The Eureka Moment

watt-steam-engine

Whenever I’m looking for a new book to read, I find that Bill Gates’ blog isn’t a bad place to start. It was there I found his review of “The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention.”

The book is a thorough exploration of the invention of the steam engine beyond the technical details. More so, author William Rosen focuses on the environment of science and philosophy in 17th- and 18th-century England that made the steam engine all but inevitable. The greatest innovation of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, Rosen argues, is not the steam engine, but the process of invention itself.

Gates provides a more intriguing summary book’s scope than I could, so I encourage you to read his write-up if you want to learn more (or just read the book!). However, my interest in cognition and the human brain led me to greatly appreciate one particular chapter of Rosen’s work – an exploration of the “eureka moment.”

As the (possibly apocryphal) story goes, James Watt was walking through a green space, thinking about how to build a better steam engine, when suddenly, “the whole thing was arranged in my mind” – meaning the idea hit him to create a separate condenser on his steam engine that exponentially increased the power produced and cut the fuel cost by more than half. Noticing this seemed to happen more often in the Industrial Revolution than any time in history, Rosen examines why we tend to have these eureka moments, or how he puts it, “solving problems without conscious effort, after effort has failed.”

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The Recursive Mind

recursive-pizza

Only the human mind could achieve something so majestic.

What makes us human? 98.8% percent of our DNA is identical to that of the chimpanzee. Heck, we share  75% of it with mice, and 50% with the banana. And yet, humans are the only species to able speak complex sentences, make tools with other tools, and leave the planet to explore other worlds. We homo sapiens beat out about 20 other species of apes and/or hominids, even, and we probably drove another – Neandertals – to extinction with superior communication, tool-making and social abilities.

In my last quarter of grad school, I took a seminar called “The Biological Origins of Political Cognition.” It was one of the most fascinating courses I ever took. The professor, Eric Oliver, was seeking a testable theory for the evolutionary origins of human political instincts – everything from cognitive science to evolutionary theory to social and clinical psychology were fair game. Along with a group of about a dozen grad students, he was hoping to gain some traction in developing a working model. I don’t know that he found what he was looking for – I think the concept was just too big and foreign for us – but nevertheless the class generated a ton of discussion at the event horizons of our brains. I always felt simultaneously smarter and dumber at the end of the week, and I always thought that if I ever had to do grad school over, I would have spent much more time on Eric’s questions.

Anyway, I’m sidetracked. One of the un-required readings for the course was Michael Corballis’ The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization. I had kept it on my list for three years before finally getting around to it this fall. I’m glad I did – it took me back to that class, and that’s a good thing, because evolution of the human mind is fascinating and so poorly understood.

Currently, researchers seem to agree that complex language abilities separate us from the rest of the animal world. The author of this thesis, Corballis, doesn’t disagree. However, many other animals – from birds to apes to whales to bees – have complex systems of communication. Corballis believes it is more than merely the complexity of our language that makes us human – it is the neural capacity for this complexity.

Of all living species, Corballis says in The Recursive Mind, humans are the only animals capable of recursive thought – that is, the ability to nest ideas within ideas. For example, you can think about what you had planned to do today yesterday, or I can say that my brother thinks what my uncle said last year about his plans for next May are probably not going to happen. If you understood that sentence, congratulations! You are a human.

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A General Theory of Love

A General Theory of Love

One of my all-time favorite books is “A General Theory of Love” by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon. It’s one of those paradigm-shifting arguments, the kind that forever alters your perception of the world. That’s not hyperbole for me. I really love this book. I found it in grad school while studying for a seminar on evolutionary political cognition (an unrelated yet fascinating topic I might write about later). My wife read it, too, and had the same reaction. In fact, we liked the book so much we incorporated passages of it into our wedding ceremony.

Believe it or not, it’s not an overly romantic book, as the title might suggest. The authors are three MDs, so their findings are research-based and representative of cutting-edge findings in the field of cognitive sciences. The “general theory” builds from the cognitive phenomena that allow us to feel and emote, demonstrating that we’re not as far removed from the other mammals on earth as we like to believe, and we have not conquered our passions and need for socialization as much as our cultural narrative assumes.

Central to our being is the hypothalamus, the area of the brain responsible for our emotions, connection and socialization. It is above – both literally and figuratively – the reptilian brain, which regulates our basic survival mechanisms like heartbeat, breathing and fight or flight responses. It also sits below our neocortex, the area associated with pattern recognition, speech, language, and most of our higher cognitive processing abilities that make us human. All mammals have some version of a hypothalamus – without it, female elephants wouldn’t protect their children or the children of their relatives, bats wouldn’t punish other bats who don’t share the food they’ve gathered, wolves wouldn’t hunt in packs, and male gorillas wouldn’t assert their dominance. Humans do all of this, too, but the main thing that differentiates us from other mammals is we can identify and describe these behaviors (like I’m doing right now) as well as regulate and mandate different behaviors.The thalamus lets us connect with other beings, and lets us act in a way that benefits the collective, sometimes even at the expense of the individual.

So knowing this, then, what is love?

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