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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A week of cheese and ice cream—and some nature

I’ve been in grad school now exactly one year. Now, I’m not sure that means I deserved a vacation: I’ve only just chosen a lab, haven’t even come up with a thesis project yet, and in any case, this year has been far less stressful than any of my three years at Cambridge. I’ve even had a “winter break” for the first time, and finally learned what it feels like to look forward to a relaxing weekend. Nonetheless, when my parents proposed a short trip to Quebec (flying to Norway was too expensive), I couldn’t refuse.

On the way, my parents warned me that the week ahead would involve copious quantities of food. That was perfectly fine with me. Our very first meal of the trip (lunch in Montreal), consisted of ice cream. While I usually maintain that ice cream is never a bad idea, this time, it was. The ice cream was tasty, but far from the best I’d had—and far from the best I would have during the remainder of the vacation. (And afterwards, my stomach rebelled against the entire meal of sugar.)

The rest of the vacation made up for this one slip-up—our meals ranged from bread-and-cheese picnics to the wild mushrooms my dad could not resist gathering to beautifully arranged dishes at fancy restaurants. Food-wise, I couldn’t ask for more.

Between meals, we found time for a 10km hike up a mountain, whale-watching (both from land and from a boat), and, well, scavenging for nature-food. On every trail, we were met with wild blueberries, raspberries, lingonberries, gooseberries, all of which I shoveled into my mouth, ignoring the thorns and mosquitoes that tried to deter me. Of course, as I already mentioned, there were also fields of mushrooms. My dad was even more interested in these than in the berries—I have to admit, they made a pretty fantastic dinner, but when it comes to nature-food, I prefer the instant gratification of a berry plucked from a bush.

Anyways, below are some pictures of the more memorable moments—views from the hikes, beluga whale sightings, and of course, some nature-food!



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On self-analysis and the meaning of sanity

How does one know if he is insane? I used to joke that the main symptom of insanity was insisting on one’s own sanity—it turns out that psychiatrists don’t disagree. Traditionally, “insight” into one’s own mental illness is considered an important step on the way to recovery. Regardless of the merits and flaws of this view, there obviously have to be other markers (unless we want to conclude that the only truly sane people are those who admit their insanity); whether its effects are helpful or detrimental, insight does not erase a disorder.

(Note, here, I will avoid politically correct terms such as “mental illness” for multiple reasons.  The root causes of different disorders remain unknown; additionally, it is unclear if “mental illness” includes “temporary insanity” or mind disturbances associated with an identifiably physical illness, such as the delirium of fever).

So how do we distinguish a “sane” from a disordered mind? It seems the answer is so difficult to identify that we may begin to question whether “sanity” as a concept is meaningful.

Even well-defined symptoms like hallucinations occur in the “healthy” population—occasionally to a greater extent than those associated with psychosis. Other symptoms are even more vague, harder to define. When does introversion become indicative of depression? Where does a “good mood” fall on the spectrum from mere cheerfulness to full-blown mania?

Some psychologists only consider a trait pathological if it significantly affects the sufferer’s ability to function. But here too, the line between normal and impaired function is often blurred. Everyone has different coping mechanisms—likely some work better than others; some are more societally acceptable, whereas others carry stigma. One person may reach for a cigarette, another for a razor blade. Which of the two has the “greater ability to function”? Should we base diagnosis on the shape of someone’s crutch?

And what about self-analysis? How useful is it really to dissect one’s own feelings and reactions, to scrutinize the mind? Perhaps if we suspect that our excitement and restlessness might be symptomatic of hypomania, we may be more careful to ensure that our actions arise from rational decision-making, rather than from impulse. On the other hand, why waste the excess energy self-analyzing? If the urge to paint strikes in the middle of a sleepless night, why brush it off as a symptom of disorder, when you can just do it.insanity

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Five years in under five hours

Let’s see… what has happened in the last 5 years? For almost anyone, quite a bit. In my case, I’ve  learned a lot (and managed to get a degree in the process), experienced life on opposite sides of an ocean, met some of the most interesting people in the world (some of whom I’m fortunate enough to call my friends), and… well, I’d be lying if I said I grew up to be a responsible adult (still haven’t quite gotten the concept of taking-out-the-trash), but I did become an irresponsible grad student.

When you see someone for the first time in five years, you don’t know where to start. So much has happened, but is there anything worth saying? And yet, sometimes, the conversation is effortless. Yesterday afternoon, I reunited with a friend I met at a conference, years ago, when we were just getting our first taste of science research. And now, strolling through Central Park, watching turtles in a pond, we reminisced out loud, sharing stories, gliding through time. It wasn’t as if our half-decade apart had been erased; rather, we brought each other into the past, so we could share it.

Anyway, after our five-hour reunion, we could have easily kept talking; hopefully the next time we meet will be sooner than five years.


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Trial and Error

The key to trial and error, when it comes to figuring out what will and won’t kill you, is to not make mistakes.

I’ve been doing a pretty good job of that so far (seeing as though I’m still alive), despite numerous warnings regarding the risks of my inclination for foraging.

On my three-mile walk between my apartment and lab, I’ve identified a number of mulberry trees; since then, I’ve been stopping at every tree, to grab a few berries. Even if I don’t have time for breakfast before leaving for lab, I’m usually full by the time I finish my walk!

Now, I found a new type of berry. I’d passed the small decorative-looking trees every day, but hadn’t previously paid attention to the little round purple berries hanging from the branches. Then, one morning, I remembered a few weeks ago, seeing a woman standing under one of the trees with her dog, picking the fruits. So I approached one of the trees, pulled off a dark blue berry. It looked and felt much like a blueberry, but the tree looked nothing like a blueberry bush.

I decided to investigate further, gingerly biting into the fruit to taste the juice. It was sweet. So I was 95% sure it was safe to eat. After all we have far more taste receptors for bitter than for sweet tastes, because almost all poisons are bitter. So the fact that this berry was sweet, with not a hint of bitterness, suggested it was edible. So I ate the rest of that one berry, and continued my walk.

The next morning, having survived the previous day’s experiment, I ate a dozen or two of the berries—still suffering no ill effects. By now, I’ve added these berries (which have turned out to be juneberries—I think…) to my foraging repertoire.

I’d like to think I’d survive pretty well alone in a forest, having to subsist on berries and mushrooms and lichens. But then, as a city dweller with a fridge full of food, I can’t even imagine the high-stakes trial-and-error foraging where one has to weigh caution against hunger. So I think I’ll stick to my roadside berries, merely pretending to risk my life with every taste.

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