results from the incapability of people to actually sleep for eight hours straight, which may be unnatural.
I’m pretty convinced that the modern-day demands of working life (getting up early in the morning, going to bed early in the night) are a straightjacket that is very unnatural for a lot of people who are naturally inclined to be ‘evening people’. This research shows that this wasn’t always the case, but rather coincided with the advent of modernity.
In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper, drawn from 16 years of research, revealing a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks.
His book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, published four years later, unearths more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern – in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.
Much like the experience of Wehr’s subjects, these references describe a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep.
“It’s not just the number of references – it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge,” Ekirch says.
During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbours. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.
And these hours weren’t entirely solitary – people often chatted to bed-fellows or had sex.
A doctor’s manual from 16th Century France even advised couples that the best time to conceive was not at the end of a long day’s labour but “after the first sleep”, when “they have more enjoyment” and “do it better”.
Ekirch found that references to the first and second sleep started to disappear during the late 17th Century. This started among the urban upper classes in northern Europe and over the course of the next 200 years filtered down to the rest of Western society.
By the 1920s the idea of a first and second sleep had receded entirely from our social consciousness.
He attributes the initial shift to improvements in street lighting, domestic lighting and a surge in coffee houses – which were sometimes open all night. As the night became a place for legitimate activity and as that activity increased, the length of time people could dedicate to rest dwindled.
The biggest scientific project of our age – the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) run by CERN in Geneva – is expected to reveal breakthrough outputs today. These concern the Higgs field, the field that provides mass to particles, which is part of the Standard Model of particle physics that currently informs understandings of the universe. The one particle that the LHC was set up to find, the Higgs boson (up till now only theoretical), provides evidence of this field, and may or may not have been found. Or so.
That’s to say, scientists may have narrowed down the plausibility of observing the boson. Or not, which in a way would be more interesting as it would disprove the Standard Model. Contrary to media reports about a ‘God particle’, however, discovery of the Higgs boson will not be the last word in particle physics, as there is a lot more that will then require explaining.
The Guardian has the most understandable article about this completely ununderstandable (but cool) stuff I’ve read so far:
The Higgs boson is a subatomic particle that was predicted to exist nearly 50 years ago. Scientists have been searching for the particle for decades, but so far have no solid proof that it is real.
Although the Higgs boson grabs headlines – unsurprising, given its nickname, the god particle – it is important only because its discovery would prove there is an invisible energy field that fills the vacuum throughout the observable universe. Without the field, or something like it, we would not be here.
Scientists have no hope of seeing the field itself, so they search instead for its signature particle, the Higgs boson, which is essentially a ripple in the Higgs field.
According to theory, the Higgs field switched on a trillionth of a second after the big bang blasted the universe into existence. Before this moment, all of the particles in the cosmos weighed nothing at all and zipped around chaotically at the speed of light.
When the Higgs field switched on, some particles began to feel a “drag” as they moved around, as though caught in cosmic glue. By clinging to the particles, the field gave them mass, making them move around more slowly. This was a crucial moment in the formation of the universe, because it allowed particles to come together and form all the atoms and molecules around today.
But the Higgs field is selective. Particles of light, or photons, move through the Higgs field as if it wasn’t there. Because the field does not cling top them, they remain weightless and destined to move around at the speed of light forever. Other particles, like quarks and electrons – the smallest constituents of atoms – get caught in the field and gain mass in the process.
The field has enormous implications. Without it, the smallest building blocks of matter, from which all else is made, would forever rush around at the speed of light. They would never come together to make stars, planets, or life as we know it.
The news is already a day old, but I still want to highlight it: for the first time, a rocky exoplanet has been discovered in the habitable zone surrounding a Sun-sized star. The planet, Kepler-22b, is only 2,4 times the size of Earth, its average temperature is a comfortable 22 degrees Celcius (perfect!), and according to NASA scientists the surface might consist of rock. One caveat: this is not exactly sure, and it might be that only the core consists of rock and the rest is gas…
But let’s not spoil the fun! Let’s also not spoil it by the fact that it is 600 lightyears away. Kepler is probably teeming with extraterrestrial life, and will otherwise make a great spot for colonization efforts. I can’t wait! Also check out this nice Habitable Exoplanets Catalog, a database containing the hundreds and hundreds of exoplanets currently discovered.
A new planet outside Earth’s solar system has been identified with many similarities to our own – making it the latest best potential target for life.
Kepler 22-b, which is about 2.4 times the size of Earth and lies in the so-called “Goldilocks zone”, has a relatively comfortable surface temperature of about 22C (72F) and orbits a star not unlike Earth’s sun.
But while astronomers believe that it “probably” also possesses water and land, earthlings secretly harbouring hopes that such a planet could potentially host new colonies from our own increasingly overpopulated home may be in for a disappointment.
About 600 light-years from Earth, Kepler 22-b is a considerable trek away while experts are not yet sure if it is made mostly of rock, gas or liquid.
The discovery was made by Nasa‘s Kepler planet-hunting telescope. It is the first time Kepler confirmed a planet outside Earth’s solar system in the not-too-hot, not-too-cold habitable zone.
Twice before, astronomers have announced planets found in that zone, but neither was as promising. One was disputed; the other is on the hot edge of the zone.
More than 1,000 new planet candidates have been discovered by the Kepler telescope, nearly doubling the previously known count. Ten of the candidates are close to Earth’s size while Kepler-22b is the smallest yet found to orbit in the middle of the habitable zone of a star similar to our sun.
“This is a major milestone on the road to finding Earth’s twin,” said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at Nasa headquarters in Washington.
“Kepler’s results continue to demonstrate the importance of Nasa’s science missions, which aim to answer some of the biggest questions about our place in the universe.”
“Fortune smiled upon us with the detection of this planet,” said William Borucki, Kepler principal investigator at Nasa’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California, who led the team that discovered Kepler 22-b. “The first transit was captured just three days after we declared the spacecraft operationally ready. We witnessed the defining third transit over the 2010 holiday season.”
Always wanted to experience the blending of the senses, like famous synesthesiasts Vlladimir Nabokov, Kandinsky, Pharell Williams and Richard D. James before you? If you don’t have the natural predisposition (or diathesis) you could venture into the world of psychedelics, but if mind-altering substances are not your cup of tea this new device provides the solution. It’s the Synesthesia Mask, developed by Team Syneseizure. It allows you to feel images captured on a webcam in realtime.
Behold: the most accurate computer simulation of the universe, ever. Created by researchers of the UC High-Performance AstroComputing Center (wish I could say I worked there) and New Mexico State University and called ‘the Bolshoi simulation’ (double wow), the movie below depicts “the most accurate cosmological simulation of the evolution of the large-scale structure of the universe yet made”.
So, this is what the universe actually looks like. I recommend watching this high, or something.
The Bolshoi simulation is the most accurate cosmological simulation of the evolution of the large-scale structure of the universe yet made (“bolshoi” is the Russian word for “great” or “grand”). The first two of a series of research papers describing Bolshoi and its implications have been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. The first data release of Bolshoi outputs, including output from Bolshoi and also the BigBolshoi or MultiDark simulation of a volume 64 times bigger than Bolshoi, has just been made publicly available to the world’s astronomers and astrophysicists.
The starting point for Bolshoi was the best ground- and space-based observations, including NASA’s long-running and highly successful WMAP Explorer mission that has been mapping the light of the Big Bang in the entire sky. One of the world’s fastest supercomputers then calculated the evolution of a typical region of the universe a billion light years across. The Bolshoi simulation took 6 million cpu hours to run on the Pleiades supercomputer—recently ranked as seventh fastest of the world’s top 500 supercomputers—at NASA Ames Research Center.
Large cosmological simulations such as the Millennium simulation are now the basis for much current research on the structure of the universe and the evolution of galaxies and clusters of galaxies. Due to significant advances in the measurement of the cosmological parameters and in the power and speed of supercomputers and simulation codes over the past half-decade since the Millennium cosmological simulation, the Bolshoi simulation is substantially better in resolution and accuracy.
The question of the mind of animals is one of the most interesting there is, I think. It is by now clear that the primary school distinction between humans having ‘intelligence’ and animals having ‘instincts’ is highly outdated. Animals possess all kinds of intelligence and consciousness – from the simplest insects to the most complex vertebrates. The most evolved ones, like chimpanzees, apes, elephants and dolphins even seem to possess self-consciousness, distinct individual personalities and the ability to independently solve complex problems and interact with other creatures. One might say they even have a ‘culture’.
Indeed, if you play with a dog or cat, it is beyond doubt to me that this being has a will and mind of its own, and is much more than just a robot following its pre-programmed instincts. My hunch is that research will eventually show that the difference between humans and ‘animals’ is more gradual than qualitative: we have evolved further on the line of language skills and self-consciousness, but are not essentially different.
So here’s an interesting article investigating one of the weirdest smart animals around: the octopus. In fact, this is the most prominent example of an invertebrate creature that has been proven to possess a complex form of intelligence and ability to solve problems. Yet the peculiarity of the octopus makes it even more interesting: with its suckers, it can both taste, feel and ‘see’ at the same time; and each of its eight tentacles seems to possess a mind of its own. Still, octopuses seem to be able to recognize different people. It is thus an intelligent creature that is, at once, similar and radically different from us, in terms of consciousness.
So this raises the question: what is it like to be an octopus? How is the consciousness of an octopus constituted?
I have always loved octopuses. No sci-fi alien is so startlingly strange. Here is someone who, even if she grows to one hundred pounds and stretches more than eight feet long, could still squeeze her boneless body through an opening the size of an orange; an animal whose eight arms are covered with thousands of suckers that taste as well as feel; a mollusk with a beak like a parrot and venom like a snake and a tongue covered with teeth; a creature who can shape-shift, change color, and squirt ink. But most intriguing of all, recent research indicates that octopuses are remarkably intelligent.
Many times I have stood mesmerized by an aquarium tank, wondering, as I stared into the horizontal pupils of an octopus’s large, prominent eyes, if she was staring back at me—and if so, what was she thinking?
Not long ago, a question like this would have seemed foolish, if not crazy. How can an octopus know anything, much less form an opinion? Octopuses are, after all, “only” invertebrates—they don’t even belong with the insects, some of whom, like dragonflies and dung beetles, at least seem to show some smarts. Octopuses are classified within the invertebrates in the mollusk family, and many mollusks, like clams, have no brain.
Only recently have scientists accorded chimpanzees, so closely related to humans we can share blood transfusions, the dignity of having a mind. But now, increasingly, researchers who study octopuses are convinced that these boneless, alien animals—creatures whose ancestors diverged from the lineage that would lead to ours roughly 500 to 700 million years ago—have developed intelligence, emotions, and individual personalities. Their findings are challenging our understanding of consciousness itself.
As we gazed into each other’s eyes, Athena encircled my arms with hers, latching on with first dozens, then hundreds of her sensitive, dexterous suckers. Each arm has more than two hundred of them. The famous naturalist and explorer William Beebe found the touch of the octopus repulsive. “I have always a struggle before I can make my hands do their duty and seize a tentacle,” he confessed. But to me, Athena’s suckers felt like an alien’s kiss—at once a probe and a caress. Although an octopus can taste with all of its skin, in the suckers both taste and touch are exquisitely developed. Athena was tasting me and feeling me at once, knowing my skin, and possibly the blood and bone beneath, in a way I could never fathom.
Occasionally an octopus takes a dislike to someone. One of Athena’s predecessors at the aquarium, Truman, felt this way about a female volunteer. Using his funnel, the siphon near the side of the head used to jet through the sea, Truman would shoot a soaking stream of salt water at this young woman whenever he got a chance. Later, she quit her volunteer position for college. But when she returned to visit several months later, Truman, who hadn’t squirted anyone in the meanwhile, took one look at her and instantly soaked her again.
It seemed to Warburton that some of the octopuses were purposely uncooperative. To run the T-maze, the pre-veterinary student had to scoop an animal from its tank with a net and transfer it to a bucket. With bucket firmly covered, octopus and researcher would take the elevator down to the room with the maze. Some octopuses did not like being removed from their tanks. They would hide. They would squeeze into a corner where they couldn’t be pried out. They would hold on to some object with their arms and not let go.
Some would let themselves be captured, only to use the net as a trampoline. They’d leap off the mesh and onto the floor—and then run for it. Yes, run. “You’d chase them under the tank, back and forth, like you were chasing a cat,” Warburton said. “It’s so weird!”
Octopuses in captivity actually escape their watery enclosures with alarming frequency. While on the move, they have been discovered on carpets, along bookshelves, in a teapot, and inside the aquarium tanks of other fish—upon whom they have usually been dining.
Another measure of intelligence: you can count neurons. The common octopus has about 130 million of them in its brain. A human has 100 billion. But this is where things get weird. Three-fifths of an octopus’s neurons are not in the brain; they’re in its arms.
“It is as if each arm has a mind of its own,” says Peter Godfrey-Smith, a diver, professor of philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and an admirer of octopuses. For example, researchers who cut off an octopus’s arm (which the octopus can regrow) discovered that not only does the arm crawl away on its own, but if the arm meets a food item, it seizes it—and tries to pass it to where the mouth would be if the arm were still connected to its body.
“Meeting an octopus,” writes Godfrey-Smith, “is like meeting an intelligent alien.” Their intelligence sometimes even involves changing colors and shapes. One video online shows a mimic octopus alternately morphing into a flatfish, several sea snakes, and a lionfish by changing color, altering the texture of its skin, and shifting the position of its body. Another video shows an octopus materializing from a clump of algae. Its skin exactly matches the algae from which it seems to bloom—until it swims away.
For its color palette, the octopus uses three layers of three different types of cells near the skin’s surface. The deepest layer passively reflects background light. The topmost may contain the colors yellow, red, brown, and black. The middle layer shows an array of glittering blues, greens, and golds. But how does an octopus decide what animal to mimic, what colors to turn? Scientists have no idea, especially given that octopuses are likely colorblind.
But new evidence suggests a breathtaking possibility. Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and University of Washington researchers found that the skin of the cuttlefish Sepia officinalis, a color-changing cousin of octopuses, contains gene sequences usually expressed only in the light-sensing retina of the eye. In other words, cephalopods—octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid—may be able to see with their skin.
One octopus Mather was watching had just returned home and was cleaning the front of the den with its arms. Then, suddenly, it left the den, crawled a meter away, picked up one particular rock and placed the rock in front of the den. Two minutes later, the octopus ventured forth to select a second rock. Then it chose a third. Attaching suckers to all the rocks, the octopus carried the load home, slid through the den opening, and carefully arranged the three objects in front. Then it went to sleep. What the octopus was thinking seemed obvious: “Three rocks are enough. Good night!”
A nice essay by philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris about the mystery of consciousness. Harris seems to believe, and I do too, that the fact that consciousness exists is proof that not everything in this world is material. That is, my consciousness may arise from chemical processes, or even be identical to it, but the fact that I experience something (which cannot be denied) shows that I am more than matter. Subjective experience is a non-material fact of life. Religious people would call this a soul (I wouldn’t, but be my guest).
The eternal question is, of course, how consciousness can possibly arise from non-conscious material (if at all). Harris compares this to the question how the universe could have come into existence out of nothing. Both questions are, in the end, probably unanswerable, but at least engaging to think about. I particularly agree with the fourth paragraph below.
You are not aware of the electrochemical events occurring at each of the trillion synapses in your brain at this moment. But you are aware, however dimly, of sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, and moods. At the level of your experience, you are not a body of cells, organelles, and atoms; you are consciousness and its ever-changing contents, passing through various stages of wakefulness and sleep, and from cradle to grave.
The term “consciousness” is notoriously difficult to define. Consequently, many a debate about its character has been waged without the participants’ finding even a common topic as common ground. By “consciousness,” I mean simply “sentience,” in the most unadorned sense. To use the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s construction: A creature is conscious if there is “something that it is like” to be this creature; an event is consciously perceived if there is “something that it is like” to perceive it. Whatever else consciousness may or may not be in physical terms, the difference between it and unconsciousness is first and foremost a matter of subjective experience. Either the lights are on, or they are not.
To say that a creature is conscious, therefore, is not to say anything about its behavior; no screams need be heard, or wincing seen, for a person to be in pain. Behavior and verbal report are fully separable from the fact of consciousness: We can find examples of both without consciousness (a primitive robot) and consciousness without either (a person suffering “locked-in syndrome”).
It is surely a sign of our intellectual progress that a discussion of consciousness no longer has to begin with a debate about its existence. To say that consciousness may only seem to exist is to admit its existence in full—for if things seem any way at all, that is consciousness. Even if I happen to be a brain in a vat at this moment—all my memories are false; all my perceptions are of a world that does not exist—the fact that I am having an experience is indisputable (to me, at least). This is all that is required for me (or any other conscious being) to fully establish the reality of consciousness. Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion.
The problem, however, is that no evidence for consciousness exists in the physical world. Physical events are simply mute as to whether it is “like something” to be what they are. The only thing in this universe that attests to the existence of consciousness is consciousness itself; the only clue to subjectivity, as such, is subjectivity. Absolutely nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, suggests that it is a locus of experience. Were we not already brimming with consciousness ourselves, we would find no evidence of it in the physical universe—nor would we have any notion of the many experiential states that it gives rise to. The painfulness of pain, for instance, puts in an appearance only in consciousness. And no description of C-fibers or pain-avoiding behavior will bring the subjective reality into view.
Most scientists are confident that consciousness emerges from unconscious complexity. We have compelling reasons for believing this, because the only signs of consciousness we see in the universe are found in evolved organisms like ourselves. Nevertheless, this notion of emergence strikes me as nothing more than a restatement of a miracle. To say that consciousness emerged at some point in the evolution of life doesn’t give us an inkling of how it could emerge from unconscious processes, even in principle.
I believe that this notion of emergence is incomprehensible—rather like a naive conception of the big bang. The idea that everything (matter, space-time, their antecedent causes, and the very laws that govern their emergence) simply sprang into being out of nothing seems worse than a paradox. “Nothing,” after all, is precisely that which cannot give rise to “anything,” let alone “everything.” Many physicists realize this, of course. Fred Hoyle, who coined “big bang” as a term of derogation, is famous for opposing this creation myth on philosophical grounds, because such an event seems to require a “preexisting space and time.” In a similar vein, Stephen Hawking has said that the notion that the universe had a beginning is incoherent, because something can begin only with reference to time, and here we are talking about the beginning of space-time itself. He pictures space-time as a four-dimensional closed manifold, without beginning or end—much like the surface of a sphere.
To say “Everything came out of nothing” is to assert a brute fact that defies our most basic intuitions of cause and effect—a miracle, in other words. Likewise, the idea that consciousness is identical to (or emerged from) unconscious physical events is, I would argue, impossible to properly conceive—which is to say that we can think we are thinking it, but we are mistaken. We can say the right words, of course—“consciousness emerges from unconscious information processing.” We can also say “Some squares are as round as circles” and “2 plus 2 equals 7.” But are we really thinking these things all the way through? I don’t think so.
Consciousness—the sheer fact that this universe is illuminated by sentience—is precisely what unconsciousness is not. And I believe that no description of unconscious complexity will fully account for it. It seems to me that just as “something” and “nothing,” however juxtaposed, can do no explanatory work, an analysis of purely physical processes will never yield a picture of consciousness. However, this is not to say that some other thesis about consciousness must be true. Consciousness may very well be the lawful product of unconscious information processing. But I don’t know what that sentence means—and I don’t think anyone else does either.
Here’s one interesting facet highlighted of the broad studies currently being undertaken at some prominent US universities into the effects of psychedelics on depression treatment: lasting personality change. See our earlier post The return of psychedelic research in medical science for more background.
Both Discover Magazine and the science blog LabSpaces report about one result from the clinical experiments done at John Hopkins University with prescription of the hallucinogen psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms). Sixty percent of the 51 participants in the study (pdf) show a measurable lasting personality change, in the part of personality known as ‘openness’ – defined as openness to new ideas and experiences and an ‘awareness of self and others’. The openness trait in people includes traits related to creativity, imagination, feelings, aesthetics and general broad-mindedness.
Measured on a model of personality features used in psychology, consisting of the character traits neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness, only the latter was shown to have increased even a year later. This is significant, as lasting personality change usually doesn’t occur that much in adults.
A single high dose of the hallucinogen psilocybin, the active ingredient in so-called “magic mushrooms,” was enough to bring about a measureable personality change lasting at least a year in nearly 60 percent of the 51 participants in a new study, according to the Johns Hopkins researchers who conducted it.
Lasting change was found in the part of the personality known as openness, which includes traits related to imagination, aesthetics, feelings, abstract ideas and general broad-mindedness. Changes in these traits, measured on a widely used and scientifically validated personality inventory, were larger in magnitude than changes typically observed in healthy adults over decades of life experiences, the scientists say. Researchers in the field say that after the age of 30, personality doesn’t usually change significantly.
Personality was assessed at screening, one to two months after each drug session and approximately 14 months after the last drug session. Griffiths says he believes the personality changes found in this study are likely permanent since they were sustained for over a year by many.
Nearly all of the participants in the new study considered themselves spiritually active (participating regularly in religious services, prayer or meditation). More than half had postgraduate degrees. The sessions with the otherwise illegal hallucinogen were closely monitored and volunteers were considered to be psychologically healthy.
“We don’t know whether the findings can be generalized to the larger population,” Griffiths says.
As a word of caution, Griffiths also notes that some of the study participants reported strong fear or anxiety for a portion of their daylong psilocybin sessions, although none reported any lingering harmful effects. He cautions, however, that if hallucinogens are used in less well supervised settings, the possible fear or anxiety responses could lead to harmful behaviors.
Griffiths says lasting personality change is rarely looked at as a function of a single discrete experience in the laboratory. In the study, the change occurred specifically in those volunteers who had undergone a “mystical experience,” as validated on a questionnaire developed by early hallucinogen researchers and refined by Griffiths for use at Hopkins. He defines “mystical experience” as among other things, “a sense of interconnectedness with all people and things accompanied by a sense of sacredness and reverence.”
Personality was measured on a widely used and scientifically validated personality inventory, which covers openness and the other four broad domains that psychologists consider the makeup of personality: neuroticism, extroversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Only openness changed during the course of the study.
Griffiths says he believes psilocybin may have therapeutic uses. He is currently studying whether the hallucinogen has a use in helping cancer patients handle the depression and anxiety that comes along with a diagnosis, and whether it can help longtime cigarette smokers overcome their addiction.
A recent study found that most people treated with a single high dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychoactive mushrooms, showed a long-lasting change in personality—namely, an increase in openness. One of five broad measures of temperament used by psychologists, this quality is generally defined as openness to new ideas or experiences, awareness of feelings in the self and others, and is strongly tied to creativity and aesthetic appreciation. This is one of the first studies to link a single treatment with a drug in a laboratory setting to a long-lasting change in personality.
Although it might seem hard to believe, given the vagaries of spiritual experience, psychologists have a relatively well-defined and established definition for a “complete mystical experience:” one in which a person experiences a sense of unity with the world and other people; feelings of blessedness and sacredness; a sense of inner presence or divine force; and the feeling that what is perceived is “more real” than ordinary reality, among other qualities. Results by the lead author of this study, Johns Hopkins University researcher Roland Griffiths, have shown this can come about by taking psilocybin. But similar (or indistinguishable) experiences can occur through non-drug means, such as through prayer, fasting, sex, sensory-deprivation, etc.
People who had a “complete mystical experience” during their psilocybin trip scored significantly higher on measures of “openness” more than a year afterward. Those who didn’t have a complete mystical experience did not score significantly higher on these same measures.
Researchers say that the mystical experience brought about by drugs like psilocybin is likely responsible for the long-lasting change in openness, which the researchers say they think is permanent.
Spiritual experiences and personality traits are hard to measure. The link between psilocybin, mystical experiences, and changes in personality are also poorly understood. The results shouldn’t be taken as definitive proof that psilocybin causes permanent changes in personality.
Psilocybin can be dangerous, especially in people with underlying mental conditions, and the researchers don’t advise anybody to try this at home. Even in a carefully controlled setting, about one-third of the participants in the study experienced high levels of anxiety after taking the drug. But through the help of the study “guides” and the calming atmosphere of the controlled trial, everyone overcame the anxiety and not a single participant reported lasting ill effects from the experience
We’ve devoted attention to the subject on this blog ever since we started it, but here is once again an article from a high-profile online magazine about the renaissance in scientific research on the beneficial effects of psychedelic drugs on the state of mind of people diagnosed with illnesses such as terminal and recurrent cancer. Salon has a must-read story about the uptick on studies into this matter across top-notch universities.
If you still think subjects like psychedelic drugs are for hippies living in the 1960s, think again. As previously written about in, among many others, the New York Times, The Globe and Mail and TIME, and reported about on CNN and BBC, psychedelic research is currently in its second big phase, with medical scientists and psychotherapists from Harvard, NYU, John Hopkins, Berkeley and several European universities running research programs on it. Psychedelic drug conferences are also increasingly being convened.
This Salon article describes research projects at John Hopkins, NYU and UCLA attempting to pinpoint how psychedelics alleviate fear and anxiety in patients. In controlled settings, lsd and psilocybin are administered in order to provide consciousness-expanding experiences. Patients report very existential experiences, and come down from the trip feeling better equipped mentally to deal with sickness and death. This is, therefore, a subset of the field of palliative care.
For people interested in it, the article also provides some historical background featuring such drug luminaries, writers and philosophers as William James (The Variety of Religious Experiences), Aldous Huxley (The Doors of Perception, Brave New World, Island), and Timothy Leary. But the point to drive home is that unlike in the 1960s and 1970s, psychedelic research is currently conducted with a twenty-first century scientific focus, with a rather circumscribed goal. The goal no longer is to reform society, but to help people through appliance of medical science.
What for me was new in this piece was the info on how the current research programs on psychedelic drugs came about. Either way, I highly recommend this article if you want to know more about this highly interesting subject.
Kristof Kossut arrived at an unlikely address for his first psychedelic experience. The 60-year-old New Yorker and professional yachtsman opened the door not to an after-hours techno party, but to the bright reception room at the Bluestone Center for Clinical Research, a large spa-like space occupying the second floor of New York University’s College of Dentistry. Kossut was among the first subjects of an NYU investigation into the question: Can the mystical states of mind occasioned by psychedelic drugs help alleviate anxiety and depression in people with terminal and recurrent cancer?
Shortly before Kossut’s arrival on the morning of his session, two clinic employees entered a high-security storage room, which just happens to face a painting of a white rabbit. From a massive steel combination safe they removed a bottle containing one gram of synthesized psilocybin, the psychoactive agent animating the 200-member fungus family commonly known as “magic mushrooms.” The duo carefully measured the small container against the previous day’s weight, as if securing a store of weapons-grade plutonium. They then pill-pressed an amount of powder containing 20 milligrams of the molecule, first identified in 1958 by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, most famous for his other psychedelic synthesis, LSD-25.
They delivered the pill to a converted exam room gutted of its dental chair and refitted for comfort with holistic panache: plush pillow-strewn sofa, Persian carpet, Buddha statuettes, books on spirituality and mysticism, a high-performance sound system. Only the ceiling lighting track betrays the former identity of New York City’s federally sanctioned psilocybin room.
Receiving the pill is Dr. Stephen Ross, a 40-year-old assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Medical School and the cancer study’s principal investigator. Ross has a precise scientific manner softened by an upbringing in Southern California, where his mother (also a doctor) took him to hospice centers as a child, sparking an interest in end-of-life issues. Now director of the addiction division at Bellevue, Ross is among the youngest of a new generation of psychedelic researchers. With his cancer study still two years away from publishing results, he is already looking ahead to testing psychedelic treatments for drug addiction and alcoholism.
For now, Ross is fully focused on treating existential anxiety in people like Kossut, who lies on the couch, ready for his initiation into the psychedelic mysteries. In the research jargon, Kossut is “psychedelic naive.” After swallowing the pill Ross presents — in the cap of a ceremonial ceramic mushroom — all he can do is close his eyes, lose himself in the preselected tabla drum and sitar music, and try to remember the advice to not fight it, to move ever deeper into the light, to let go …
“It was absolutely incredible,” remembers Kossut. “The first rush was a little scary as I realized it wasn’t the placebo. That passed and next I was crossing boundaries of time and space and reality. I felt this weightlessness, this sense of being close to an unspeakable beauty that was unlike anything in my experience. For the first time since my diagnosis, I was not afraid of anything. The wall of depression that was building up day by day, the fear that I was going to die soon, that my daughter is only 8 — all those things disappeared. I wanted to stay there. I wanted it to last longer.”
It did. More than one year after his psilocybin session, Kossut reports greatly improved states of emotional and psychological well-being. “I walked out of the session happy, unafraid of death,” he says. “I don’t know why, but a transformation took place after being in that peaceful place. I relaxed. I started enjoying food again and was able to gain weight. The session taught me to be fully in the present. I’m optimistic. Mentally and physically, just better.”
This glowing report — based on a single dose of a naturally occurring, non-addictive, low-toxicity substance — sounds impossible. Surely one pill can’t succeed where months of traditional psychotherapy and antidepressants usually fail. According to science, that’s not how drugs work. It’s foreign to the model. But high success rates in ongoing concurrent studies at NYU and Johns Hopkins strongly suggest that Kossut’s psilocybin-assisted psychological rebound is no fluke. So do the findings of a pilot project conducted by Dr. Charles Grob at UCLA. Between 2004 and 2008, Grob administered psilocybin to 12 cancer patients suffering fear, anxiety and depression. His data, published last year in the Archives of General Psychiatry, showed long-term diminished anxiety and improved mood in every subject. The NYU and Johns Hopkins studies build on Grob’s pilot program with more subjects and higher doses. Midway through the research, their results are just as strong, signaling larger, multi-site trials to come.
This is the subdued, clinical language of a psychedelic science renaissance quietly entering its third decade. If its practitioners and advocates avoid the utopian claims and liberationist rhetoric that defined the LSD gospel of the 1960s, this is no accident. A new generation of psychedelic researchers understands that public and official support depends on exorcising the ghost of Timothy Leary, whose democratic acid crusade grew out of and ultimately helped destroy the first wave of psychedelic science in the 1950s and ’60s. Their goal is not to promote the legalization of these drugs or tout their value for everyone, but to revive the once-great and now largely forgotten promise of psychedelic science. And that just might, among other things, change the way we confront and think about death.
The brain activity recorded while subjects viewed the first set of clips was fed into a computer program that learned, second by second, to associate visual patterns in the movie with the corresponding brain activity. Brain activity evoked by the second set of clips was used to test the movie reconstruction algorithm. This was done by feeding 18 million seconds of random YouTube videos into the computer program so that it could predict the brain activity that each film clip would most likely evoke in each subject. Finally, the 100 clips that the computer program decided were most similar to the clip that the subject had probably seen were merged to produce a blurry yet continuous reconstruction of the original movie.
Researchers at UC Berkeley used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and some seriously complex computational models to figure out what images our minds create when presented with movie and TV clips. So far, the process is only able to reconstruct the neural equivalents of things people have already seen, but eventually it might be possible to construct the images people see in dreams and memories.
This could also open up new ways to communicate with those whose speech is severely impaired, such as stroke victims, patients with neurological diseases, and even people in comas. It’s probably worth stressing that we’re decades away from using this tech to read people’s thoughts and intentions, just in case that’s something you’re worried about.
The researchers developed this technique by showing study participants a series of black-and-white photographs while imaging their minds. By comparing the photographs with the scans, they were able to engineer a way to recognize any image from how the brain responded. With that basic principle in place, it was then only a question of building up a sufficiently complex computer model to decode moving, color images like those in the video above.