Breaking a Barrier: On Doing the Impossible

Breaking through barriers: we humans love it! Not necessarily putting ourselves at risk, but living vicariously through someone else, especially if we can do it far out of harm’s way.

Not so long ago, it was said that running a sub four-minute mile was impossible. After all, human endurance had its limits. The lungs and heart could only produce so much blood-rich oxygen, and the muscles could only metabolize what the lungs and heart could deliver.

For many years, a good number of athletes had tried to defy the presumed laws of human mechanics and squeak out a mile in less than 240 seconds. The net result was always the same: failure. Which is why nobody’s name comes to mind when we think of the almost four-minute mile crowd.

Then on May 6th, 1954, a tall unassuming lad from Great Britain named Roger Bannister came along and blew the impossible goal away with a time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. It made international news. He became an overnight sensation.

But here’s what’s interesting: although runners had tried and failed to clock that time for years, within 46 days Bannister’s feat had been duplicated, and then with fair regularity the mile record came down after that—two more times in the 1950’s alone.

So what happened? Why was there a rash of sub four-minute milers after Bannister, when for years no one seemed capable of either starting or joining this elite 239 second club?

Athletes in 1954 did not undergo some fundamental physical transformation. It’s now clear that many people actually had the raw ingredients necessary to break the four-minute mile record. What these four-minute wannabes lacked was the ability to see the mile record as truly obtainable. The barrier was mental.

This gulf between our capabilities and our mental assessment is one of the most profound disconnects in the human experience. When someone achieves beyond what we thought possible, we tend to elevate them above the rest of us, wondering what special quality allowed them to break those boundaries. We don’t always wonder what caused us to believe in those boundaries in the first place, or how real they ever were.

Bannister saw the goal as obtainable. His combination of preparation and perspiration is a basic winning formula for skill acquisition across a wide variety of enterprises, from math to music to athletic endeavors and beyond.

But those that followed in Bannister’s running steps are in some ways the real heroes. These athletes continue to push at the barriers for themselves—and for the rest of us.

“If they can do it, so can I,” is a mantra that has driven everything from learning to bake a cake to some of the most amazing technological advancements in human history.

“Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes,” as the medieval saying goes. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s much easier to see the possibilities of what lies ahead by capitalizing on the previous work of others.

When enough people do that, a barrier breaks under its own weight. The current mile record is held by Moroccan two-time Olympic gold medalist and “King of the Mile” Hicham El Guerrouj, at 3 minutes 34.13 seconds. El Guerrouj has held the honor since 1999, but if history is any predictor, it’s only a matter of time until the king is dethroned and the record is broken again—and again.

Caveperson Chemistry: Rewriting our Family Tree

Located in the mountains of southwestern Siberia, the Denisova Cave takes its name from a Russian hermit named Denis, rumored to have lived there in the 18th century. When some intriguing bones were discovered in this cavern, the moniker derived from his long-dead hermit would gain a new use: as a shorthand for a stunning discovery about the world of our early human ancestors.

In 2008, Russian researchers discovered the finger bone of a young humanoid female. It was the wrong shape to come from a Homo sapien, but when scientists sequenced the DNA, it didn’t seem to belong to a Neanderthal, either. They had found what appears to be an entirely separate group of early hominids whose time on this planet briefly overlapped with ours. A genetic cousin to us, and a genetic sister to the Neanderthal. They had found the Denisovans.

Where early Homo sapiens and Neanderthals split into separate species some 440,000 years ago, Denisovans didn’t branch off from the Neanderthals until considerably later, more like 300,000 years.

Of course, there is only so much you can learn about a species from a single finger bone, and even when archaeologists uncovered two teeth and a toe bone, this somehow failed to fill in the entire picture. Did the Denisovans have art and tools? Were they capable of symbolic thought and language? Thus far, that handful of bones is keeping mum.

Here is something we do know about the Denisovans: it looks like they interbred with us. For instance, tests show that between 4 to 6% of the modern Malanesian genome seems to have come from them.

If that much interbreeding could take place, it does seem to suggest the Denisovans were not just crude ape creatures. And if they were anything like the Neanderthal, we should be careful not to immediately dismiss them as mouthbreathing simpletons who spent their days dragging around primitive spears and grunting.

While it is important to remember that the study of anything dating this far back involves an awful lot of guessing, researchers are increasingly gathering evidence that Neanderthals might have been much more advanced than we thought.

First of all, the simple Neanderthal spear turns out to require a fair amount of engineering.

Neanderthals weren’t just finding sharp rocks on the ground, they were crafting what’s known as “Levallois flakes”: symmetric stone blades with a sharp edge all the way around and an even thickness, for easy resharpening. Even to an experienced modern flint-napper (yes, there are still flint-napping enthusiasts out there), making one involves considerable effort. First, you have to chip the flint into a precisely shaped symmetric starting piece called a “core”. After all that work, you then have exactly one chance—one perfectly aimed strike—to knock off a flake.

These flakes were tied to spear shafts with a thin strip of animal hide, which was secured in place by a black sticky substance. And here we run into another problem: analysis shows it wasn’t just tree sap lying around waiting to be collected. It was birch pitch, which doesn’t occur naturally and would have required a fairly involved, multi-step extraction process: heating the bark up to a carefully controlled temperature while keeping out the oxygen and preventing the bark from burning.

But Neanderthals weren’t just doing early chemistry, it appears like they might have been playing dress-up as well. Recent discoveries at Neanderthal dig sites include wing bones of birds of prey with cut marks on them. These wings would have had no real value of food, which suggests someone was stripping off the feathers, for what seems like decorative purposes. Other finds include little seashells sporting traces of hematite or iron ore, a red pigment, and neatly pierced little holes.

Although it’s dangerous to draw too many conclusions here, it’s hard to imagine a practical utility for this, and easy to suggest a more symbolic use, like jewelry.

All of these complex behaviors add weight to the increasingly possible, if still controversial, theory that Neanderthal culture included some form of language. After all, how would you teach pitch-brewing or jewelry-making to your offspring through a simple series of grunts? And considering that some of us got as much as 4% of our genes from Neanderthal ancestors, the Neanderthal-human hybrids didn’t just happen, they were born into a situation where the group was willing to raise them into adulthood, which suggests a degree of cooperation that would’ve required advanced communication.

If you suspect you’re carrying around some Neanderthal in your blood, don’t worry: although we don’t know the function, if any, of most of the surviving Neanderthal DNA, at least some of it appears linked to immune system responses, including a guard against the Epstein-Barr virus.

And while those Denisovan bones aren’t yielding many of their secrets, Denisovan DNA may be the reason Tibetans can adapt to low oxygen levels at such high altitudes. According to a recent article in Nature, presence of this extremely unusual and helpful EPAS1 gene in the Tibetan people “can only be convincingly explained by introgression of DNA from Denisovan or Denisovan-related individuals into humans.”

So remember, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. And the next time you’re facing an illness or climbing a mountain—or trying to distill birch pitch without the use of any modern technology—it might be time to call on your inner caveperson.

The Empathy Switch: Binary Selection in Action

A number of years ago, I had the amazing good fortune to meet the legendary blues piano man Cornbread Harris. Though severely hampered by arthritis, this 86-year-old phenom still makes his living playing some of the most soulful music you’ll ever hear.

Although he didn’t—and still doesn’t—teach piano, I managed to talk him into giving me a few lessons. As you might expect, I ended up learning far more from Cornbread than just piano music.

Once I showed up at his house on a particularly bone-chilling Minnesota winter afternoon, knocked on his door and waited. And waited. And waited.

After what seemed like an eternity, Cornbread finally opened the door. I rushed inside only to find Cornbread clad in nothing but a pair of boxer shorts. He summed it up thusly: “Hey, I can either open the door or put on my pants, I can’t do both.”

What Cornbread had articulated was a perfect example of binary selection.

One of the reasons it’s so hard sometimes to order off a menu or pick a wall color is that the human brain is only designed to evaluate two options at a time.

It’s a simple concept—not necessarily graceful, but it gets the job done. This is a well-known principle in human brain evolution, where limited storage and electrical voltage makes ‘good the enemy of better.’ Natural selection doesn’t ensure the most elegant solution, just one that keeps you alive long enough to pass on your genes. The primitive notion of fight or flight is but one example.

Neuroscientists at the University of Valencia recently used fMRI technology to demonstrate that the responses for empathy and violence share the exact same neural circuitry. In the same way a piece of train track can only accommodate one locomotive at a time, your brain can trigger empathy or violence, but they are mutually exclusive.

This has wide-ranging implications. During the moment an individual chooses to make an attack, they literally can’t access empathetic feelings. Conversely, someone acting on empathy is briefly incapable of attacking.

Why these two conflicting impulses would share the same circuitry is hard to say. But what is clear is that the teaching and practice of empathy is of vital importance to a society torn apart by aggression.

Empathy under this scenario is not just a blunt to bloodlust, it actually shuts down the possibility of violent behavior altogether. Such is the beauty of a binary system in action.

Fish or chicken. Pants or door. Understanding or violence.

Choose wisely.

Stereotype Threat, or, Secret Messages and You

One of the most disorienting ideas in Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is just how susceptible humans are to priming.

Kahneman describes an experiment by psychologist John Bargh, in which students at New York University—mostly between the ages of 18 to 22—had to arrange sets of five words into four-word sentences. Half of the students were given words with a decidedly elderly slant: Florida, bingo, arthritis, and so on. The other half were given words with no real theme.

When the students were done, the experimenters measured how quickly it took them to get up and walk out the door. Without being aware of it, the students given “old person” words moved significantly slower.

Creepy, right?

It gets creepier. Bargh did another experiment, but this time half the group got rudeness-themed words (“abrupt”) and half got politeness-themed words (“patient”). When the test was over, the student was instructed to walk to an office and hand their paper to another experimenter. However, when the student got there, another student (actually a stooge planted by Bargh) would be sitting there, distracting the experimenter with a series of questions.

Then the real test began: how long would it take the subject to get fed up and interrupt the chatty student? On average, those primed with rude words managed to wait about 5 minutes. And those primed with politeness?

They never interrupted. By the end of the experiment, a full ten minutes later, 82% of them were still standing there, papers in hand, waiting patiently, hopefully, sure that they’d get that window to turn in the paper any second now, any second now…

Priming doesn’t just affect your walking speed; it has the potential to shape the way you treat others. But hold on to your hats, friends, because we haven’t hit the ceiling on this creepiness thing yet.

When it comes to the unconscious brain, it really is remarkable how much of our responses seem to be beyond our control.

Psychologists Greg Walton of Stanford and Steven Spencer of the University of Waterloo have done some fascinating research into what’s called stereotype threat.  The idea is that people who belong to groups labeled as low-achieving—for example, women or ethnic minorities—can easily be primed to perform worse on standardized tests, just by getting them to fixate on that part of their identity.

It doesn’t matter whether or not the students themselves buy into these stereotypes. Just getting their thoughts onto the topic calls to mind a whole host of associations—comments they’ve gotten from kids, stock characters seen in movies, things they’ve been told by disapproving teachers. Without even being aware of it, they feel the need to prove themselves, and prove the doubters wrong. Cortisol goes up. At the same time, they’re struggling to push down the memories of the negative messages they’ve received—and ignoring those thoughts requires focus, which taxes the brain’s glucose supply.

Suddenly it’s a little harder to remember that ol’ quadratic formula.

And the result is no joke. Walton and Spencer found that stereotype threat lowered many women’s scores on the math portion of the SAT by about 20 points. Among black and Hispanic students, it could harm their SAT performance by 40 points.

How easy is this priming? In Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, Cordelia Fine points out that women’s math or science scores are negatively affected by, among other things:

  • asking them to indicate their gender at the start of the test
  • putting them in a room with noticeably more male test-takers than females
  • having just dealt with instructors or other students who displayed sexist attitudes
  • having just seen ads featuring “women acting in air-headed ways”

Testing almost 19,000 students across the United States, Canada, France, Germany, and Sweden, Walton and Spencer concluded that if you control for stereotype threat, “ethnic minorities and women outperform non-minorities and men at the same level of past performance.”

In other words, if a black student and a white student receive the exact same SAT score, it’s likely that the black student will go on to perform better academically than their white counterpart. That SAT score wasn’t a true measure of the black student’s potential—it measured their ability to take a test while playing an invisible tug of war against society’s expectations.

The subconscious brain is always scanning for behavioral cues. If you had to stop and analyze every single one of those messages on a conscious level, you’d never get anything done.

But given how media-saturated our lives have become, it kind of makes you wonder just what messages are making it into the control room. How is the ditzy cheerleader in that beer ad affecting your kids’ test scores? What “data” is your brain picking out of movies and shows?

(Maybe it’s a bad idea to watch that Golden Girls marathon right before you go out and run a 5k.)

Grab a Free Hour: A How-To

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had an extra hour in each day? Imagine how much more you could get done with another 60 minutes of free time.

Unfortunately, the earth’s rotations never got the memo, and we’re stuck with our 24-hour system—and once you pull eight hours of sleep out of that, you’ve got just 16 waking hours left to make the proverbial donuts.

Or do you?

A study by the Council for Research Excellence suggests that on an average day, adults are exposed to 8.5 hours of screens—TV, computers, smartphones, and so on.

Now most of us are committed to a certain amount of screen time; we can’t exactly tell our bosses we’re on strike from answering work emails or looking at spreadsheets. But even factoring out our work-related usage, it’s still likely that each of us is spending about three hours of our precious downtime on screen-related activity.

When you think about how nice it would be to find some extra time in the day, you don’t generally think about this time as negotiable.  After all, it’s what you do for fun. It’s part of your me-time.

And if we were to break that 3 hours down, we would see that indeed, some of it is pretty enjoyable—catching your favorite show, for instance, or trading messages with your best friend. These experiences tend to be what tech consultant Linda Stone would define as purposeful viewing: watching something with clear intention.

However, of that three hours, there’s probably a sizeable chunk where you’re a little spaced out, not fully “online” so to speak: flipping through channels, reflexively refreshing your email, idly scrolling through your Facebook feed. Linda Stone describes this as ‘surfing’. In this mode, we’re simply killing time until something more exciting comes along. Frequently it doesn’t.

Maybe not surprisingly, studies show that little pleasure or enjoyment registers in the brain during this kind of activity. It really is, as far as the brain is concerned, much more of a holding pattern. You’re not riding a roller coaster of fun, you’re waiting in line for what will hopefully be the next ride—and it’s about as thrilling as waiting in lines ever is.

So if your “recreational” screen use is roughly 50% purposeful and 50% surfing, that means that every day, 1.5 hours go down the drain.

Furthermore, we know that in skill acquisition mode, the adult brain can basically hang on for about 15 productive minutes before attention starts to wane. So that daily 1.5 hours represents 6 fifteen-minute segments of intense focus you could be putting towards the goal of your dreams.

Just stealing back two of those segments a day over the course of a year would provide you with enough time to learn a foreign language, master a musical instrument, or radically improve your chess or golf game. Not to mention kicking your gardening or gourmet cooking skills up several notches. You’d have time to meditate, or exercise, or polish the silver (for all you castle-dwelling blog readers)

And you don’t have to knock off your screen time. Just be more purposeful in your viewing, and stop when you find yourself slipping into surfing mode.

Nobody likes to stand in line. The Disney Corporation understood this early on by creating the snaky line illusion, which tricks the brain into believing that the serpentine line of humans waiting for a ride isn’t as long as it really is.

Screen surfing for many of us has become an accepted practice.  In its unexamined form, its just part of what constitutes the screen experience. In the world that Walt Disney created, standing in line is a given. In your own kingdom, that appears to be up to you.