Where Do Ideas Come From?

Diagrams of Leonardo Da Vinci

In 2003, anthropologist Wade Davis gave a TED presentation entitled Dreams from Endangered Cultures. The talk centred around how the surviving knowledge of indigenous cultures is increasingly at risk because of the spreading mono-culture of the West.

Davis, an anthropologist and author, began his career as an ethnobotanist. He spent his early years in Central and South America studying the relationship between indigenous people and the plant species they live among.

During his presentation, Davis talked about the psychoactive plant preparation known as ayahuasca – a brew ingested by shamen in areas of the Amazon Rainforest for divinatory purposes.

He tells us that the potion is made from a concoction of plants, and contains two main ingredients. The first is liana, a woody plant with a mildly hallucinogenic affect. The second, and more potent of the two, is Psychotria viridis, a shrub in the coffee family. This plant contains tryptamines, powerful psychoactive compounds, which when smoked or sniffed produce an intense intoxication marked by powerful visual imagery.

Davis likens the effect of certain tryptamines to “being shot out of a rifle barrel lined with baroque paintings and landing on a sea of electricity. It doesn’t create the distortion of reality, it creates the dissolution of reality.”

But here’s the catch: to be affective, tryptamines cannot be taken orally because they are rendered inactive by an enzyme in the gut called monoamine oxidase (MAO). They can be ingested only if taken in conjunction with another chemical that neutralizes MAO in the stomach (known as an MAO inhibitor)

It turns out that liana, the less potent of ayahuasca’s two main ingredients, contains beta-carbolines, which are MAO inhibitors of the type needed to allow the tryptamines to create their phantasmagoria of visual wonders.

For anyone fascinated by this unlikely coincidence, an obvious question arises. Davis articulates it:

“How, in a flora of 80,000 species of vascular plants, do these people find these two morphologically unrelated plants that when combined in this way, created a kind of biochemical version of the whole, being greater than the sum of the parts?”

Through trial and error? Unlikely, Davis suggests. In his book, The Lost Amazon Davis writes that one problem with trial and error is that botanical preparations are exceedingly complex (requiring additional experimentation) and take up too much time and energy to justify the too few successes they yield. Another issue is that there are negative physical consequences to randomly ingesting many plants. Serious illness and death are often the result of such forays into the unknown.

When Davis posed the question to the Indians, he got an altogether different answer.

“The plants talk to us,” they told him.

The indigenous peoples of the Amazon are not the only communities to have inherited some seemingly difficult-to-obtain knowledge that resulted in material accomplishments that make us wonder: How did these people uncover this fact? Or, where did that group get the idea to do that?

For instance, how did the ancient Dogon people of West Africa develop an advanced system of astronomy which knew the movements and characteristics of invisible, and nearly invisible celestial bodies without the use of instruments? How some ancient cultures moved and arrayed the massive stone blocks in their monumental architecture (i.e. – Pyramids of Giza, temple walls at Baalbek in Lebanon) continues to provide fodder for the wildest speculations. The same holds true when considering the ability to artistically execute with such precision the impossibly complex Islamic geometrical patterns that grace the interiors of some mosques built during the age of medieval Islam.

Fast forward to more recent times. We now know that many of our own great scientific discoveries don’t come from experimentation, but rather through sudden and often intuitive flashes of insight that follow on the heels of an intellectual impasse.

So where does information come from?

Some scientists consider information to be the underlying energy tied to the origin of the universe. Austrian quantum physicist, Anton Zeilinger coined the phrase, “In the beginning was the bit.” The late German-American physicist, Rolf William Landauer, maintained that information is always physical.

Could information exist independently “somewhere” in the Universe – in a “place,” “dimension” or “storehouse” – and in a tangible form even if it is not yet conceived, or known by a single person?

And when we do conceive it, is it simply just the result of us accessing it (i.e. – downloading it), either deliberately or by accident?

Great Bear on the Beebs

Big Cedar Conservation AreaThe BBC Travel website is running a recent photo essay I produced about British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. The piece is entitled Where the White Spirit Bear Roams.

Check it out here.

The Crisis in Futurology

In 1993, the celebrated Polish journalist and travel writer, Ryszard Kapuściński published a book entitled Imperium. It is a travel memoire that chronicles the author’s often bizarre experiences as he wanders remote parts of the former Soviet Union. Like Kapuściński’s other excellent books, Imperium brims with astute social and political commentary.

At the end of the book, Kapuściński recounts the fall of Communism, and goes on to ask what the future might hold for the post-Soviet empire. It’s a difficult, if not impossible question to answer, he tells us:

“Almost no prognoses about the contemporary world come true. Futurology is in crisis; it has lost its prestige. The human imagination, shaped for thousands of years by a small, simple, and static world, today cannot grasp, is no match for, the reality that surrounds it, which is augmenting at a rapid rate (especially due to the advances in electronics and the accretion of information), in which there is increasingly more of everything, in which millions of particles, elements, units, and beings are in continual motion, in battle, in new configurations, arrangements, and assemblages, all of which it is no longer possible to seize, to stop, or to describe.”

Kapuściński does go on to offer three future scenarios for the post-Soviet Union. But it’s the preamble above that’s most striking because, though applicable to his time, it better describes the age of unfathomably rapid change we’re living in today – more than 20 years later.

It’s for the same reason that a friend, who works as a diplomat, recently told me that most journalistic and scholarly writing in the field of political science and international relations (with its emphasis on trying to predict the future) is more akin to astrology than any actual “science.”

This crisis in futurology is really just a smaller symptom of the much larger and perilous crisis in which it partakes: namely our inability as individuals and as a race to adapt to a faster, ever-changing world.

Playing to the Camera

Photo by Senado Federal via Wikimedia Commons

Years ago I worked as a documentary producer for television. During that time, a genre of filmmaking dating back to the 1950s called cinéma vérité had very much come into fashion again.

Cinéma vérité is an approach to storytelling in which the filmmaker shadows their subject(s) for a period of time, capturing their life – and story – as it naturally unfolds before the camera.

The hallmark of a vérité film is that it contains no narration, or commentary. The filmmaker presents the story as a succession of scenes, captured as if he or she were a fly-on-the-wall. Its practitioners call it an undiluted form of reality depiction. “The height of truth-telling,” some would say.

But not everyone agrees.

One view has it that when even a verité film director selects and arranges the raw footage in a particular way to tell the story, the depiction of that reality is thereby altered. A subjective viewpoint is created. The depiction is skewed.

Another point, less recognized but even more compelling, is that pure truth is also subverted by the presence of the camera itself. Why? Because the subject knows it is there. The camera influences the subject’s actions. It is a catalyzing factor that influences behaviour.

Put another way: the filmmaker is interfering with the reality he or she is trying to depict because the subjects, to some degree are playing to the camera. Similarly, the term ‘Hawthorne effect’ was coined to describe an alteration of behaviour in a person due to the knowledge that they’re being watched, in general. All of this is much like the ‘observer effect’ in physics in which the observation of a sub-atomic event has an impact upon it: the mere observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes that phenomenon.

That’s not a hard idea to wrap your mind around. As a long-term documentary film or reality TV subject, It is almost impossible to speak, act and plan future actions without bearing in mind the camera. Events are altered from what they might have been had the filmmaker not been there.

But here’s an important question: could much behaviour in the modern world nowadays be influenced by this very same dynamic? What if we went beyond the documentary filmmaking context to include all cameras and their subjects.

Think of the murderous and destructive actions of the so called “Islamic State,” or the behaviour of any given politician, or the headline grabbing actions of criminals that turn them into instant celebrities. Media circuses often become drumbeats to which the subjects learn to dance to.

If we go one step further and replace the word “camera” with “observer” – any set of human eyes – then the examples multiply.

How much of what we do at any given time is simply playing to the perception of others? And how would the narrative of our lives, the truth of who we are, change if this were not, or were less, the case?

The Sufis

The SufisThis past October marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Sufis, by the late Anglo-Afghan author and savant, Idries Shah.

Described by the Washington Post as “a seminal book of the century”, The Sufis overturns the clichés and misconceptions surrounding personal development and mysticism that were, and to a degree still are, current in Western culture.

The Sufi Way, Shah explains, is an age-old tradition of experiential knowledge. It is also an approach to living that is holistic and dynamic, and which eschews fixed thinking and narrow-mindedness.

Contrary to a systematized, one-size-fits-all discipline characteristic of popular approaches like zen or yoga (which Shah describes as the superseded husks of once living schools), the Sufi Way is varied. It is prescribed to meet the needs of the aspirant – and the culture and time in which he or she lives.

In that sense, the Sufi seeks to harmonize with a world that is ever-changing from moment to moment. Versatility of thought and action (responding in whichever way a situation requires) distinguishes the Sufi from others who have a conditioned agenda – and who try to bend the world to their ideas.

The genuine mystic, Shah says, who to all appearances is a regular person, flies in the face of our notions of the exotic spiritualist. Mysterious Eastern religions and their cultish off-shoots, in all their colourful, emoting fanfare, have wrongly imitated, and/or been equated with real wisdom traditions.

“Fool’s gold exists because there is real gold,” the 14th century poet and thinker Jallaludin Rumi once wrote.

Over the coming months, the Idries Shah Foundation is re-releasing the author’s body of works. The newly released edition of The Sufis is first among them. All of the titles, described as “templates in clear thinking,” serve as an effective counterpoint to the growing trend of dogma and fanaticism that is one of the hallmarks of our troubled age.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Some of the best learning situations about culture stem from the misunderstandings that arise when people from different cultures collide. I was witness to a minor one here in Canada involving a relative who was visiting from Lebanon.

My cousin, Ed, approached a variety store owner to buy a bag of loose-leaf tobacco to roll his cigarettes. For those who don’t know: Canada is a country obsessed with enacting regulations. Perhaps rightly, it has some of the toughest anti-smoking laws in the world. In one of the stranger of those dictates, the province of Ontario prohibits the visual display of tobacco products in grocery, convenience and drug stores. Cigarettes are placed on shelves hidden behind bland looking barriers.

Coming from a country with far less regulation, and almost no effective government apparatus, Ed was unprepared for what unfolded..

Ed: Hi, do you sell rolling tobacco?

Store Owner: We do.

Ed: Can I see what kinds you have?

Store Owner: I’m sorry, sir, but it’s not possible.

Ed: What do you mean ‘it’s not possible’?

Store Owner: It’s against the law.

Ed: To sell tobacco?

Store Owner: No. It’s against the law to show you.

Ed: But, I don’t know what brands you have.

Store Owner: I’m sorry sir, but this is the law. There’s a notice on the door saying it’s illegal to display tobacco items.

Ed: But how am I supposed to choose? If I can’t see what you have?

Store Owner: I’m sorry, but I like I said, this is the law. You just tell me what you want.

Ed: Fine, then. I’ll have a pack of Drum.

Store Owner: Here you go.

Ed: Can I see your rolling papers?

Store Owner: I’m sorry, but you can’t see those either.

Ed: You must be joking!

Store Owner: No sir. The law says that item is related to tobacco use. So I have to keep it hidden as well.

Ed: That’s crazy. Alright, I’ll take Rizla papers if you have those.

Store Owner: We do.

Ed: Can I choose a lighter? Or are those also related to tobacco use?

Store Owner: They’re not. But…

Ed: But what?

Store Owner: You can only buy a yellow or a blue lighter.

Ed: Is that also because of the law?

Store Owner: No, it’s because that’s all I have left!

The encounter left Ed baffled. Coming from both a smoking and mercantile culture (with its socializing, haggling and displaying of wares in the bazaar), he found the laws and the behaviour of the store clerk nonsensical.

I later did some research into the law. Things may have gone smoother if the clerk was better informed about the regulations. The law enables some wiggle room for informing tobacco-buying customers of their options (with caveats of course).

An Ontario Ministry of Health website states:

“Retailers will continue to be permitted up to three signs that indicate the availability of tobacco in their stores. These signs must comply with section 7 of the Regulation (O.Reg. 48/06) and must use black text against a white background.

“To help in product selection, retailers may offer customers a binder or other reference tool containing an inventory of tobacco products available for purchase. This tool must comply with all other requirements of the Smoke-Free Ontario Act relating to the promotion of tobacco products. The proper use of this tool is for reference and not for distribution or display.

“The binder may not be left open on the counter. It must be stored away from view, e.g. beneath the counter, and may be used by a clerk and a customer of legal age to buy tobacco, to identify products for purchase. The binder should only be taken out during a sale and then returned immediately to its storage location.”

Inuit Song Duel

In times gone by, some Inuit groups living in Canada’s Arctic would settle their internal disputes through song contests. It was their version of our modern day court system.

In Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut, John Bennet and Susan Rowley write:

“If a conflict arose between two men, they could try to settle it with a song duel. They used two weapons: wit and satire. Each composed a song about his opponent, that would be performed at a community feast. The composer of the cleverest song, the one the audience enjoyed the most, won the duel.”

Alien Abduction Beliefs Explained

Alien abductions

I’ve never been much interested in UFOs. Or in space aliens.

Recently, though, a psychotherapist friend in the U.K. recommended a book to me on a closely related topic. It’s entitled Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped By Aliens, by Susan A. Clancy. And it’s a fascinating read.

Clancy claims that many alien abduction beliefs are caused by a little-known phenomenon called “sleep paralysis”. It occurs when one’s sleep cycles become desynchronized and a person wakes up before the paralysis that accompanies dreaming has worn off. Usually, dream content bleeds into that limbo state. The result is a mysterious, and often terrifying experience that can last up to a minute.

Clancy says that some people, baffled by that experience, will visit a hypnotherapist to find answers. While in the suggestive state of trance, the patient’s mind begins a wide search for scenarios to explain those scary and confusing memories. Sometimes therapists, believing in aliens, will suggest to their patients that they’ve had an alien abduction experience. In other cases, where no such suggestions are made, the patient’s mind pattern-matches to the closest thing possible: our culturally prevalent UFO and alien abduction imagery. The affected person slowly starts to conclude that they’d been kidnapped by Star People.

Clancy does a good job in demonstrating the unreliability and malleability of our memories, and how easily they can be altered – especially, inadvertently, when under hypnosis. She uses the example the well-documented problem among some therapists of inculcating false memories of sexual abuse in their patients.

The author says that fantasy-proneness and scientific illiteracy are often part of the abduction belief recipe. But she sites, in every single case, one factor above all: a deep and profound need to find meaning in one’s life:

“After two years of intense alienography, this is what I conclude. Aliens are entirely and extremely human, the imaginative creations of people with ordinary emotional needs and desires. We don’t want to be alone. We feel helpless and vulnerable much of the time. We want to believe there’s something bigger and better than us out there. And we want to believe that whatever it is cares about us, or at least is paying attention to us. That they want us (sexually or otherwise). That we’re special. Being abducted by aliens is a culturally shaped manifestation of a universal human need.”

Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped By Aliens, by Susan A. Clancy.