Traveling to see the solar eclipse (aka: flying sucks)


I remember going to MIT Splash in high school: a classmate and I were traveling together from Cleveland; at the airport, I remember how excited she was to be travel by airplane. That flight was uneventful, which is to say, pretty much as good as a flight can be.

Nowadays, flying has become almost unbearable (which is perhaps that’s good news for the environment, but not to an avid traveler), as exemplified by my most recent trip.

We were traveling to Tennessee to meet my parents for the solar eclipse. As we were approaching Newark airport, I got a notification from United Airlines that our flight was cancelled, due to “the weather”. It’s always “the weather”, isn’t it? In my email notification, I clicked to see my alternative travel options, and was taken to a blank page. We continued to the airport, stood in an endless line, and finally tried to negotiate an alternative flight. They suggested we fly out Monday afternoon. I almost laughed at them. We were flying to Tennessee for three days, obviously to see the eclipse–why would we fly out just in time to miss the eclipse, only to return the very next morning? In the end, we were put as standby on a flight the next morning. We were assured that it was a big flight and there were only two pairs of passengers in front of us, so we were likely to get seats. I turned back to the airtran to go home, but my companion didn’t want to return to New York. It felt too much like giving up. He suggested we stay at a nearby friend’s house in New Jersey. That way, we’d have pleasant end to an unpleasant evening, as well as a place to sleep. He was right–a good time and much scotch was had by all.

The next morning, we awoke before dawn, after 2 or 3 hours of sleep. I was feeling somewhat off. The previous day, I’d already had some digestive discomfort, and the scotch and lack of sleep probably didn’t help. We returned to the airport, where it turned out that our flight was overbooked. They were asking passengers to give up seats in exchange for vouchers. Needless to say, no one from the standby list was able to board the plane. We trudged to customer service, and asked to be put on a flight to a nearby destination–not ideal, but it would take us in the right direction. We were put first on the standby list.

This next flight was in a different terminal, so we had to go through security again. I threw away what was left of my smoothie, and my companion had to discard all of the coffee he had just bought. While standing in line for the second time that day, I started to feel really sick. Still, it looked like we had a chance to make our next flight, so I tried to overcome the waves of nausea and pain, and waited for the next flight. While this flight was not overbooked, it was a small airplane, so we were out of luck again. By now, however, I felt sick enough that I was almost relieved that I didn’t have to fly. We went back to customer service, and tried to get another flight now for the following day. We refused to fly standby this time, because we knew that meant we wouldn’t fly. Finally, we were booked on a flight to Atlanta—three or four hours from our planned destination. This time, we went home; I closed my eyes in the car. There was nothing in my stomach, but I clutched a plastic bag, just in case. I was really thirsty at this point, but afraid to drink. We got home, and I collapsed on the bed. The next morning, we went back to the airport, and this time got on the plane. I still felt a bit unwell, but infinitely better than the previous day. In Atlanta, we picked up a rental car (all the affordable cars were booked weeks ago, by drivers eager to see the eclipse, so we had to overpay, but got a Prius for our money). Four hours later, we arrived in Knoxville, two days late. Fortunately, we were able to push back our return flight by one day, so we still got at least two days of vacation.

In the end, as hard as United tried to ruin our trip, they didn’t succeed: we still got to see the total solar eclipse, and it was amazing.

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Through manic eyes

The world looks like a photograph. I can’t concentrate. I’m out of breath with excitement; I’m itching to paint, to write, to think. About a week and a half ago, I felt my months-long dull mood begin to lift. Maybe I smelled some cut grass, or maybe I tasted a mulberry, or maybe the breeze cut through the hot sun just so–I don’t know what caused the shift, but it was tangible. Stunned, I leaned against the stone half-wall surrounding the park, and stared wide-eyed at the scene before me. Fluorescent (pink! green! yellow!) children armed with water-guns squealed and raced around parents lounging in lawn chairs next to their picnic blankets in the gold-flecked shade of the ginkgo biloba. Each blade of grass stood out, quivering in the breeze that hugged the tree branches and ruffled the leaves. And oh gods, the leaves! Layers and layers of leaves on branches that pierce the electric sky. I’m sure I can almost touch them, if only I stretch a little.

The moment was brief, and as I continued to walk, I couldn’t remember what it was that I had felt, that I had seen. I dug around my head, peering around corners, probing my mind–the depression seemed far away, but so was that beautiful moment when I saw the world transformed. I tried to see it again, but the trees just looked like trees again. The colors weren’t muted as through the veil of depression, but they weren’t glowing either.

Since then, that sensation, and the elation that comes with it, has returned. It comes in waves; it’s not constant. Nor do I want it to be–I want this feeling to last (despite the potential disadvantages), to prolong it as much as possible, so I’m going to savor it if I can, sip it slowly like fine wine, not gulp it down. I want the comfort of a warm buzz, not uncontrolled drunkenness, and I definitely want to avoid the hangover that follows a crash.

When I first got prescription glasses, I thought the world looked like a photograph: I had gotten used to my blurred vision, and relied on degrees of blurriness as a means to judge depth. Since a camera is not myopic, and captures distant objects as clearly as nearby ones, my corrected vision felt like a camera. When I finally got contacts, the doctor told me to look up at the leaves. She explained, “I know you’ve worn glasses already, but this is different. With contacts, you can see everything.” So she told me to look at the leaves; that I would be able to see all of them, not just a green clump atop a tree.

I’ve worn contacts for years now, and have grown used to clear vision; my depth perception caught up and the world began to look like the real world again, not like a high-definition photograph.

But it suddenly struck me–that’s what it’s like to look through manic eyes–like putting on contact lenses for the first time.

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Iceland Adventures: waterfalls, glaciers, sheep, and rainbows

It’s been two weeks since I’ve come back from my trip to Iceland, a fantastic (if tiring) vacation during which I hiked on a glacier, kayaked with seals, saw the northern lights, and had a lifetime’s worth of driving experience.

Seriously: look at these roads! To be fair, most weren’t quite this bad, but they still had their fair share of potholes and stray boulders.


Although driving was occasionally nerve-wracking, the views were incredible, and the destinations well worth it. Also, at many of the stops throughout the trip, there were fields of wild blueberries (and the less-tasty crowberries). This was very exciting. I ate a lot of blueberries.

We started with the obligatory Golden Circle: I could see why the destinations attracted the most tourists, but I was happy to get away and explore the more remote places.

One of the first places we were alone was a lake we encountered while driving on an unpaved road. We left our shoes behind and walked barefoot through the black volcanic sand, tiptoeing into the cold water.

Afterwards, we continued to a geothermal area, where the ground steamed and bubbled. In Reykjavik, the hot water is geothermal, and actually smells like sulfur! Apparently the locals are used to it, but I can’t say I enjoyed smelling like rotten eggs after a shower.

On a long and solitary hike to the majestic Krysuvikurberg cliffs, we stumbled over the lumpy soil (probably an old lava field covered with moss and grass), had a picnic overlooking the ocean, and made friends with some sheep. (There were so many sheep. Throughout the trip, we encountered more sheep than people.)


Afterwards, we stopped to investigate Leidarendi cave, a lava tube (thanks Reddit for the coordinates). I didn’t get any pictures of this cave, but did snap a few in another much smaller cave on the Snaelfellsnes peninsula. This was Songhellir–the “singing cave”, aptly named given the echoes that followed any sound we made.


Before going to Snaelfellsnes, we drove all day up to the Westfjords. This was the most exhausting day in terms of driving, but luckily we made lots of stops along the way. First, we turned off onto a random side-road and stumbled on this beautiful lake:


Afterwards, we drove to Akranes, where we got a private tour of a lighthouse. (All our tours were private, actually. There just weren’t enough tourists, I guess, for group tours in the more remote locations.) I was pretty tired by this point, but some lunch and emergency Adderall brought me back to life. Before we continued our drive, we stopped to explore a shipwreck. Our attempts at climbing inside were unsuccessful, but we did get on board another ship–a much more industrial one, but one that still looked pretty unused.


The next day, we started out Westfjords adventure with a kayaking trip (also just us and the guide), where got surprisingly close to a group of seals. Even our guide was taking photos, explaining that it was unusual to get so close. I didn’t bring my fancy camera on the boat, so I didn’t get any photos.

After kayaking, we had the chance to relax in a natural hot spring.

That afternoon we drove up to Isafjordur, took a walking tour (which didn’t end up being worth the money), and had ice cream for dinner (since everything was closed on a Saturday evening).


The next morning, we drove up to Skalavik, a beach on the Arctic ocean. We had grandiose plans of swimming, but the water was far too cold. We did wade in though. Going into the Arctic? Check!

Driving back south, we stopped at Dynjandi, one of the most beautiful waterfalls of the trip, and saw one of the most spectacular sunsets of my life.


Before leaving the Westfjords, we tried another hot spring, but this one was too hot to do more than dip one foot at a time. We also climbed behind a waterfall, where we encountered a real mystery: on the pebbles by the river was a dead flounder, with two bloody pocket-knives beside it. Where did they get the flounder? Why did they leave it? And why leave behind the knives? We’ll never know.

As we drove, we passed a number of abandoned farms, and made sure to stop and explore some of them (especially the ones where we could meet some Icelandic horses).

After taking a ferry (during which there was ample time for pictionary), we found ourselves on Snaelfellsnes. After spending the night, we drove on to further adventures. On the way, we passed Budir church; in the nearby hotel, a grumpy man at the front desk wouldn’t let us use the toilets.


We didn’t stay there long, but hurried on to Arnarstapi to find a bathroom. In this tiny village, there was a white house. I think it was just someone’s house, but it’s featured in a lot of postcards and photos. It was certainly picturesque, but I wonder how the inhabitants feel about being the subject of countless photos. Anyway, here it is:


From here, we walked part-way along a coastal path. In the excitement of the cliffs and rock structures jutting out of the water, my phone went down a cliff and was swallowed by a wave. It’s part of the feature now. (Fortunately, it was old and cracked, but it was the one that had an Icelandic sim card.)


After this, (and before that singing cave I mentioned earlier) we investigated a gorge (in which some more daring than us (and with better shoes and no expensive cameras) did some impressive rock-climing).


We also checked out a beach that didn’t seem particularly unique among all the other beaches we visited, but it was pretty nonetheless.


Our last day before heading back to Reykjavik, we stopped by Kirkjufell mountain, and hiked up to Eldborg crater (no pictures for the latter, as I decided against bringing my camera on the hike.)


We had more plans that day, but were tired by this point, and looked forward to a quiet drink and an early night. Unfortunately, that night’s airbnb room was, well, not really a room. I should’ve taken a picture of our tiny attic. (We stayed in an attic earlier, but compared to this, that attic was a luxury suite.) With no door, a ceiling so low that one couldn’t even sit up straight, a skylight right above my face, and a much-too-small blanket we were expected to share, it wasn’t the most relaxing of nights.

In the morning, after stopping by a bakery, I hugged my friend goodbye, and prepared for my final few days in Iceland. The next morning, I got on a small bus to take an overnight South Coast tour, since we hadn’t had time to explore it earlier. The first day, we stopped at a couple waterfalls and walked along a black sand beach with hexagonal basalt columns.

The next day we took a boat tour of Jokulsarlon, the glacial lagoon, and walked on another beach, among “stranded” icebergs. I knew the ice would be blue, but was still stunned to see it in real life.


Finally, we strapped on crampons for a hike on an outlet glacier (Svinajokull, off the main glacier Vatnajokull). They made us wear helmets and harnesses and carry ice-axes, but it was all completely unnecessary: the hike wasn’t quite a stroll, but it certainly wasn’t difficult. It made me really want to go back and try ice-climbing though!


On the drive back West, we momentarily paused by some bent metal sheets, which had apparently once been part of a bridge that was destroyed by a glacial flood. I climbed up one of the sheets from behind, and, encouraged by the guide and other tourists, slid down it to the ground–right into a mud puddle. I got mud all over my clothes and hair and face. Everyone laughed.

Finally, for my last evening in Reykjavik (after a much-needed shower to clean off the mud), I went to Tapas Barinn for a fancy dinner: I chose the “Icelandic Feast” set menu, and got to try puffin and minke whale, along with the Icelandic drink brennevin, nicknamed the “black death”. (I don’t quite understand why it’s so infamous. It was strong, sure, but not more so than any other liquor).

The entire trip was absolutely amazing, and I would absolutely love to go back!

In the meantime (just because rainbows are awesome and since I’m writing this at 3.30am), here are some rainbows I photographed along the way. (We were very lucky with the weather; it was almost always sunny, and if it ever rained, we’d immediately get a rainbow!)


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Grammar, online

Almost everyone makes typos from time to time. It happens, even if we remember to reread before clicking “post”, “send”, or “publish”. In the age of informal Internet communication, the occasional misspelled or omitted word can be expected, and therefore overlooked. Additionally, in certain contexts, capitalization can be forgotten, apostrophes can be omitted, and “unorthodox” abbreviations are accepted. However, I argue that despite the increasingly lax expectations of modern writing, grammar is as important as ever.

In the past few years, I’ve heard on multiple occasions that “grammar is dead”, perhaps a casualty of the evolution of spoken and written English. I do accept the fluidity and increasing flexibility of language, and I realize that this flexibility includes grammar. For a long time, I resisted the use of “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun; recently, I’ve finally been convinced to accept it. (Personally, I continue to avoid it, and still often use the (perhaps archaic) “he” to refer to an unknown person of any gender, since I find “he or she” problematic for a number of reasons—but that’s a whole separate issue, beyond the scope of the simple point I hope to make here.) Nonetheless, I maintain that we cannot discard everything we learned in grade-school English classes.

Perhaps in the most informal of forums, grammar may be nearly irrelevant: the writer’s correspondents may simply not care. Other situations require much greater attention to grammar: in particular, these include articles expressing controversial ideas, arguments with which an average reader might be expected to disagree, and even those heated Facebook debates that (let’s be honest) never get resolved.

One may contest that the writer’s grasp of grammar has little to do with his understanding of the subject in question. I agree—in many cases, a poorly-phrased point may still be an excellent point. Unfortunately, grammatical errors may undermine an important point in a debate, or even an entire idea or argument, for several reasons.

First, the mistake may simply be distracting. I often find that I stumble on even innocuous errors (including typos) in an otherwise fluent and well-written piece. A reader will most likely overlook the mistake, but it remains an unnecessary distraction.

Second, and more important, the mistake might reduce the quality of the argument. Even if the writer is well-versed in the subject, grammatical errors (especially if they are frequent) could render the writer unqualified in the eyes of the reader. The reader might get the impression that the writer simply doesn’t care enough to write well and proof-read his work or, worse, that the writer is intellectually inferior: if someone can’t grasp the basic rules of English (assuming he’s a native English speaker), he might also be unable to understand the subtleties of a complex subject.

(One might accuse the reader of arrogance—yet even a non-judgmental person who wouldn’t explicitly reject an argument on the basis of a grammar mistake might be subconsciously reluctant to deeply engage with poorly-written arguments. But whether or not the reader really is at fault for “missing the point”, if you’re trying to make a controversial point, you shouldn’t give someone the ammunition to dismiss you as a writer.)

In general, a well-written, grammatically-correct argument will almost always be more effective than a poorly written one. When I read a poorly-written argument, I may give up long before I reach the end; if I do continue reading, I am instinctively more critical–even if the writer’s views already agree with my own. On the other hand, when I read an article espousing an idea with which I disagree or which is novel to me, if the style is eloquent from the start, I’m much more likely to read with an open mind: I assume that the writer is intelligent; I assume he has spent time considering the topic before coming to his conclusion; I assume he has reasons to support his views, and consequently, I read with the intent of genuinely understanding those reasons. Whether or not he is able to convince me by the time I finish reading, I will have gained a deeper understanding of the subject and a level of respect for the writer.


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Gods & Monsters

There’s a lot about religion (particularly of the Judeo-Christian variety) that makes me angry. But there’s two (related) aspects of religion I genuinely don’t understand. So let me try to think it through…

1. In America, and likely elsewhere in the world, it seems the “default” is to be religious. Even if someone’s not Christian, of some type or other, it’s assumed that he’s just a member of another religion; why do I have to “come out” as atheist?

2. How can people actually believe in a god? I mean truly believe, not just go through the motions–church, ritual, prayer, etc.

Ok. Let’s see… I guess the straightforward answer to the first question is–simple brainwashing. I think it’s pretty clear that children are not born belonging to a religion. I suppose we can’t say that babies are atheists, since babies aren’t really anything yet. But it’s fair to say that babies are agnostic–open minds ready to soak up knowledge.

When parents, instead of teaching knowledge, preach ideology and dogma, I suppose it “sticks”. And if many people are religious, it makes sense that their children will be as well.

Still, why are so many people religious in the first place? This ties in with my second question–why, and how, do so many people believe in god?

Belief in god just doesn’t make sense to me; I can’t wrap my head around it. Growing up, I never had religion forced down my throat, but I was aware of it. I also wasn’t raised an atheist–my parents just left me alone, never telling me that god did or did not exist. Nonetheless, I was aware that I was “supposed” to be Jewish: my grandmother prayed weekly over lit candles; my parents took me to the occasional Jewish holiday party at a local synagogue; we’d buy our “New Year’s Tree” the day after Christmas, so that no one would think we celebrated that holiday (though I suppose my parents’ main motivation might have been the much-reduced price of Christmas trees after Christmas).

My parents would take me to art museums from a young age, where I’d see countless gruesome paintings of crucifixions, endless halos, and an embarrassing number of naked winged babies. I was 4 or 5 at the time, when I tried to replicate one of the crucifixion paintings (I think I was overly confident in my drawing abilities). When I showed a classmate my scribble of a stick-figure on a cross, and asked her to guess what it was, she told me “it’s God”. When I showed my parents, they told me that Jews are not supposed to draw Christ, so I put it away, ashamed (I don’t think they knew just how guilty I felt).

I knew most of my Kindergarten schoolmates did believe in god, and I felt left out. I wanted to believe in god too! So I decided to give it a shot. I closed my eyes and thought to myself “ok… now I believe in god.” Then I opened my eyes, looked at the maple tree outside my window, and realized–I don’t believe in god! My attempt had failed. I understood how I could participate in a religion, but no matter how many candles I lit or how much Hebrew I recited, I still wouldn’t actually believe in such an entity as god.

So that was that, I settled my crisis-of-faith at age 5. Pascal famously decided to believe in god, just in case: if god doesn’t exist, as he suspected, his belief wouldn’t matter anyway; but if god did exist, he’d have insurance against hellfire. Logical, sure. But while I can imagine making such a decision to believe, I can’t imagine truly believing.

Now, since I’m trying to actually understand how someone could believe in god, rather than dismissing this belief as below the intellect of a 5-year-old, I’m going to temporarily withhold judgement and try to consider similar and more general beliefs.

The deities of polytheistic or pagan religions are a bit removed from “god”. In fact, I “get” those religions a bit more, if only because their deities are a bit more sensible: they’re fallible, their motivations are clear, they’re not omnipotent; all in all, they’re just more relatable. Often, they resemble forces of nature, and I’d be so much more ok with worshiping them than the bloody, hypocritical, psychopathic Judeo-Christian god. Yet, while I do think Loki is totally awesome, I still can’t imagine literally believing in his existence…

What about belief in the supernatural, generally? While I don’t believe in ghosts or monsters or witches, I think I can imagine believing in them… If I turn off the light in the basement before walking up the stairs, I do get that feeling that something’s watching me. Sure, intellectually, I know there’s nothing there, but my body betrays me: my heart rate increases, my hands sweat, my muscles tense–all in all, a typical fight-or-flight fear response. I’m afraid of the monsters I know aren’t real, because it feels like they are.

This makes sense: an innate fear of the dark is incredibly beneficial from an evolutionary perspective. At night, we are vulnerable; at night, nocturnal hunters open their over-sized eyes, and we can’t even see them coming. So when the shadows on the ceiling seem to morph into grotesque figures, or when the creaking of wind-swept trees sounds like footsteps, we’re afraid–alert in the case of real danger.

With this in mind, I can understand how someone might be afraid of the ghost in an abandoned, “haunted” house, or the monster under his bed. Even if none of these supernatural beings are real, the fear certainly is.

So what does this mean about god? Since I can imagine believing in monsters, can I empathize with belief in god?


I still can’t. If fear predominantly motivates belief in the supernatural, I imagine that believers in god are by nature “god-fearing”. But I’m not afraid of god. And if god cannot inspire terror, he’s powerless.

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The better part of a Sunday

I was going to do laundry today, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Laundry (when I went away to college and it became my responsibility) has always been a hassle, a most unpleasant chore. I must have angered some laundry deity, to have been cursed with such laundry mishaps as I have been.

In particular, my final year in Cambridge was a laundry nightmare: the laundry room closest to my accommodation was closed for construction. As a result, I was forced to carry my pillow-case of dirty clothes through a lovely path in the back of King’s, over the river, across the street, through a locked gate, past a garden, and into another student accommodation, outside of the college gates.

All through October and November I grumbled and complained, but the real trouble came with winter. Since I had more interesting things to do than watch my clothes spin, I would go back to my room to get some work done while waiting for the wash to finish. In the winter, however, laundry-day would become, well, a day almost entirely devoted to laundry. I’d put on my sweater and coat and wool socks and boots and hat and scarf and gloves. I’d lug my pillow-case to the laundry room, start the cycle, and head back. Once inside my room again, I’d take off my sweater and coat and wool socks and boots and hat and scarf and gloves. And then I’d sit down at my desk, open my laptop, check the time. Then I’d stand up, put on my sweater and coat and wool socks and boots and hat and scarf and gloves, and walk back to the laundry room to get my clothes before some other student eager to get clean clothes empties that laundry machine and dumps my newly-washed sheets on the floor. So I’d move the wet clothes to the dryer, start the cycle, and head back. Once inside my room again,… well, you get the picture.

One particularly busy day, I thought of a way to salvage laundry-day, and actually do some studying. So I packed my laptop and some papers in my backpack, and I put on my sweater and coat and wool socks and boots and hat and scarf and gloves. I lugged my pillow-case (and backpack) to the laundry room, started the cycle, and sat down on a couch right outside the door. I got out my laptop, opened it, and… right, hardly any wifi. That wasn’t a problem though—I’d brought some papers I’d already printed. I could just read those. So I took out the papers, and some highlighters and got to work. The lamps in the room were very dim, but there was still just enough afternoon light by which to read.

I got through a few paragraphs, took some notes, and struggled some more with the wifi. Then I moved my wet clothes to the dryer, and returned to the couch.

Suddenly, the wind began to howl, accompanied by the percussion of sheets of rain slamming onto the roof and whipping the ground. I looked up at the window—the sky turned black. So much for reading. Well, at this point, there was no point in heading back to my room, I’d only get wet, and then would get more wet coming back for my clothes. Maybe by the time my clothes had dried, the storm would ease up.

So I waited, spending the time wrestling with the wifi. Finally, just before the drying cycle finished, the webpage loaded, and I could check my email. Here is what I read (paraphrased):

“Dear Students,

Thanks to your 600-year-old windows that wont close, you are probably all aware by now that there is a storm. The wind has already knocked down one tree—luckily no one was squashed. To prevent any potential future squashings from hypothetical falling trees, we are closing the back entrance and path into College until the storm has abated.

On second thought, we’re going to close that entrance for, like, another week, because there are some heavy branches that have been broken by the wind, but have not yet fallen.

Now, get back to work!
Some Important People at King’s”

At least my laundry was done. I emptied the contents of the dryer into my pillow-case, grabbed my backpack, and set out to find an alternate route home. Trudging through ankle-deep mud and fighting the wind, I made my way out of the garden. Straight ahead lay the closed path leading to my dry warm room (or, as dry and warm as the 600-year-old windows would allow). Instead, I turned right, to take a circuitous route through town. There I was, legs covered in mud, overstuffed pillow-case on my shoulder, and what I’d like to think was a pretty fearsome scowl on my face. I think I was too wet and miserable to even feel self-conscious lugging my laundry all through town.

By the time I finally got back to my room, my laundry (so recently fresh and warm from the dryer) was as soaked as the rest of me. Worn out and frustrated, I peeled off the layers of drenched winter clothes, snuggled into fleece pyjamas, and decided to do no more work that evening. I’d suffered enough already. Needless to say, I did no more laundry until the back path was re-opened.

In my current New York apartment, laundry remains a necessary evil and a constant battle, requiring most of a weekend day and careful planning (especially when some older lady who separates her laundry into three loads takes up all the available washing machines). I postpone it till the last possible day, when I’m down my “emergency”underwear. And when I go home for the holidays, I pack light, to leave space for a bag of laundry, which I (read: my mom) can wash with the luxury of our just-a-step-away laundry machine.

I suppose I shouldn’t complain, lest the laundry deities hear and decide to punish me further. I can’t even imagine what would happen if I had to actually go to a laundromat, rather than simply to the basement…

Only for those who share the sentiment …

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Changes in the Brain!!

How often do you read a headline declaring that “such-and-such changes the brain”? Observed brain differences have been ascribed to everything from video games to cocaine to meditation. Here are some examples:

Motherhood Can Cause Permanent Changes to the Brain 

Study finds brain changes in young marijuana users

Playing violent video games leads to brain changes, researchers find

 Mindfulness can literally change your brain

Statements like these bother me for three reasons. First, they assume that the thing-in-question has caused brain changes, when, frequently, the study can make no such claim. The fact that people who engage in some activity—say, playing video games—have brain differences when compared to others does not mean that the activity is responsible for those differences. It is equally likely that the pre-existing brain differences lead certain people to enjoy the video games more, for instance. Most of the cited studies that investigate brain differences are not longitudinal studies—they compare the brains of two groups of people, rather than actual changes over time, so it is impossible to tell whether the thing-in-question caused the changes observed. And even longitudinal studies do not prove causation, since it is almost always impossible to control for all other lifestyle factors.

One area of discussion in which this point is especially relevant is drug addiction. Brain scans of addicts unquestionably differ from those of non-addicts. However, the fact that only a small percentage of drug users actually develop an addiction suggests that there might be something already different about this particular population. Simply blaming the drug—“cocaine changes the brain!!”—overlooks this possibility, and does nothing to elucidate the actual nature of addiction.

Second, these statements assume that the observations have some relevance to health or society; usually, they make a judgment call as to whether the brain-changing thing is good or bad, precisely because of the changes it supposedly induces. In reality, the observation of brain changes does not necessitate concern or enthusiasm, yet it is frequently met with such reactions. “Because using the Internet changes the brain, we should worry more about kids spending so much time online” or “if meditation actually changes the brain, maybe it really would solve my problems”. These reactions in themselves already depend on preconceptions regarding the thing-in-question. Does the brain-changing power of video games make children more violent, or does it improve their working memory or coordination? Indeed, more than likely, the brain changes will not even have any noticeable behavioral effect.

Third, such headlines imply that the thing-in-question warrants unique attention because of its brain-changing power. Yet, the idea that something-or-other causes changes in the brain is meaningless, hardly interesting. Of course it changes the brain, because the brain is always changing, and every single experience induces some measurable change. So, that statement of “cocaine changes the brain!!” is of no scientific interest on its own; on the contrary, it would be more surprising to find a drug or experience that has no effect whatsoever on the brain. The mere observation that something “changes the brain” doesn’t reveal anything about the brain-changing thing.

With our collective knowledge of the brain so rapidly increasing, I understand the temptation to use neuroscience as evidence to support our claims. I would be thrilled if we could pinpoint the neural basis of every action, every thought, and explain how each experience molds the development of our minds. However, we have to be careful, lest we see monsters where there are none.

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