Sunday, 27 February 2011

(Almost) Perfect Brains

"Turing's original insight is as singular as Darwin's idea about natural selection, and like all great ideas, its simplicity hides its depth.


It has been said about Darwin's theory of evolution that it's the ultimate tautology - the survivors survive. This faux complaint presents a powerful feature of evolution; whatever works to keep you alive and get your genes into the next generation is just fine, no matter how weird the reasons or the results. But there is another feature of survival that is often not emphasized so much - survival is hard, desperately hard. Darwin understood this clearly and emphasized it in his title to Chapter 3 in The Origin of Species - "The Struggle for Existence." Mere persistence from one moment to the next is a struggle. So the augmented tautology becomes "The survivors survive but their life is desperate."

... all early humans can be seen as quite desperate, living a hard life with the threat of starvation as a constant motivator. Hunting and gathering is simply not very efficient, and until agriculture was discovered, early humans were always just one major mistake away from starving to death. This point is hard to overemphasize. Life is unforgiving, and so life's mechanisms had a constant pressure to be efficient - to capture, store, and process energy efficiently. And when we look at the components of life, cells, they are literal wonders of efficient energy-handling.

Out of the pressure comes efficiency. We all know that we become much more efficient and creative when we are desperate - when circumstances dictate that we absolutely must find some solution to a problem even though and money have almost run out. Desperation is indeed the mother of invention. Plato called it necessity, but he really meant desperation. Life itself responds the same way: The tougher the times, the more crafty and efficient the solution; such is the power of evolution" [italics mine]

- Read Montague, computational neuroscientist, Your Brain is (Almost) Perfect

Cognitive neuroscience, computational theory of the mind and evolutionary understanding are indeed strange bedfellows that have come together to realize the potential of understanding human consciousness in the coming century.

And the italicized points are precisely, to me at least, why evolutionary thinking cannot be taken lightly. Detractors may dismiss it because of its tarnished past (brought on by determinists or extremist right-wingers with moral motives) or its whimsical present (pop books and magazines wielding evolutionary reasoning for sex and attraction and just-so stories), but its underlying logic still presents us a vital window to understanding why our brain is simply so efficient. And evolutionary psychology has still a lot more to offer insofar as the brain continues being a decision-making information processor. Computational theory of the mind (CTOM) combines to bridge the gap between 'machinery' and consciousness, and there we will find answers in the future as to how what we have always regarded as the mind - spiritual matter, consciousness, ideas, thoughts, etc - can be produced by a warm mass of tissue and neurons.

It really doesn't hurt at all that its not just the evolutionary psychologists who are touting or at least acknowledging the reasoning power of evolution with regards to studying the human mind. Read Montague is one such case. Regardless of whether we have to skirt the terminology of evolution which bears the baggage of misunderstanding and misinterpretation, we will continue to find the logic and terms of adaptation and functionality in future studies of the mind if we are to understand consciousness in a scientific manner at all.

Will be eagerly devouring the book in the next week or so. CTOM holds immense promise.

Friday, 25 February 2011


Yeah it's a TC Bank advert, but it's still a darn good video which strikes right at the heart of what it means to live.

Sometimes I play soccer on Sunday morning and we still see some uncles bringing a team down and taking on the young'uns. Some of them are in the 40s range, but they're still up and running, alive and kicking.

Maybe most of all, they're still bros who've got each other.

When we stop asking why, when we stop being awesome, when we stop dreaming, we die.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Whine and Dine

Work-life balance is at an all-time poor at the moment. At the rate I'm going I'll probably lose all my hair, develop stomach ulcers, bust an artery or lose my soul like Natalie Portman in Black Swan (except not so glamourously).

There's always school work, of course. Presentations and assignments for four completely unrelated courses (Design Thinking, World Politics, Cultural Arts and Identities, and Spanish), each with its own research essay and examinations, and then the thesis. Throw in my supervisor's publication projects and the Stanford Undergraduate Conference project, and that's three more or so huge projects outside of standard curriculum time, concurrently. Add to that planning for grad trip from April to May, squeezing in the APS Conference in Washington DC at the end of May, and Hong Kong in June. And if I get Stanford, which is also at the end of May, then that's Washington + California in the span of one week (probably have to pass on it). Then there's the GRE retake on March 24th (haven't began preparing for, AGAIN), my friend's study to help run at the moment (as well as the eventual data entry of 100 participants' survey responses), teaching assistantship (thankfully and mercifully ends tomorrow evening) and lastly research assistantship. And a whole list of errands to run - reapply for driving license (which I lost last year), get contact lenses, set up bank joint-account, go for immunity jabs and stuff for the grad trip, etc etc. My list of things to do is hitting the goddamned roof.

Next week, my much-needed midterm break will be here and I have this nagging feeling that if I don't sort out at least half the stuff I have to do, I will flunk everything that I'm doing (or will have to do eventually) - failure to meet coursework deadlines, poorly written thesis, lack of preparation for GRE, failure to send in the submission for Stanford and, generally, messing up my entire life plan (so far) for graduate studies.

Interestingly, while this is an obviously absolutely shitty situation to be in, part of me relishes the challenge. And regardless of what happens, I'm gonna get my ass into graduate school.

But first things first, do or die next week.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Some Thoughts on Goodwill

I woke up to one of the crappiest days I've had in recent times. The past week had been a mess - assignments that piled up, presentations due next week, the thesis to take care of, and other obligations I had to see to. The past three days saw me notching a total of about ten hours of sleep only, and when this happens I get an outbreak of sinus that usually lasts the whole day. The feeling of tiredness and a sneezy, leaky nose is one of the most miserable feelings ever, especially when there's a whole day ahead of you from 11am to 10.30pm consisting of studies to run/participate in, meetings and classes to attend, and teaching assistantships to conduct (of course this is nothing compared to enduring starvation or a lifetime of poverty, but... you get the drift).

I don't really know how to put this, but let me try. In my experience so far I think it is really rare to observe genuine goodwill in our modern day and age. Perhaps it is because our results-oriented societal character makes us think of efficiency all the time. Or maybe we are reluctant to help others because we are afraid, either of not getting immediate returns for our goodwill, or that we will be taken advantage of. People want bang for their buck, and are impatient to get it. People think of "there's no such thing as a free lunch" a lot more than "a little goodwill goes a long way."

I'm certainly not trying to impose or insist on any particular way of doing things here, but what I hope to do is to present a case where what goes around does comes around, even if we may not immediately see it. Goodness begets goodness, and so does evil, in the long run.

How so in my case? I think I've always done my quiet little part for the people who matter to me - nothing more and nothing less. I'm not saying this because I'm consciously doing this in some warped self-interested manner everyday; I'm simply reflecting on it as it happened. And "people who matter to me" are very loosely defined. When my help is asked for - explicitly or implicitly - I seldom see reason not to give it. When people see what I do in research as an undergraduate and perhaps garner some interest in the possibility of going to graduate school, I'm glad to help and give information and my personal heartfelt take on the matter. When I see an elderly person on the train, I give up my seat; absolutely no questions asked. I wouldn't dare entertain the possibly of contemplating my act (often resorted to when people start thinking of costs and benefits), not that I had to. When I do work for others, either because I'm commercially contracted to do so or because I just want to help, I do the work because I want to give them what I can offer. This spans from designing logos, drawing caricatures, running studies, editing a coursemate's essay, taking care of the administration of a class, whatever. It doesn't matter. Do it well, do it good, do it for the fact that you desire to give of yourself first, and then for its external benefits - such as remuneration - second. That's a personal philosophy of sorts to me.

So as I slogged through today with a leaking nose and uncomparable drowsiness from lack of sleep, I was relishing the close of the day at 10.30pm with my negotiation class, for which I was a teaching assistant in. It had been a hectic term, and finally the course was ending - today was the last class before the final examination. I was absolutely taken aback and very pleasantly surprised when the Professor summed up his lesson, changed tack and said, "and finally, we have a very important person to thank today - our TA." He invited me down to the front and handed me some envelopes which I later opened after the class to reveal $100 worth of book vouchers.

Cynics and skeptics may say whatever they wish (my parents took their potshots when I told them, saying, "Oh, maybe he got the vouchers for free, and he could've just afforded them easily anyway"), but at the end of the day those vouchers were of value to a poor student like me. However, more than that, it indicated that there was some degree of recognition of the work I had put in. Cynics can debate the degree of recognition all day long, but to me the fact that the recognition was there shows that the cycle was complete. What goes around comes around, goodwill begets goodwill.

It made a case that my Professor described in class more salient. He recalled a time back in the 1990s when he visited China with his wife. When he checked into his hotel, a street chauffeur approached him and offered him chauffeur services for $50, whereby the Professor and his wife would be brought anywhere they wanted to go the whole day for that price. It wasn't a bad proposition, so the Professor took it up.

The next day, the chauffeur showed up and abruptly changed the terms of their deal. He said it will now cost $60. The Professor was taken aback - how tactical was this move! The Professor had no alternative - in fact, the alternative would be to endure his wife's distress, as she hated to negotiate. So he agreed to the chauffeur's terms, and the chauffeur got the $60 he pushed for.

My Professor then said that the cruel joke here was that the Chinese chauffeur had no clue what he had lost out on. My Professor, being a typical American-Israeli, would have spent the day traveling with his wife for $50, and tipped the chauffeur with an additional $50 for a job well done. But because the calculative chauffeur chose to approach the relationship in such a competitive manner, all bets were off on generosity and giving.

Perhaps it's not the Chinese chauffeur's fault for trying to rip off a traveling Westerner. But the point is that how we choose to conduct our relations with others can and will go a long way. We can choose to either go at it with goodwill or be calculative. What do you lose when you give? I don't know about most others, but for me I think in most cases it's usually very little. I think it often takes a rather competitive and calculative nature to sweat the small losses and perceive some painful cost in every little thing he/she does for others, and in a society where such a nature dictates the norms of social interaction, we stand so much more to lose.

My Professor's little gesture of acknowledgement reinforces my firm belief that if we hold on to being genuine and sanguine about our dealings with others rather than ulterior motives, some day we will get our just desserts.

P.S. It always amazes me how tokens are so much more effective in demonstrating reciprocity than cold, hard cash. Already, gift vouchers are probably the least remote cash items - we certainly find it harder to think of a gift of fruits, a watch or a dress in monetary terms, than a $50 book voucher. Yet, simply because the $50 gift voucher isn't a $50 bill (which would ironically allow me more freedom to choose what I want to buy - Homo Economicus would prefer the $50 bill) I'm still able to perceive it as a gift rather than a payment. This would allow me to remain very much in the realm of social norms, marked by reciprocity and closeness, rather than market norms, marked by transactional relations and coldness.

Thursday, 10 February 2011


“Regret comes in all shapes and sizes. Some are small like when we do a bad thing for a good reason. Some are bigger like when you let down a friend. Some of us escape the pain of regret by making the right choice. Some of us have little time for regret because we're looking forward to the future. Sometimes we have to fight to come to terms with the past, and sometimes we bury our regret by promising to change your own ways. But, our biggest regrets are not for the things we did - but, for the things we didn't do. Things we didn't say that could've save someone that we care about. Especially when we can see the dark storm that's headed their way."

- Lucas Scott, One Tree Hill

"Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable."

- Sidney J. Harris

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Perils of Denying/Rejecting Human Nature

The solutions each of us proposes for problems of the world, if we took the time to think about it, depend very much on our intellectual and moral inclinations and starting assumptions.

I very much believe that there is a human nature which is innate to every human being that, at the crux, cannot be altered by socialization or some kind of mere hope, morality or ideology. This starting belief informs my intuitive interest in subjects like evolutionary psychology, Realism and Marxism, because such subjects are inspired by how so many aspects of our behaviour do not change despite the long span of human history. The patterns just inevitably keep repeating themselves, as evidenced by the vast literature of war, societal conflicts and love throughout the ages.

Despite numerous social movements that have seen humans living through the chastity of Victorian England, the oppression of Maoist China, the enlightenment of Renaissance Europe to the decadence of the Dark Ages (an obviously inexhaustive yet clearly diverse list), fundamental aspects of aggression, attraction, status hierarchies, coalition formation, kinship and reciprocity, just to name a few, still remain. Despite the promise of Liberalism and Idealism, which are all logically sound philosophies, wars still happen and states are still concerned with security. Exploitation still happens all over the world, at both global levels (the exploitation of third world nations by advanced capitalist states) and smaller levels (the exploitation of the poor by corporations).

I don't think I'm wrong in my judgment of the reality in this sense, even if it may appear rather bleak or, worse, nativist. It is clear that, with recurring travesties of war, discrimination, exploitation etc in the world today, the power of socialization (trumpeted by behaviourists, social constructivists and environmentalists amongst others who believe entirely in nurture/culture while refusing to acknowledge nature) and the power of cooperation (because man is good and rational) requires a serious raincheck. The worst thing to do, given where my intellectual concerns come from, is to deny that human nature exists and dictates a significant chunk of our motives and actions.

This is dangerous because denying our nature and our propensity for certain behaviours is to diagnose the problem wrongly and suggest the wrong cure. It is perhaps striking how so many people are surprised when others behave in a self-interested manner, or are upset in the sense that they get caught off guard when war and conflict happens. It reflects, perhaps, a certain kind of self-delusional belief that social theories of learning and positive reinforcement can eradicate 'bad' traits in humans. John B. Watson (1930), the founder of behaviourism, famously said, "Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors." Clifford Geertz, a firm believer of the culturally malleable human, also defined how many social scientists think today and therefore a large degree of the entire social sciences enterprise. Hence, to these theorists, "change society or culture and you change people... Intelligent, scientific socialization can make us whatever we want to be" (D. E. Brown, 1991).

The attempts to suppress 'bad' human nature have been huge fiascos. Suppression often results in a rebound effect, and large scale oppression of natural tendencies are bound to either fail (consider the Kibbutz movement, the Hippie movement or the feminist movement, just to name some) or will experience some 'leakage' - the secret societies that operate underneath a lawful society, the rich husband who cheats on his wife, the insecure friend who behaves competitively even though the friendship is tight. I guess with such high hopes for a better world, it should come as no surprise that many people are disappointed or jaded with the outcomes.

It should make more sense, then, to find ways to work with/around our human nature, instead of working against it. Monogamous marriage law is a great example to cite. If men are most aggressive when they have no mates, institutionalize monogamy. This solved the huge problem of a lack of females in society for men who weren't rich or powerful enough to get wives (although you get the problem of the cheating powerful husband because he is driven to seek extramarital affairs, but that's a small cost compared to the huge benefits of reduced societal violence). Realism provides the wisdom that states seek security, so find ways to induce balance of power. Zhuge Liang knew this so brilliantly when foresaw that stability will be achieved when the three kingdoms were balanced against each other. Marxism tells us that the rich elite will exploit the poor. So empower the poor - give them welfare and education - and offset the power differential between the bourgeosie and the proletariat. Stubbornly refusing to acknowledge exploitation, or perhaps worse, calling it by another name (comparative advantage and mutual gains?) to hide its dark side, will not result in betterment for society.

Betterment will come slowly, as it often does. With my basic starting assumptions outlined above, I believe the creation of institutions that work with human nature are often the solutions that succeed and result in progressive change. A good sense of creativity and level-headedness, with a healthy dose of reality, will go much further than overzealous revolution or radicalism with the refusal to acknowledge that our human nature cannot be denied and won't go away.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Norms are separate from just behaviour, or conduct that is right or virtuous. Just because something is a norm doesn't make it the right thing to do. Just because cold-hearted rationality and efficiency are trumpeted doesn't make it right to not help those in need when the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits.

Have some spine, make a stand, and take a closer look at what we've taken for granted as 'normal'. There are plenty of things we do today that seem right only because everyone follows suit. Human nature entails that we hate to stick as the odd one out. That's true and acceptable only if one has no purpose or place in this world.

Not everyone has the privilege of being able to make a difference. The poor have little choice but to do what they must just to survive, and that may mean taking up jobs that are hardly ideal. They are squeezed and are easy targets for exploitation. But people who lead decent lives without fear of hunger or danger must take a stand. If our leaders or the institutions we live in can't make things better, the collective effort of everyone else in the direction of virtue may stand a good chance. In the name of progress and betterment, more can and must be done, and it does not take a lot to nudge the boulder - all it requires is for every individual who can help it to take a stand, rather than blindly follow. Do something because it is right to you, not because you have been told this is how things are done.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Taboo of all Taboos

I was hopping around some interesting reads when I happened upon the psychology of sexual fetishes, eventually leading on to sexual dominance and women's rape fantasies. Here's an interesting comment:

"I suspect the driving force being [sic] rape fantasy is vanity. It is the love of being desired, of being wanted so much that a man loses his reason in order to have possession of the rape fantasist.

Of course, I doubt the fantasist ever dreams of being raped by a skinny little nerd type. The figure she imagines will be a giant amongst men, a man desired by all other women. You only need to read Ayn Rand to get one woman’s account of the ideal rape."

First of all, it comes as no surprise that someone like Ayn Rand would paint as radical a picture as such - to quote another person, "Female sexual power – to be so desirable that the man literally cannot help himself." The starting premises and assumptions of this assertion are debatable (e.g. female power, desirability, etc), but what strikes me is that the logic is sound.

But aside from the deceased Miss Rand, secondly, rape is arguably a real fantasy that exists for either sex. It must of course be stated that having a fantasy does not certainly mean the fantasist desires the fantasy, but to reject the existence of the fantasy altogether may not be a wise move because it limits our understanding and makes us reduce holders of taboo fantasies to being psychopathic.

Discourse on the matter, which will certainly concern/shed light on some of the deepest aspects of human nature, are also painfully slow or limited because it is not easy to broach. I recall the topic coming up in evolutionary psychology class (probably one of the few, if not the only, psychology disciplines that cares to look at it as emotionally-detached as possible), only to be met with some halting comments, discomfort and awkwardness. In many articles written on the topic, writers also spend a great deal of effort self-censoring out of fear of, or deference to, the sensibilities of others.

At any rate, this website has a really good article on the issue:

But just to pull out some statistics, Matthew Hutson, who raised the question "Why Do Women Have Erotic Rape Fantasies?” for Psychology Today, says: "A recent analysis of 20 studies over the last 30 years indicates that between 31% and 57% of women have rape fantasies, and these fantasies are frequent or preferred in 9% to 17% of women. Considering that many people are ashamed to report rape fantasies, these stats are most likely lowball figures."

Another one found that "in one survey of romance novels (which tend to be written by and for women), the lead female character was raped in 54%."

The article ends off well by saying "we have to accept that there are dark, uncomfortable aspects to both male and female sexuality, and that neither gender in particular is any more guilty than the other. In fact, neither is guilty at all; we are sexual beings equipped with emotions and desires that, although often mysterious, serve a greater purpose than our rational minds can comprehend."

I will leave this post at that, because I think the articles above cover quite a decent bit of ground and the statistics raised here may be compelling enough for you to click and find out more.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

A Brilliant Take on Hypocrisy of Corporations

From Joel Bakan's The Corporation:

Friedman thinks that corporations are good for society (and that too much government is bad). He recoils, however, at the idea that corporations should try to do good for society. “A corporation is the property of its stockholders ... Its interests are the inter­ests of its stockholders. Now, beyond that should it spend the stock­holders’ money for purposes which it regards as socially responsible but which it cannot connect to its bottom line? The answer I would say is no.” There is but one “social responsibility” for corporate execu­tives, Friedman believes: they must make as much money as possible for their shareholders. This is a moral imperative. Executives who choose social and environmental goals over profits — who try to act morally — are, in fact, immoral.

There is, however, one instance when corporate social responsibil­ity can be tolerated, according to Friedman — when it is insincere. The executive who treats social and environmental values as means to maximize shareholders’ wealth — not as ends in themselves — commits no wrong. It’s like “putting a good-looking girl in front of an automo­bile to sell an automobile ... That’s not in order to promote pulchritude. That’s in order to sell cars.” Good intentions, like good-looking girls, can sell goods. It’s true, Friedman acknowledges, that this purely strategic view of social responsibility reduces lofty ideals to “hypocritical window dressing.” But hypocrisy is virtuous when it serves the bottom line. Moral virtue is immoral when it does not.


Corporations are created by law and imbued with purpose by law. ... at least in the United States and other industrialized countries, the corporation, as created by law, most closely resembles Milton Friedman’s ideal model of the institution: it compels executives to prioritize the interests of their companies and shareholders above all others and forbids them from being socially responsible — at least genuinely so.


[Adam] Smith, in his 1776 classic, The Wealth of Nations, said he was troubled by the fact that corporations' owners, their shareholders, did not run their own businesses but delegated that task to professional managers. The latter could not be trusted to apply the same "anxious vigilance" to manage "other people's money" as they would their own, he wrote, and "negligence and profusion therefore must prevail, more or less, in the management of such a company."

The "best interests of the corporation" principle, now a fixture in the corporate laws of most countries, addresses Smith's concern by compelling corporate decision makers always to act in the best interests of the corporation, and hence its owners. The law forbids any other motivation for their actions, whether to assist workers, improve the environment, or help consumers save money. They can do these things with their own money, as private citizens. As corporate officials, however, stewards of other people's money, they have no legal authority to pursue such goals as ends in themselves - only as means to serve the corporation's own interests, which generally means to maximize the wealth of its shareholders.

Corporate social responsibility is thus illegal - at least when it is genuine.

Now isn't that sweet.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Idolatry and the Power of Ideas, Beliefs and Group Spirit

Paid my yearly visit to the neighbourhood temple with my dad an hour ago. My dad strictly adheres to some school of Buddhist tradition and, as such, has to usher in the lunar new year by praying.

I couldn't help but recall and contemplate Professor Margaret Chan's neat thesis on idol worship. Her argument asserts that idols are created so that people can harness the power of supernatural spirits to help people do earthly things. In order words, idols are gateways for the spiritual realm to enter ours, and do our bidding.

The legend of Nezha, as told by the Fengshen Yanyi, is significantly relevant to this idea. During the Shang Dynasty, Nezha was born in a military fortress at Chentang Pass. Nezha's mother, Lady Yin, gave birth to a ball of flesh after being pregnant with him for three years and six months. His father, Li Jing, a military commander, thought his wife had given birth to a demon and attacked the ball with his sword. The ball split open and Nezha jumped out as a fully developed boy who could speak and walk instead of an infant. He was later accepted by the immortal Taiyi Zhenren as a student.

One day, while playing near the sea, Nezha encountered Ao Bing, the third son of the East Sea Dragon King Ao Guang. Because of a dispute, Nezha killed Ao Bing. Ao Guang confronted Nezha and his family, threatening to flood Chentang Pass and report Nezha to the Jade Emperor. To save his family, Nezha flayed and disembowled himself to return his body to his parents. The Dragon Kings were moved by his filial piety and spared his family. Later, Taiyi Zhenren used lotus roots to construct a human body in Nezha's likeness, and Nezha managed to resurrect.

Knowing this, Lady Yin ordered for a statue of Nezha to be created. Through the statue and through the reverence of many people, Nezha was thus able to return to the earthly realm and help his people. The Fengshen Yanyi clearly portrays idol worship in this case.

What appears quite interesting is that, perhaps, it was already known back then that something magical happens when many people collectively believe in something. Sociologists call this "group effervescence". The spirit that is created because many people believe in something can be powerful enough to achieve great things that scattered individuals cannot, and it is possible that ancient scholars knew the power of this phenomenon and sought to express this in writing and mythology. They might even have thought that the spirit that grips and possesses a group of people through faith and belief was a supernatural being, and thus the personified portrayal of this spirit appears in ancient texts, such as the Fengshen Yanyi. Fables could have been a form of accessible knowledge to both leaders and ordinary folk.

Fast forward to centuries later, and we see how this plays out in our modern society. People pray to the God of Prosperity (Cai Shen) so that he will bring wealth to them. People give offerings to the Goddess of the Sea (Mazu) in hopes that their travels will be safe. People also idolize Confucius and often pray to him for better study performance. If the theory of idols as gateways is right, then indeed these are instances where we see statues as channels for spirits to come to us and provide divine assistance for our earthly pursuits, and we pray so as to unlock those gateways.

While this may seem specific to cultures with statue and idol worship, a common theme also finds its place among many other religions and, in fact, organizations, that have revered symbols as the 'idol' to worship and thus harness this spirit of the masses. In every following, there is a leaderly symbol or figure to be looked up to, and as long as people channel their faith and belief into this symbol or figure, their collective potential can and will be mobilized.

It could be because the natural psychology of humans makes us drawn in by abstract ideas. It is often the pursuit of abstract ideas that spurs us into action and motivates us go the extra mile. This is why working for the sake of a monthly wage can be a painful process, but when we believe, for example, that the work we put in for a company can save the lives of people in Sub-saharan Africa, we might be willing to work overtime for nothing. The moment we can connect our efforts to a relevant (and usually moral) cause, there will be sufficient justification we create for ourselves to reconcile any irrationalities in our behaviour. We would sacrifice our time, labour and well-being even against our own self-interest once the powerful connection between our existence and our purpose is made, and that purpose is often socially constructed. People are willing to give the most for ideas, which is why ideas can be both so powerful and so dangerous at the same time.

Leaders, or people who have the propensity to kickstart movements and have the capability to attract followers, have the fuel they need given this basic psychological set up of humans. As purpose can be socially constructed, a leader who has the charisma to convince people of the desirability of his or her purpose can have a following who are willing to forgo their self-interest for the collective. It has probably been this way ever since homo sapiens first discovered the advantages of banding together instead of remaining as disparate nomadic tribes, and in the process created agriculture, states, industry and other amazing large scale organizations and movements. Ideologies, religions, philosophies and causes have all managed to unlock massive human potential and will continue to do so, insofar as our human nature remains this way.

Art co-evolved alongside too, as huge cultural artefacts were constructed to symbolize, represent and motivate the movements of the day. By propelling these physically and objectively 'hollow' yet socially meaningful artefacts towards idol status, the hearts and minds of many were captured and channeled towards creating important moments in history.

Anyway while I was there I noticed a young Chinese man, probably the age of 18, praying alone by himself. Although I probably do not share his beliefs entirely, the intensity of his faith could be felt as he went from altar to altar in solemn prayer, eyes closed and on bended knee each time. It was somehow heartening to know that our faiths and traditions still carry on in their own personal and quiet little ways, without boasting fanfare and noisy proclamations. And somehow I would believe that this young man had heart and could not want anything more than goodness and well-being for the loved ones and friends around him, and perhaps for strength to overcome what is often left to uncaring luck.

Sometimes it's not so much the irrationality of the fear and insecurity that should drive how we think of religion, but the recognition that we are small pawns in the timeless cycle of life and the serenity of acknowledging something bigger than ourselves.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Catchy, soulful and groovy. It is impossible to dislike this charming song!

I said, if I was richer, I'd still be with ya
Ha, now ain't that some shit? (ain't that some shit?)

LOL the siren song, the war cry, of the nice poor guy.
I guess a hallmark of psychology is that it seeks to discover patterns of human thinking and behaviour in a neutral and scientific way, and as long as it remains that way I can't be satisfied with its answers because of my inclination/tendency towards normative and moral issues.