Monday, 28 March 2011


Primates other than humans have been studied when there is voluntary alcohol consumption, and the proportions of non-human primates that:
1. develop alcoholism
2. get drunk occasionally but are generally sensible
3. always drink in moderation
4. choose to be teetotal
have been found to be approximately the same proportions that are observed in humans.

Much of our predisposition towards level of personal control, and risk taking, seems to be genetic.  Upbringing may play a part, but it would seem to be a function of brain structure.  In life there is usually a trade-off between risk and potential reward; it makes sense for some members of a population to be more adventurous, and for some to be more risk-averse.

I'd like to share with you two things relating to risk that I find interesting:

1.  Drivers tend to drive to a level of risk that [at least partially] compensates for any safety measure.  For example, if you wear a seatbelt you drive slightly more recklessly and therefore you are more likely to kill someone else (protection afforded to you still far outweighs the extra risk to others - it is mainly pedestrians and cyclists that bear the brunt of the extra risk).
This thinking is obvious if taken to extremes – imagine if there were no seatbelts and a big spike in the middle of the steering wheel... there would be a lot of very careful drivers out there!

2.  The parasitic protozoa toxoplasma gondii's primary life cycle involves passing through a rat/mouse and a cat. Experiments have shown conclusively that this infection causes a rat to become less risk averse.  It becomes much more likely to forage out in the open rather than skulking in the shadows, and therefore more likely to be caught by a cat and continue TG's life cycle.  It may come as little surprise to some readers that toxoplasma gondii sets up residence in the amygdala.  Although rats and cats are the primary life cycle hosts for TG, human infection in USA is estimated at 22.5% (much higher for cat owners!) and worldwide it is estimated at 25 - 75 % (those are some big error bars, eh?).  Infection normally poses no obvious effects, very few people are struck with acute toxoplasmosis, but studies have shown effects on human risk taking and personality.  People infected are more likely to be involved in traffic accidents, and less likely to accept group moral standards
So perhaps the local crazy cat-lady has good reason...

Monday, 21 March 2011


Let me be clear - I do not have OCD.  However, there are some things I do that may be construed as compulsive behaviours and I thought I would share a couple of them with you.

There is often a right way to do something; if you realise that, and are not particularly time-constrained, then why would you do it the wrong way? 

For example, when making a sandwich the fillings should be spread evenly through the bread.  Therefore, I cut the cheese, tomato, cucumber, ham, etc to fit the bread exactly - like a food jigsaw.  Cucumber is a bitch.  Not too long ago I ate at a sandwich bar and when my sandwich arrived I found that the PROFESSIONAL sandwich-maker had put the top slice on in the reverse orientation to the bottom slice - this should be a sacking offence in my opinion.

The picture above annoys me; it was obviously not done by anyone obsessive, or even vaguely observant.  It is neither neatly done, nor consistent in use of lower case / capitals.

When I need to do a shit, I always check there is toilet paper there before I sit down.  In public places, such as in work, the 2-ply toilet paper often has the top ply separated and wrapped around an extra time so that the perforations don't match up - how does this happen and why doesn't anyone else fix it!?  And, of course, folding 2 sheets in half and half again doesn't yield the optimum width, so I either fold 2 sheets into 3, or 3 sheets into 4 (depending on quality).

As you may know, I can be a bit of a grammar nazi and TBH it often interrupts the flow of what I am reading.  Any time I read  a commonly wrong word, such as its/it's or your /you're, I do a double take to check it is right.  Also, as I pointed out to Notme earlier today, it should be !?, not ?! because the question mark is curved like a bracket and therefore the exclamation mark should be contained within it.

As I said, I am not OCD (though maybe I have a dash of Aspie in my comorbid cocktail!), and if I cannot do things the way I would prefer to, for whatever reason, I do not get anxious - I just move on and forget about it.  I think my little quirks are simply related to conscientiousness, an attention to detail, never assuming the traditional way of doing something is the best way, being generally more aware of things around me than most, and a frustration at how other people (imbeciles!) can get the simplest things wrong.

These are all the traits that make me good at my job - I see problems,  potential problems, and how things should be done.  Then I fix them.

Sunday, 20 March 2011


I'm just back from a snowboarding holiday in Austria. My traveling companions took many photos and had fancy cameras, whereas I took only a handful and have never owned a dedicated camera – using only my mobile phone on occasion (which does take a reasonable 5mpix picture if conditions are right).

I am not sentimental, and the photos I take tend to either be artistically pleasing or purely to put on facebook to placate family that protest if I don't. That means that the photos I take are either of people (this seems to be what others want to see photos of) or desolate vistas – one of the reasons I enjoy snowboarding is that, if visibility is good, from the top of a mountain in the Alps you can see giant snowy peaks stretching out into the distance.

Mountains and clouds and big rocks and starry skies are the scenery that impresses me most; I find it kind of liberating to feel how small and temporally fleeting I am. Some may find that feeling depressing, but it isn't simply that I feel I am small and ephemeral, I feel how insignificant everything in life is – everything in everyone's life – and that makes me feel powerful because I know that most people get caught up in their mundane existences and never realise their true place in the world.  It reminds me that I am different to other people; and by 'different' I mean 'better'.

Thursday, 10 March 2011


Have been sleeping worse again lately, after a period of pretty good sleep.  After several nights of little sleep my brain feels like it is stuffed with cotton wool, and I just meander through the day in a trance.  In this unthinking state I sometimes have quite idiotic lapses - real "duh!" moments.  I'm sure everyone has moments like these, but normally I don't and I thought I would note a few of these down for prosperity :)

This morning I was nearly late for work because after breakfast I brushed my teeth and then went into my bedroom to get my phone.  I got undressed and got back into bed and was drifting off to sleep when I realised with a jolt that it was not night time it was the morning.

I bought a few groceries in a shop and went to pay with plastic.  I completely forgot not only the PIN of the card I picked out, but all the other ones too.  I'm normally very good with numbers.

Running slightly late in the morning, I hurried out to my car and went to put my keys in, only to find that I wasn't holding my keys - I was holding my electric toothbrush.

On several occasions I've been driving somewhere and just kept going for miles and miles past my destination (like for 30mins on what should be a 10min journey).

I guess these are pretty mundane things, but they make me laugh :)

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Continuity of Self

What constitutes you.  Every day some of your cells die and others are created to replace them, some memories are lost (perhaps only temporarily) and new memories are formed, and over time our neuroplasticity shapes the very physiology of our brains.  Where is the you that you identify as a constant through all this change?

When I wake up I often have a few seconds of coherent intelligent thought before I remember what my life is like, where, and who I am.  During these few seconds I sometimes wonder about whether I am young or old, rich or poor, and I can revel in the simple state of being where I am unaware of pretty much everything.  A state where all my thoughts are occurring for the first time, devoid of context.  
A similar situation is invoked as  a plot device in Dark City, which is a shit film (much worse than its IMDB rating suggests)  but it does leave a lasting impression.  Each night, the memories and lives of all the inhabitants are swapped around and they all live the next day with a new husband/wife, a new job, new hobbies etc. and they are unaware of their previous/original lives.

The classic example of a thought experiment about continuity of self involves a star-trek transporter.  This device maps out all the atoms in your body and then simultaneously destroys the original and creates a duplicate elsewhere.  Is the transported you you?  What if the original weren't destroyed - which one would be you, or would both be?

The most common real life application of this concept is in drugs, especially ones that change personality.  If I took a pill that gave me empathy and turned me into a sensitive metrosexual man then I would not be me.  Whoever that person was may fit in better with society, and they may be happier than I am, but they would not be me.
I think we are more accepting of gradual changes in our self - if we go to therapy or just decide to work on an aspect of ourselves then we are changing our thought patterns; that can lead, slowly, to physical changes in the brain.  If it happens overnight then we are much more wary of it, but where is the logical difference?

You may find this interesting.