The neuroscience of enlightenment

I’ve written before that our brain is everything that makes us who we are. That big “a-ha!” moment or revelation we have has specific and predictable brain activity. That life changing experience is brain activity- and the re-writing of neural pathways. Fascinating stuff.

Ed. note- Since I’m publishing more regularly over the summer break, a bit of a rhythm is beginning to occur. The increasing number of views seems to correspond with publishing frequency, so I decided to publish three times a week instead of just twice. Maybe because I’m compulsive, I’ve realized a way to theme each day to incorporate my interests. Mental Mondays will relate to psychology or critical thought in some way. Witticism Wednesday will be a quote from a greater mind than mine. Free-writing Friday will be anything goes- from travel to my obsession with gadgets. I’ll try to maintain this schedule until classes resume in August or it becomes evident it’s not working.

Wandering discovery is it’s own reward

IMG_1754There’s a sketchy kebab shop slightly northwest of Pigalle metro station in Paris, at the corner of Boulevard de Clichy & Villa de Guelma. It doesn’t appear to have a name, just a KEBAB sign. Google still lists Boulangerie Pigalle at the location, but the street view image from May 2015 shows what’s really there. The menus list items they don’t actually make, like burgers and chicken cordon bleu. It’s in the middle of what appears to be Paris’ red light district, with adult stores and strip clubs lining the area for blocks in either direction. It’s not listed on Yelp and I couldn’t find the address when I search for it. This place isn’t exactly a tourist destination.

It was the best meal I ate the entire week.

Crepes are fantastic. Baguettes are wonderful. Croissants and madeleines and macarons are all sublime. I even enjoyed the escargot. I don’t have a single complaint about French cuisine. What made the kebab shop so great was how unexpected it was. It was the joy of discovery. In the midst of the wonderful bakeries, Parisian architecture, and assorted tourist delights we managed to stumble into a dive with great food in a foreign country.

Maybe it’s because I love seedy 24-hour or late-night joints; the kind of places drunks frequent when bars close. In England that was kebab shops or sometimes a chippy (take-away fish and chips). In Tucson and Las Vegas it was small local chains of Mexican food with the possessive tense of somebody’s name, like Nico’s, Filiberto’s, or Roberto’s. It doesn’t hurt that the “lower class” eateries have killer flavor and giant portions for the money.

Maybe it was the food. If I was limited to food from just one region of the world, Middle Eastern cuisine would be a strong contender. It tastes just like it appears on the map: between Greece and India, both of which I love. Kebabs in Afghanistan and shawarma in Saudi Arabia are among my favorite culinary memories. I’ve never been interested in falafel, but the hint of lime and texture at this place were great and upended my expectations. I’ve outgrown the stage of photographing my food for Facebook or Instagram (because I’m not a food blogger), but I almost wish I had just for an inventory of what was on the plate. Salad, rice, fries, suspiciously dark sausages, chicken… It was a great spread and very tasty.

But mostly I suspect it was the fun of discovering it by accident. I wrote about this a few years ago and I still believe that some of the best adventures are accidents. There’s no discovery if everything goes according to plan. By it’s very nature, a plan is an organized schedule of known elements. You have to wing it to discover something new. In the words of Friedrich Hayek, “The mind cannot foresee it’s own advance.”

In this case, it was simply a result of us abandoning plans for the sake of time constraints and chancing upon something good. No Yelp searches on a smartphone looking for reviewed places near my GPS location. Just plain, dumb luck. Our Big Bus tour route would take too long and make us late for an appointment elsewhere, so we hopped off to find food and a metro station.

“Adventure” usually conjures mental images of grander ventures, but nobody outside a Hollywood movie leaves the day-to-day and rafts down the Amazon River. Adventure begins with small steps, just outside one’s routine. A full tank of gas and turning down an unknown state highway of curiosity. A determination to discover how to find a landmark that’s long been seen but never visited. Trying a scary food, like Rocky Mountain oysters.

Foster an adventurous spirit. Go out there, take a chance, and discover something new.

One last procrastinating post

An unexpected recent interest of mine is the field of philosophy. Like the cheering masses at philosophy’s mischaracterization during a GOP presidential debate [1], I had largely written it off as meaningless navel-gazing. But most of the silliness comes from misunderstanding metaphors as literal, or bad and later disproven arguments.

The root words we get philosophy from mean “love of knowledge”, and it lives up to the title through my most cherished topic: critical thinking.

It’s worrisome that so many people cheered the dismissal of thinking or assume they understand a field they haven’t actually studied. To both paraphrase and summarize Thomas Jefferson, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

To that end, here’s the Crash Course philosophy playlist. Because thinking is good.


  1. Fourth Republican Party presidential debate, November 2015 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Survivor bias

This was supposed to be a summary of my recent trip to Paris (France, not the Las Vegas casino), but my internet connection has slowed to a crawl so I don’t dare try to upload photos or open too many tabs for cross-reference. Instead, while I stew in utter contempt for CableOne I’ll share this video on survivor bias that really made me stop and think.

It’s a fascinating thought, and since my primary interest with this blog is promoting critical thinking and recognizing/destroying biases I had to share it. Enjoy!

The myth of liberal media bias

If the mainstream media is so left-wing, why has Bernie Sanders received 1/80th (not a typo) the coverage of Donald Trump?

A lot of liberals may work in media, but the mainstream media itself is profit driven. This is true regardless of network. 24-hour news networks (mostly) don’t sell agenda, they sell sensationalism. They sell what people want. It’s a ratings fight so they can sell advertising, pure and simple. That’s why the bombshell story is always “coming up after the break”.

I’ll bet $20 there’s a corresponding amount of sensationalism to ratings for any given show on any given 24-hour news channel.

Are continents dumb?

A fun video follow up to my last post about maps. Enjoy!

Who knew maps could be mind-blowing?

Portraying an entire three-dimensional object in only two dimensions leads to unavoidable distortions. Any gamer that has created custom skins for a mod knows this. What blew my mind was learning about different world map “projections” and just how skewed our perceptions can be.

world-map

Above is the first image that came up when I did a Google image search for “world map”. Looks pretty standard, right? This version is based on the Mercator projection, which basically just takes the longitudinal lines and reshapes them from a globe to a grid. The problem is it creates extreme distortion at the poles.

Mercator_projection_SW

See how big Greenland is? Or Canada? In reality, Africa is 14 times larger than Greenland, Mexico is larger than Alaska, South America has almost twice the land mass of Europe, and every nation in the northern hemisphere is skewed down toward the center of the image. If the horizontal grid lines were redrawn proportionately to show land mass in scale, the resulting map looks like this:

1280px-Gall–Peters_projection_SW

The problem stems from conical sections of a globe being forced into grid representation on paper. From a Wikipedia entry on cylindrical map projection, “The poles accrue infinite distortion, becoming lines instead of points.” This happens with all 2-D representations, but how often do we really think about it? How distorted is the map on a game of Risk?

The majority of us are grossly mistaken about the relative size and even location of land masses. Isn’t that crazy?