Listening to these mockingbirds improv reminds me of a factoid I read today in Daniel Tammet’s Embracing the Wide Sky that in order for male songbirds to sing some of the incredibly complex songs which change constantly, up to one per cent of the neurons in their song center are replaced by new neurons every single day, which adds up pretty quickly. That’s what those mockingbird brains are doing, rebuilding themselves continuously. Not adding brain cells to what is there already, but replacing them. It’s as if in order to speak we had to replace 100% of the neurons in our language center every 100 days. That is, all the grammar we’ve hardwired into our brain is replaced by entirely new brain cells with all new intricately laced connections between them four times a year. It’s not quite that simple (some of the neurons in the mockingbird’s song center will be replaced more often than others and others are more permanent), but still, our grammar and vocabulary would completely and fundamentally change over a period of a hundred days. Not all at once, but a little everyday so that you’d be speaking a completely different language in April from what you were speaking on January 1. I’m writing this in English now and a hundred days from now I’d be writing this in Armenian, and next year in Sioux. Plus I’d wake you up at five in the morning screaming outside your window.
Weird how cultural perceptions change over time. When I was a kid, axolotls were really freaky looking, almost science fiction, even scary, like aliens. As bizarre looking a creature as you could find in earth. Even the name, a Nahuatl word (they are found in lakes around Mexico City), meant water monster. A little foot long water monster, pink (a relatively rare color in the wild, they are typically brownish) and exotic and weird, especially with those bizarre juvenile gills retained in adulthood. Now in this adorable educational video, fifty years later, they are seen as positively cute. They look cute to me even. How can anyone not love that anthropomorphized smile? Ripley (distinctly not a Nahuatl word for water monster) seems to have a personality, like an anime character (though in Japan, where giant salamanders are five feet long and without the neotenic gills, salamanders are more unnerving than cute and even show up in a Godzilla movie). Somewhere over this past half century there’s been a fundamental shift in what is freakish and what is cute, a shift that even changed my own perceptions. Who knows how this works. Collective thinking. We are still far from a full understanding of how our brains work, and just beginning to figure out how all our brains work together. We stumble through existence with this unparalleled device in our heads, clueless, almost, as to what it is making us think and see and do and remember.
Terrorism in Western Europe Used to Be Much Worse read the headline in Mother Jones. Someone asked if terrorism is so much lower than it was forty years ago–see the chart below, the difference in scale is dramatic–then why is fear up so much?
Probably because there is nothing else to be afraid of. Human beings, having evolved under constant predatory pressures, are by nature very fearful. Back in the 70’s Americans were scared shitless of terrorism, but we were also worried about World War 3 and an incredibly high crime rate and some truly scary serial killers. Fear was a continuous presence, and there was much to be genuinely afraid of. Now there is a lot less to be afraid of, very little even. So we focus on terrorism. People will always be terrified of something.
Our very intelligence, the incredibly high level of human cognition, developed in response to our terror of predators. It probably even was one of the factors in the development of language. (Think of vervet monkeys, with their distinctive cries of danger for leopard, snake, eagle.) We can’t live without fear. People who are naturally without fear literally have something wrong with them…. and those eastern techniques people use to attain inner peace–that is, freedom from fear–require extraordinarily intense concentration and practice to overcome our intrinsic fear.
Homo sapiens are the only surviving human species out of dozens, and it is assumed that nearly all the other species were driven to extinction by predatory pressures. Life in the plains was extremely dangerous. We remain the sole survivor because our ancestors were the only one who developed technology to help us fight back, and did so an incredibly long time ago. Homo habilis had developed tools way over two million years ago, which means they must have already been using stones as missiles, much like baboons do. Our survival strategy was probably much the same as baboons–groups that defended aggressively against predators, except that baboons can live in very large groups because they are primarily plant eaters, and we were forced to live in smaller groups because we ate mostly meat. That made us much more vulnerable to predators–especially leopards (in fact, leopards still kill scores of people annually). Therefore we had to have a much more acute wariness about leopards (which are ambush hunters), which helped us survive where every one of our competitors failed. Being scared all the time was not only a survival strategy, it made us human.
Incidentally, of the four surviving genuses of hominids, three–orangs, gorillas and chimps/bonobos–all live in dense forest, which protects them from predators. We are the only genus that survived in open country, from H. habilis through H. erectus to H. sapien. And we did that by be incredibly wary. Even now, living in completely artificial homes surrounded by all this technology and never eating anything we killed or harvested ourselves, we will always find something to be freaked out by. Fearing sudden attack by terrorists is not that different from fearing an ambush by a leopard.
Leopards, in fact, may have evolved as hominid eaters, as both they and we evolved as species at the same time. As prey we may have actually been a prime driver in their evolution. You look at a leopard and you might be seeing a cat designed to kill you, specifically. There is no other predator designed to eat us. Leopards certainly are much more adept at hunting us than are lions or cheetahs. Leopards even have human-specific methods of killing us, preferring to catch people indoors while they sleep. They haunt Mumbai by night, taking a dozen or so of us in a bad year within the city limits. They are epicures of humans as food, oenophiles, sometimes killing one of us with quick bites to the neck, then tearing open the throat just to lap up the blood that pools on the floor. They drink their fill and slip out the way they came in, unseen, leaving the meat uneaten.
After writing that, I walked over to make sure the door was locked. There are killers and terrorists everywhere.
Coulrophobia–the fear of clowns–kind of explained. According to “How Clowns Became Terrifying” in the Atlantic, it’s John Wayne Gacy’s fault. It’s also an adult thing…most children still find them funny, as anyone who’s been to a circus can attest, and The Atlantic post cites a study here about the same. Grown ups, though, weird things that they are, get themselves all freaked out by a guy in a bozo outfit. They really get into it too, trying to out freak each other. You can see that on Facebook all the time. Someone posts a clown picture, and commenters begin one upping each other in how freaked out they are. To those of us unafflicted with the phobia (not to mention the drama queenery) it seems ridiculous. But people love their phobias, and don’t like to part with them. And face it, there aren’t as many phobias as there used to be. We once lived in a web of phobias, Freud validating and explaining every one of them. They were badges of pride, those phobias. People spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on their therapist’s couch bragging about them. Bob Newhart helping Mr. Peterson overcome his fear of geese. Woody Allen’s endless analyst jokes. Alas, Freud went the way of phrenology and people stopped bragging about their personal collection of fears. They became silly, all those phobias did, embarrassing. Decadent even. Though the fall of Freud did have one benefit for phobiacs…you can now be scared of something, irrationally scared, without it being a symptom of deep seated sexual problems. No more latent auto sexual mother loving homoerotic phallic vulvoid fantasies having something to do with hating your father. Today you can tell someone you’re deathly afraid of clowns and they won’t wonder what kind of sicko you are. They won’t shoo away the children. The end of Freudian analysis freed phobias from all that subconscious moral turpitude. Indeed, you can feel free to wonder about those who are not deathly afraid of clowns. Catch us snickering at Bozo and shoo away the kids. After all, John Wayne Gacy was a clown and he was sick as they come.
Looking back, clowns were probably at their peak in the fifties and sixties during the baby boom. Bozo, Clarabel, Hobo Kelly. Red Skelton’s clown paintings. But now, after several decades of a declining birth rate, it’s an adult world, and if adults are willing to let themselves be weirded out by a guy in a clown suit, they’ll make sure their kids are weirded out too. Or worry about them if they aren’t. Thus are superstitions made and passed on. Sometimes I wonder if the fear of clowns is some of the ptomaine remaining from the day care sex abuse hysteria in the 1980’s. That was horrible stuff, and I remember thinking from day one that it was all bullshit. The reason was that I had just read Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Emperor–Downfall of an Autocrat. It’s a helluva book, about the fall of Haile Selassie but one story really stuck with me. In villages in parts of rural Ethiopia, when things were going bad, witchcraft was suspected. But who was the witch? They had to find the witch. A shaman chose a child, put him in something like a hypnotic spell and set him loose in the village. The child would wander about in a trance then suddenly grab the leg of a horrified adult. The child had found the witch. A very ugly death followed. The McMartin Pre-School Trial seem to unroll the same way. No matter how crazy and extreme the children’s claims were, they were almost universally believed. It was 1983, the beginning of the Reagan years, and it was like we were being plunged into primitive superstition. Scarcely a rational word was heard for weeks after that. And it spread across the country, reaching its apogee in Kern County where law enforcement degenerated into medievalism. Dozens of people jailed for what used to be called witchcraft. The trials and prosecution were terrifying. There was no escape. No one lifted a finger to help. And when, years later, every case was eventually thrown out of court and the innocents released, not an apology was given. Irrationality means never having to say you’re sorry.
Which is what I find so fundamentally disturbing about the fear of clowns. You see, it makes no sense whatsoever. It is irrational as you can possibly be. In England people seeing clowns entertain have had break downs. They literally had to be hospitalized. Why? Because they saw a clown. But why? Because clowns are scary. But why are clowns scary? Because they are. That’s always the answer, because they are. And that’s irrationality. And irrationality is catching. Its spreads between people, and it spreads within the mind. Once you have opened yourself up to the hysterical fear of a guy in clown make up, a fear that has no logical basis whatsoever, then you have opened yourself up to all kinds of hysteria. And hysteria is only harmless for a little while. It can turn into hate really fast. The McMartin case came out of nowhere and set off a national obsession that destroyed lives. When irrationality goes viral somebody’s gonna get hurt. And that’s what creeps me out about the impassioned defenses you see and hear about the fear of clowns. They make no sense. None whatsoever. And they are too edgy to be funny. These people are genuinely scared. The more they think about clowns, the more intense they become. Imagine them in a mob. That seems so absurd. For now anyway. But you’ve seen this clown fear thing growing. Fast. Imagine it keeps growing. What if people are still freaked out by clowns a generation from now. Where does it stop? How do you stop it? How do you try to reason with something that makes no sense whatsoever? Will a bizarre fear of clowns morph into a bizarre fear of anything else? Anyone else? What happens to hysterias in a social media world? Where do they stop? Who is next? Is it all harmless? Or does it morph from kinky Woody Allen monologues into Kern County trying teachers for satanic child abuse? Freud meets the Old Testament and justice goes out the window. When irrational minds harden they can be terrifying. And that was before the social media. We have yet to see how the internet affects all of this, though without the internet very few of you would see a picture of Bozo and think private awful thoughts.
It’s strange how many cynical, agnostic, skeptical, intelligent people profess to being freaked out by clowns. The Satanic preschool stories of the eighties were believed by the gullible, by bigots, by those who had tossed rationality out the window when they’d become reborn Christians. But this fear of clowns thing, it afflicts the hip and sophisticated. The people you would think would know better. But maybe they miss the irrational fears the rest of the public enjoys. They may not believe in demons or ghosts or Satan, but they believe in clowns.
So my wife is watching Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Victor Buono is telepathically bossing Charlton Heston around. Charlton Heston hears Victor Buono’s thoughts, Victor Buono can hear Charlton Heston’s thoughts. Victor Buono makes a Bette Davis joke, Charlton Heston god damns him all to hell. Then I see this story in Huffington Post…People Talk Brain to Brain For the First Time Ever. “We were able to directly and non-invasively transmit a thought from one person to another, without them having to speak or write,” said Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone. Apparently a brain in India thought “Hola” to a brain in France, and the brain in France thought “Ciao” right back at him. One of those Watson, my friend, I need you kind of things. Pretty cool. And so Beneath the Planet of the Apes is real. Or the telepathy part is anyway, though maybe not the silly costumes. The future is already here, apparently with or without Roddy McDowell in an ape suit. Though that was another movie..
Once you realize that every single human being there is has inside their skulls the most complex thing that we know of in the entire universe, it gets a little weird. There are over 7 billion of these brains out there right now, all over the planet, each vastly more complex than the universe it exists in (which, after all, is mostly empty space.) Dig these numbers: a human brain has about 86 million neurons, and roughly ten times that many glial cells, or upwards of a billion. Each of these neurons fires five to fifty times a second and each of these neurons has up to ten thousand connections with other neurons. The estimates for the total numbers of synapses (i.e. the connections) between our neurons run from 100 trillion to 1,000 trillion (or one quadrillion). These synapses connect via dendrites (little filaments that grow from the surface of a neuron) and there are more dendrites than are used by neuron at any given time, so the potential number of connections could be one million billion (or one quintillion). That difference between that maximum total number of actual synapses (one quadrillion) and potential synapses (one quintillion), means the brain hasn’t come close to maximizing its capacity. And it means that the brain will continue to grow in complexity (and size). The human brain currently uses but a tiny fraction of its synaptic capacity. There simply isn’t enough to think about yet to fill it up.
83% of your brain is cerebral cortex, the thing that makes you you and people people. That cerebral cortex has grown at an astonishing speed evolutionary-wise. In just a couple million years it has expanded from chimp size to what it is now. Indeed it has grown so fast that it developed the folds you see in a brain in a jar, in order to maximize the number of neurons that could be crammed in the area available inside the skull. These folds increase surface area inside a limited space (or skull size), which increases the amount of neurons and synaptic connections between them. The size of our skull is limited by the dimensions of the human female’s birth canal. Indeed, the difficulty of human birth is due entirely to the size of the homo sapien sapien cerebral cortex. Were the woman’s pelvis able to widen further (it can’t, or at least natural selection isn’t capable of widening it at the same rate as a continuously expanding skull size)–or were it detachable like a snakes jaw (it isn’t), the human skull might be even larger, since apparently skull size is one of the things that can change quickly in our species through time (look at a collection of us and our predecessors to compare.)
Now about those billion glial cells. There’s ten times as many of them because they are much smaller than neurons. We used to think all these glia simply held neurons in place–it is vital that neurons remain in place to keep the synapses firing correctly, since synapses are not actually linked together but are just close enough for an electro-chemical charge to cross between them. Glial cells also help to provide the neurons with nutrition, like oxygen or the minerals such as potassium used in neurotransmission, which neurons exhaust quickly. And glia also helps with repairs and supplies the myelin which, like the rubber around a wire, shields the current running from one neuron to another via each synapse. But now it’s known that much of the brains incredible plasticity is due to glial cells, and they are used in communication (and even breathing) and who knows what else. Glial cells, like everything else about the brain, just keep revealing more complexity.
And the complexity of all this is so vast that we are incapable of actually visualizing it. We fall back on huge numbers like quadrillion and quintillion, or compare it to the relative paucity of complexity in the known universe. What we have in our own skulls, and is our very essence, we can barely understand. But every person you see has something in their heads that is more astonishing than the entire known universe. I can tell you that without truly comprehending it myself, because it is not comprehendable. We can understand it as a fact, an abstraction, but not actually appreciate just what it means. Like how we know what infinity is, but we can’t truly comprehend what it is. Our brains have myriad capabilities beyond our capacity to understand, because our brains are smarter than we are intelligent. Basically we are apes with extraordinary cognitive abilities, but still apes.
My wife’s heart stopped beating for five minutes. She had a severe infection and her electrolytes had plummeted to the fatal point. Luckily it was in the emergency room and they were able to bring her back. She came to with amnesia. She’s regained/relearned most, and few can tell there was an issue. But she has no memory whatsoever of being in the hospital. Indeed, she has no memory of the weeks prior to her being in the hospital. All of the memory was essentially deleted. Shorter term memories are stored in a part of the brain that is highly sensitive to a lack of oxygen, with anoxic effects similar to that of Alzheimer’s. She was asked by who knows how many people if she remembered being dead, and all she could say was she remembered absolutely nothing. Life after death for her means being brought back from the brink by a defibrillator and an excellent team of doctors. I suppose had she been of a religious or spiritual bent, her imagination would have filled that void since then. But she’s not, and the memory void remains a void, and all she knows is what she’s been told–that she was not breathing for five minutes, lost a few million neurons, and then was revived. She has no belief in a life after death, except that she is living it now, and is quite happy to be here.