Yuval Noah Harari: A Visionary Man Who Metamorphosed my Ideas about the World

Picture credits: Google Images

I was in the final year of my college when I first got to know there is a book called “SAPIENS: A Brief History of Humankind” that exists. It was one of my classmates who recommended me and my friend this book. For almost 3 years I couldn’t manage to complete this book. Eventually I did. Only a few days ago. 

Describing how the book was seems quite a naïve question. Usual answers coming from the readers are:

“Oh, it was great.”

“You should really read this book. This book changed my life.”

“Yeah, it’s a good book.”       

                                                

But I personally believe that describing this book is a very difficult task. Words do fall short when it comes to describing SAPIENS. I do not mean to sound rude but many people applaud this book and go back to living their lives with the same held beliefs and ideas including “Evolution is tricky. I am sceptical about it.” Such people don’t do justice with the book. I cannot speak for everyone but my ideas have been made better after reading this book. I can speak for myself that my intellect is not the same as before. I am glad that it isn’t. 

Dr Yuval Noah Harari earned his PHD from the University of Oxford in History. He is now a full time professor at Hebrew University and his specialisation is in World History. His book Sapiens is an international bestseller and has been published in more than 30 languages worldwide. In the year 2012, Professor Harari received the annual Polonsky Prize for his work full of creativity and imagination. Dr Harari published another book in the year 2015 and it’s titled “HOMO DEUS: A Brief History of Tomorrow”. This book is about humankind’s future- where we are heading and what our future looks like. Homo Deus is followed by another incredible read “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”. The book is about our present. Dr Harari believes there are 3 problems revolving around heads and we must address them immediately: ecological collapse, technological disruption and nuclear war. Technological disruption is the most tricky one because our pace of technological developments is very fast and even we don’t know where is it we are heading or what is it that we are striving for. 

Cognitive revolution did give us some advantages over other human species including Homo Neanderthals, Homo Erectus, etc. What set us apart was our ability to believe in fictional stories. These fictional stories made us co-operate with our fellows in large numbers. We did manage to create imagined realities and they proved to be very helpful and necessary. Only a limited number of chimpanzees can stay in a room with one another. However, millions of humans co-operate with each other  (majorly strangers) just because they share the same imagined realities. Agricultural revolution changed the course of life of the hunter gatherers forever. When they settled, towns and cities began emerging. This was the period in human history which caused population explosion. More mouths meant a need to grow more and the vicious cycle continued. Scientific revolution has changed things to another level. An excerpt from the book SAPIENS beautifully captures the whole idea:

In 1500, humans were confined to the earth’s surface. They could build towers and climb mountains, but the sky was reserved for birds, angels and deities. On 20 July 1969, humans landed on the moon. This was not merely a historical achievement but an evolutionary and cosmic feat. During the previous 4 billions years of evolution, no organism managed even to leave the earth’s atmosphere, and certainly none left a foot or tentacle print on the moon.”

The world is changing at a much faster pace than anyone could have ever imagined. Technology, nevertheless, has made our lives better. Modern Science has managed to increase our life expectancy. Communication has become so much easier. In no time I can send a professor in the US an e-mail. Did pre-historic humans ever expect such a thing happening in the future? I don’t think so. However, our big problem is that even we are blank when it comes to asking ourselves: 

“WHAT IS IT THAT WE WANT?”

“WHAT WILL BE THE END OF OUR DESIRES?”

“WHERE DO WE SEE OURSELVES IN THE COMING YEARS?”

Dr Harari believes it is high time we grab on an ancient philosophy proposed by Aristotle- KNOW THYSELF. Seriously, we should become self- introspective and question our needs, wants, desires, etc. We should spend time knowing ourselves better than the corporations and government. Companies and governments are playing with our psychology to fulfil their self-interests. Politicians need power and authority. Corporations need profits. What about us? They don’t care about us. We are merely puppets in their hands. This is exactly why we need to start devoting some time into knowing ourselves better and more. Do we really need that new phone if our old one is working just fine? Do we really need that new furniture when our current furniture is only 6 months old? 

Question. Question and question.

I am going to end this blog with a quote by my favourite thinker, Dr Harari:

“I encourage all of us, whatever our beliefs, to question the basic narratives of our world, to connect past developments with present concerns, and not to be afraid of controversial issues.”

Are we born ‘creationists’?

Picture credits: Pinterest.com

It seems to have become an established truth that science and religion can never merge or go hand in hand. They both are incompatible with each other. The former proves that we are a product of evolution while the latter fails to make sense of evolution and puts faith in the ‘Intelligent design’. Now the argument of this blog isn’t about which one is right and which one is wrong. That’s a completely different story for another day. The argument is regarding our biases towards creationism because studies in developmental psychology are showing how children tend to believe in the blind watchmaker. 

Pascal Boyer, a French American Cognitive Anthropologist and Evolutionary Psychologist gave a theory called ‘Hypertrophy of social cognition’ which simply puts the fact that we have a natural willingness to see purpose, design, intention even when it is not there at all. Stewart Guthrie who is a Professor Emeritus at Fordham University, wrote a book “Faces in the Clouds” (1993) in which he explained how humans are always looking for some signs. So if we see a cloud or a tree or a bird or a leaf we try hard to perceive it as something even when it is nothing but a mere leaf or a tree. He further said that we look for intention even when it’s not there. Two prominent social psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel conducted an important experiment in 1944 to explore the experience of animacy. They made a movie using geometric figures including circle, triangles, squares. The movie was made in a way as if storytelling was going on. It was found that the participants started attributing figures to people in which every figure was either a hero or a villain or a bully or a victim. It was done instinctively. 

Developmental psychologists believe cognitive biases might be playing their role and help explain why intelligent design is so popular among people even in children. These biases are:

  1. Psychological Essentialism 
  2. Teleological explanations

Psychological essentialism is a belief that a basic, internal quality of a species will never change throughout life. When three year old children were asked if a Labrador undergoing a surgery will still look like a Labrador and not Rottwieler, they agreed. This showed that the pre-schoolers  have a basic understanding of an individual identity even when appearances change. In a way, psychological essentialism is a useful tool because it helps us categorize and get all sorts of other information for free. However, the fact that internal qualities in species do not change contradicts with the theory of evolution . Natural selection in evolution is a process which says that species constantly change and adapt so that they have better traits to survive in the environment than others. Maybe psychological essentialism is why people find it hard to digest evolution theory. 

Teleological explanations is another cognitive bias we have that underpins the importance of intelligent design among us. As already discussed in previous paragraphs that humans have a bad eye for randomness and believe everything has a purpose, this is what makes us not prioritise the theory of evolution. When children are asked why some mountains look like mushroom or why some rocks are very sharp and pointy they tell it’s because animals do not sit on them. Thus indicating a purpose or an intention. Rather the real explanation is that it is so because of processes like wind erosion taking place for thousands of years. It looks like creationism lies deeply in us. 

But Charles Darwin changed everything. His theory explained complex structure in living organisms without seeking help of a creator or an intelligent design. It’s very unfortunate that still many people do not believe in evolution. A lot of intellectuals belonging to the field of science do not believe in evolution. They rather believe the earth is only 10,000 years old. 

An important question remains: can we tackle these biases among people (even among children) so that there is more room for natural selection? Probably. Scientists need to understand that understanding evolution is not a piece of cake. It is not everyone’s cup of tea. People might study it at schools and colleges for the sake of passing the exams. But that doesn’t guarantee any firm belief in it. So, in the simplest possible ways, without getting too technical evolution should be taught to children. The illustrations should be filled with pictures and colours to make it all look very appealing and interesting. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that we are born creationists. 

Can we use ‘disgust’ to combat COVID-19?

Picture credits: The Brink

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV-2) which causes COVID-19 has completely changed the course of our lives. We are already experiencing the social and economic implications. What’s notable is that such implications are going to unfold more in the coming years. Evolutionary scientists are paying attention to many evolutionary insights that can help us better understand the pandemic and how it can be tackled. One such evolutionary insight is the use of ‘disgust’ emotion. 

Surprised? Confused? I mean what could possibly a single emotion called disgust help us craft solutions to the problems related to the pandemic. I believe it can. Evolutionary psychologists believe it can.

In recent years a great deal of psychological research has been conducted to study the emotion called disgust. Psychologists have found that disgust influences our social, political and moral judgements. People who are easily disgusted have different opinions in social, political and moral domains than people who are not so easily disgusted in their everyday lives. Evolutionary scientists propose that disgust is a ‘social protective system’ and tells a lot about how it continued to be a part of our evolutionary past. Disgust is a part of:

  1. Food psychology
  2. Sexual psychology 
  3. Physical contact psychology

When it comes to food psychology, the emotion protects us from ingesting food items that are rotten and full of toxins & pathogens. It had been helping our ancestors and it is helping us as well. When it comes to sexual psychology, disgust helps us to not get involved sexually with people (e.g. family members). Finally being a part of physical contact psychology, disgust makes sure we do not get in physical contact with surfaces displaying unknown bodily fluids, microbial infestation and people having some sort of visible infection.

When disgusting things are visible to the naked eye it is quite easy to stay away from them. For an example, if some food item is rotten and yet it is resting in our refrigerator we will immediately get rid of it because of the bad appearance and foul smell. However, that is not the case during the pandemic. A virus is not visible to a naked eye. And approximately 80% of the population stay asymptomatic while transmitting the virus at the same time. So when our closed relatives, friends and colleagues look perfectly well (even though they might be infected) we believe they are all well because a disgusting pathogen like SARS-CoV-2 is beyond our visibility. 

Psychologists believe we can use disgust to tackle the situation. But how? By showing images of people who are sick due to COVID-19 or images of the pathogen sitting on surfaces. This might trigger our ancient disgust system and people might start practicing physical distancing and and they might start wearing masks. It may sound unethical because it can be traumatic for some people. So it should be done with proper care. 

(This blog is inspired by one of the arguments presented in a paper titled “The pandemic exposes human nature: 10 evolutionary insights”).

Humans inclination towards ‘novelty’

Picture credits: thesecretstories.com

There is a very popular saying that, most probably, we are all aware of. It is” Old is Gold.” I couldn’t agree more with these words. There is some beauty in what is antique and old. But as it turns out that we, as humans, don’t necessarily follow it. Actually, our brains don’t let us.

Does it ever happens with you that you have a phone that is capable of doing every work of yours yet you still crave for that new one whose advertisement you just saw? Or does it happens with you that you are reading a book and are bored of it too soon that you are already thinking of picking up a new one? Do you also keep checking your emails every 5 or 10 minutes even though you know there won’t be another email for the next half an hour or so? Human beings have always been attracted towards ‘what is new’ or ‘novel’. New things make us feel so good that we are always seeking them.

Now the question comes why does it happen? What’s the story behind it?

Novelty and The Human Brain

It is not entirely right blaming people when it comes to their tendency of checking phones quite frequently or buying new gadgets from time to time. Somewhere our brains are at fault. Human brain works in such a way that it ignores what is old and focuses the attention towards what’s new. From the evolutionary point of view it is quite plausible because our ancestors needed to pay more attention towards the ‘new dangers’ to survive and not towards what is already known or familiar.

Research especially in the field of neuroscience has shown that whenever we are exposed to new things (new hair color, new people, new shoes, new watch, new house, etc.) or novelty our meso-limbic dopamine system gets activated. When the dopamine system is activated a neurotransmitter called dopamine gets send across different brain regions. This gives us pleasure but at the same time our brain starts telling us to seek more of novelty. This is the reason why new stuff makes us feel good for the time being. This is the reason why a notification on social media makes us feel good. This is the reason why we are always refreshing our emails. Every new thing causes dopamine to get released and that pleasure is what we are after.

Novelty and learning

While it is true that our tendency to seek novelty make us lives a little disruptive, it is not wrong to acknowledge that, nevertheless, novelty has many benefits especially in learning. Earlier it was believed that dopamine is merely a ‘reward chemical’ or ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter. However, recent studies have shown that it is also related to our motivation to seek rewards. These result in brain reacting to novelty by releasing dopamine which further motivates us to explore more of that stuff.

Due to the influence of novelty, plasticity of the hippocampus (which is primarily associated with memory) gets increased while the brain is involved in exploring new things or stimuli in the environment. This causes new neural pathways to get formed, thereby increasing the chances of learning new concepts and ideas. Novelty has also been shown to improve our memory. That is why it is always a good idea to change our environment from time to time while we are working or studying. Working or studying at the same place all the time impedes our progress and by changing the location we improve our performance as brain responds differently (and in a good way in this case) in new settings.

Managing the inclination towards novelty

When novelty isn’t for our benefit it becomes very important that we take control of ourselves and our actions. Whenever we are distracted by new stuff like media notifications, devices and many other things we should be mindful of their usage. We should put a hold for some time and let those cravings and urges pass away. It is quite understandable that it is not easy in any way but with constant practice we can surely get better.

Craving for bad food? It all goes back to Agricultural Revolution

Picture credits: The Atlantic

Imagine I am holding a powdered-sugar doughnut right in front of you. It is very delicious, no doubt!! Now tell me, would you be able to control yourself from eating it; at least a bite of it? If we are both being honest then I can openly say- NO!! Yes, a big NO…

Why do we crave for sugar and carbs  so much? Why they seems so delicious and tasty to us? Why is it so hard to resist ourselves from eating deserts or doughnuts or ice creams or rice or even having drinks filled with sugar?

It all goes back to our ancestors. It all goes back to millions of years ago.

We are living in a modern world that is suffering from an obesity epidemic. According to CDC (Centers of Disease Control and Prevention) in the year 2015-16, approximately 40% of adults aged 20 and over were obese. In other words, they were suffering from obesity. The fundamental reason behind obesity is a long-term energy imbalance. By energy imbalance it means that people are consuming more calories while burning lesser and lesser amount of it over a period of time. Sadly, consuming too much sugar is one of the biggest causes of energy imbalance among children and an adult population.

Something that went wrong in history

Not just us- Homo Sapiens– but other human species including Homo Erectus, Homo Neanderthals, Homo Ergaster survived by gathering plants and hunting wild animals. By plucking wild gigs and hunting wild sheep they managed to survive for millions of years.

But things changed about 10,000 years ago when Agricultural revolution began. From hunting and gathering our ancestors began diverting their time to sowing seeds, watering plants, plucking weeds, etc.  Domestication of plants and animals became common. Wheat, rice, maize, potatoes became the main plant crops that provided majority of calories to Sapiens. And this was the turning point- consuming handful of plant species like wheat, potatoes, maize and rice which were not doing a lot good to the bodies of Sapiens. These plants species were the main culprit. Too much carbohydrates!!

Then v/s now

Although it is true that the beginning of bad diet began during the agricultural revolution, the story doesn’t end here. When Sapiens were hunter-gatherers they needed a lot of energy to look for food that required many longer hours. And whenever they found any sweet fruits they used to consume them as much as they could because food was not guaranteed to be found after covering some distance. Even as farmers they were required to do a lot of work including clearing fields, weeding under the scorching sun, building fences, watering plants, etc. And their bodies were not evolved yet to manage so much of work. So, it was natural to consume more and more calories. Carbohydrates and sugar helped them in the process.

Story of the modern world is a lot different.

Our ancestors had some very genuine and good reasons to consume carbs and sugar in large quantities. We don’t. And there are reasons for it too.

Carbohydrates are not all bad and we do need them to survive every day. Such carbohydrates are called good carbohydrates/complex carbohydrates and they include whole grains, vegetables and fruits. We also need natural sugar that comes along with many fruits and other food items. The real problem comes with refined carbohydrates including sugar that causes a sudden spike in our glucose level making us feel all energized only to find out that very soon we are hungry again. Refined carbohydrates are equivalent to “empty calories” and are affecting our health badly; very badly. Our bad diet is one of the biggest reasons why we are seeing so many people suffering from Type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, etc.

Solution?

There are two best solutions to the health epidemic that we are facing in the 21st century at an alarming stage:

  1. Restoring our diet
  2. Physical activity

Food industries are not helping us. They are not our friends. They are our enemies making every way possible to ruin our bodies. That is why our health is in our hands. Moreover, governments are also needed to stop being on the side of food industries and start making some stringent policies to ensure good health of its citizens. It is completely irrelevant to blame our ancestors- what had happened throughout millions of years is of no significance right now because we can’t go back and change it all. Evolution doesn’t care about our resentment. But after having all the facts right in front of us and still turning a deaf ear is no wise.  

Decoding myself- ANGER

Picture credits: An Evil Nymph’s Blog on wordpress

Why are you angry?

Did someone say something to you?

Did someone hit you?

Did someone lie to you or hurt you emotionally?

These are all possibilities!!

Obvious and reasonable possibilities for you to be ANGRY…

I don’t intend to deny them. I don’t intend to steal you from your pain that’s been caused to you by these ‘external factors’.

But my question is, “WHY ARE YOU ANGRY? Why YOU and not THEY?”

If you were hurt because of someone else’s actions why is it that only you are angry and not the other person when you both were in the same situation at the same time? (assuming that the other person is actually isn’t angry)

It’s simple. You CHOSE. You chose to be angry. You chose to punish yourself for someone else’s faults or actions. You chose to be angry because you had all these EXPECTATIONS from the other person. Your CHOICE coupled EXPECTATIONS is what’s making you angry and causing you misery.

Anger cannot be simply alleviated with good and positive thoughts. There is a whole lot of complexity. Your neurons are doing their part; their sole job is changing your brain’s chemistry and that is giving rise to this emotion called anger. Neuroscience cannot be ignored here. Also, there is a whole lot of explanation from the evolutionary point of view as well. But my questions are more focused into freewill. My point is that you are angry and you must do something about it. Your anger is a reaction. Sometimes it is okay to be angry because you cannot always put a hold on your reactions. It’s just not humanly possible. But being angry; constantly angry is pain. It’s a grave pain for your mental well-being. And that’s why you must learn how to take control over your reactions.

It takes time. If I say you stop your expectations from other people or you simply have to acknowledge that you always have a choice. I am afraid it is too much to ask. These ideas are easier said than done.

So how should you start? Where should you start?

Whenever you are about to angry simply tell yourself that ‘right now I am angry.’ Acknowledge your anger. Then don’t listen to your thoughts. Let them float. Let them circle around in your head. Give them time. Some time. Even more if its needed. Take a deep breath. Tell yourself that you are going to react after 1 minute. Let that minute pass. If you are still angry give your reaction time one more minute. You will cool down eventually . It shall pass. Now by doing this you are choosing not to get angry. You are choosing to let go off the expectations.

DETACH.

Detachment from the moment becomes the key.