Zen and the Art of Riffing

Q: What did the Zen master say to the hotdog vendor?

A: “Make me one with everything…”


Central to the premise of this old joke is the Zen notion of reaching a higher level of consciousness, where one’s sense of self dissipates, becoming indistinguishable from the rest of the universe. This is pretty heady stuff for many raised in the western thought tradition, where metrics are king, and we’re taught from a young age that if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist.

So what do jazz players and Zen masters have in common?

I’m sure there’s a pun in here somewhere, but the truth is, they may share a lot, according to Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Dr. Charles Limb.

Around 2008, Limb began doing experiments with jazz pianists, trying to understand what was happening in their brains during musical improvisation. Limb had them improvise music while lying in an fMRI; the tool of choice for many neuroscientists. It’s a machine that measures blood flow to a given brain area. Increased blood flow suggests activity, and so the current thought is that the fMRI is the best window we have into what the brain is up to at a given moment.

Limb observed that when a jazz player got into the groove of an improv (in other words, when they reached something like Csikszentmihalyi’s flow), blood flow seemed to decrease in an area called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (or dorsolateral PFC), and increase in the medial prefrontal cortex.

The dorsolateral PFC is where your inner critic resides. It helps to control your impulses, monitor behavior, and analyze your actions.

Another area of the brain that helps keep tabs on you is the superior frontal gyrus, or SFG. It’s responsible for self awareness. Your inhibitions serve the purpose of keeping you from acting in ways that might otherwise get you in trouble. Essentially, your “good angel” doesn’t sit on your shoulder like in the cartoons; it lives in your brain’s SFG.

In The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, author Steven Kotler cites a 2006 Israeli study that says when people are deeply immersed in a task, from sex to playing cards to climbing a mountain, their superior frontal gyrus begins to deactivate.

Balancing your dorsolateral PFC and SFG, your medial PFC is home to self expression. This part of the brain fosters a sort of ungoverned creativity, where rules are more like general guidelines, and impulse and action rule supreme.

So in theory, Kotler says, as the dorsolateral PFC and SFG quiet down and the medial PFC ramps up, there is a trade-off: less energy for analytical cognition and more energy for concentration and focus. In other words, less thinking, more doing.

Concentration and focus is at the heart of flow state. Without scrutiny, action becomes spontaneous and in the moment.

Is there a word to describe the ramping down of the dorsolateral PFC as cognition takes a backseat to instinct? Yes: hypofrontality. Another way to put it is that loss of your sense of self. It’s when the jazz player has the sense of being one with that piano or horn, a single entity from which the music seems to spring forth.

This is the essential definition of the flow state, where a cocktail of neurochemicals acts like a temporary SWAT team, invading your brain and taking control. Norepinephrine increases blood flow and focus. Dopamine generates an increase in connections. Endorphins kick in to minimize pain and promote a euphoric feeling, while Anandamide promotes lateral thinking.

Anandamide may be the least well-known of these chemicals, but it’s certainly not the least important. Lateral thinking is what allows your brain to draw unusual connections and reach surprising ideas. It’s a basic tenant of any improv; or at least, any improv that’s interesting to watch.

The end result is a flow state of altered consciousness. It’s taken western science and the fMRI to finally catch up, measure and confirm what Zen masters and jazz players already experientially understood for years.

Apparently ‘make me one with everything’ has implications far beyond the hotdog stand.

The Morgan Freeman Fallacy: How Much of Your Brain are You Using?

“It is estimated that most human beings only use ten percent of their brain,” Morgan Freeman intones in the movie Lucy. Central to the plot is what happens when a freak accident occurs and a person, in this case, Scarlet Johansson, gains access to more and more of her brain: as that percentage grows, she can operate a handgun with no prior training, teach herself “Chinese” (although you’d think she’d know it’s called Mandarin), psyche out police dogs, change her appearance at will, and even manipulate the world around her.

“What happens when she reaches 100 percent?” a man asks in the trailer as exciting music plays in the background.

“I have no idea,” says Morgan Freeman solemnly.

So just what does access to 100% of your brain look like?

No spoiler alert necessary. In the real world, using all your brain at once allows you to unlock special skills like: read a street sign, remember someone’s name, prepare your own food, do your taxes, or wash the dishes while humming a song.

Of course, that doesn’t make for blockbuster cinema. No one would pay to watch Scarlet Johansson file her W2s.

Okay, maybe someone would, but my point remains: the notion of 90% of our brains as untapped wilderness is nonsense.

From a biological perspective, carrying around that three pounds in our heads is costly: maintaining your brain takes up 20% of your body’s oxygen, and 20% of its energy. It also requires a pretty big skull to protect it, rendering human childbirth especially painful and—for most of our history—dangerous. In terms of evolution, it’s hard to imagine a race of ten percenters surviving against any competitors that weren’t lugging around all that deadweight in their heads.

Neuroscientists will tell you we are taking advantage of the full landscape of gray matter.

Neuroplasticity, the ability to wire and rewire our brains, is where the action is. Your brain’s physical ability to grow larger may be constrained by that protective bunker called your skull. Still, the flexibility of your brain’s wiring system leaves plenty of room for forging a near-infinite number of connections, ideas, and thoughts.

Stephen Hawking, Neil De Grasse Tyson, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg don’t succeed thanks to some key to the secret folds of their gray matter, but the trails they blazed by organizing and reorganizing their wiring system.

If neurons were Legos, the great thinkers of history would have some amazing structures on display—pieced together from building blocks that they assembled in surprisingly new ways.

So where does this “we only use 10% of our brains” myth come from? Like all good urban myths, pinpointing the origin is tough. Some attribute it to a statement Einstein is purported to have made. Some say it is the result of early brain scans, where the relatively primitive machinery failed to detect most brain activity.

In the movie, Scarlet Johansson gains martial arts skills, telekinesis, stunt driving, and the ability to reverse time. Short of actual wizardry, no amount of brain wiring can make that happen. The real question Lucy asks is, “What happens when a movie uses 100% of its special effects budget?”

Neuroscience, Decisions, and Strippers

Decision making: there are countless books about it because, lets face it, decisions are at the epicenter of what we humans do. Make the wrong choice and it can kill you, or at least cause a lot of sweat and tears.

One major crossroads for many involves mate selection. Some knock it out of the park—we’ve all seen the heartwarming stories of couples still in love after 50 years—and then there are the marriages that crumble after a few months, or even days.

So what can we learn from the long-term lovebirds? What’s their secret? How did they find each other? When you first meet someone, what are the telltale signs to look for and, perhaps more importantly, to avoid?

It’s classic advice column fodder, and people make a tidy living doling out their strategies for selection. But at the crucial moment, how much strategy is really involved?

In his book Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman shares an unlikely experiment done in New Mexico.

Scientists were curious about how someone’s attraction response to a woman might be influenced by her fertility. It’s a tricky thing to study: how do you quantify something as ephemeral as human sexual chemistry? For these particular researchers, the answer lay in strip clubs. If the two things were connected, they hypothesized, maybe a lap dancer’s nightly tips would ebb and flow with her menstrual cycle?

The results were surprising. Lap dancers during their peak fertility period earned a cool $68 a night. On evenings they were menstruating, their tips fell to $35, for a monthly average of about $53.

Those who were on the pill saw no such fluctuation. Instead, they averaged about $37 dollars an evening.

What accounts for the difference? Of course, there’s no way to be sure. But Eagleman speculates it has to do with subtle changes in things like body odor, complexion, and waist-to hip ratio. It might also involve the output of pheromones, those neural chemicals linked to attraction, picked up subconsciously through the nose.

In other words, without realizing it, strip club patrons were primed to open their wallets and give more freely. They took their cues from the most primitive parts of their brains, hardwired over the generations to notice potential mates with the greatest likelihood of producing offspring.

No rational decision-making was at work, no reference to a conscious list of preferred attributes. Consciousness wasn’t even invited to the party.

What does all this mean? Well, if you’re a lap dancer relying on those tips, it means doubling up on your shift during peak fertility and maybe looking at alternate forms of birth control.

If you’re a man trying to pick up women, it means you might want to second-guess that gut instinct. Ask yourself, ‘who’s driving?’ It might not be who you think.

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.

The Achilles’ Heel in Your Head

Have you ever wondered why some people—and maybe we’re talking about you—are so adamant about some things? It might be a political position or your thoughts on diet and exercise, music, drunk drivers, tuna fish—the list goes on.

And if you were asked what informed your particular stance, answers might include your spiritual faith, personal life experience, and/or what you’ve learned from others through a wide variety of sources. Your belief system is subjective, and like your fingerprints, unique to you. As far as storage and access go, you hold the keys.

But although the system is subjective, what’s less subjective is the architecture it’s built on, according to many neuroscientists.

The thought is that the brain attaches emotional meaning to some events, in the form of memory markers. The outrage that accompanies your feelings of hearing about a hit-and-run drunk driver on the 10 o’clock news helps to both inform your opinion and store it in your memory for recall later.

Collected together, opinions create belief, which leads to a rule guide that you can then apply to new situations. In the science community, these are known as heuristics. Your brain catalogs them and makes them available to you for those eyeblink-fast decisions. This saves you from having to consciously invent new guidelines for every situation you find yourself in.

In other words, your brain conserves energy by applying previously established rules to new events. This works pretty well most of the time. In essence, your brain is gambling that a variety of life situations are similar enough that ‘a one size fits all’ approach will get the job done.

Our brains rely on, and would be lost without, our network of prebuilt beliefs to help maneuver us through our day. Unfortunately, this kind of system means that we bias towards simple black-and-white answers, often choosing not to examine the nuance of a decision or argument that might put our belief at risk.

This is why soundbites are so popular; they cater to the brain’s entrenched understanding of the world. We decide quickly but shallowly: this political party is the good guys and the other is the bad guys.

It takes more energy and a much more complicated reasoning process to seek out the grey area of a decision or argument. The only way to teach your brain how to do it is to actively question your own beliefs. That can be a messy business, which can lead to uncertainty—one of very things your system is designed to help clean up. So there is reassuring safety in locking down on a belief and adamantly refusing to open it up for assessment.

Of course, a little certainty isn’t necessarily bad. It might even make perfect sense, provided you’ve taken the time to work your way through your network of opinions and the nuances that drive an argument or decision.

But why are black and white answers so terribly seductive? The simple answer: it’s what our brains are hardwired to do. For many of us caught in the swirl of our day, relying on preconceived beliefs just saves time and energy.  Who has time to spend digging into the reasoning, or lack thereof, behind our decisions?

Our heuristics have allowed us to flourish and populate a large portion of the planet, and yet as a species, the over reliance on unexamined beliefs is also our collective Achilles’ heel.

Anarchists in Your Brain: The Neuron Story

The structure of the brain is often described as an immense tangle of electrochemical connectors called neurons. These neurons number around 100 billion in the average adult, and their ability to connect and disconnect lets us drive a car, gargle after brushing, watch TV, read Shakespeare, play chess, and a myriad of other things including playing the piano, if indeed you play.

Even if you don’t play, just thinking about playing the piano is making your neurons work. Their activity is frequently compared to a series of switches flipping on and off. They do this at amazing speed, sometimes firing in clusters of 10,000 or more at a time.

This image—a myriad of switches, waiting obediently and dronelike for activation—is something we can wrap our minds around. The sheer numbers and speed of neural operation is difficult to contemplate, but this concept certainly seems easier to picture than, say, the theory of relativity or quantum mechanics.

After all, that’s how computers operate, and isn’t the brain essentially a superpowered, complicated organic computer?

Not so fast, says Daniel C Dennett, Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. In a piece entitled “The Normal Well-Tempered Mind”, he depicts the neuron as “a little agent with an agenda…much more autonomous and much more interesting than any switch.”

Billions of years of evolution have endowed our brain cells with far greater capacity than simply electrochemical slaves toiling in the brain’s pitch-black darkness.

Neurons appear to create relationships and alliances, just as quickly dissolving those ties along lines we do not, and may never, understand. Dennett points out that you don’t have to worry about the circuits in your laptop going rogue. In the brain, we might call this switch insurrection, an errant thought or, on the more extreme end of the spectrum, cancer.

We can observe neural firing, but explaining the activity beyond that becomes problematic. We don’t possess the kind of language that might accurately ascribe some form of primitive intention or desire to neural actions. (The oddity of this last sentence only serves to accentuate the problem.) Dennett postulates that the ‘free wheeling aspects’ of neurons gives rise to everything from imagination to creativity to mental illness.

The very idea of neural plasticity and the brain’s ability to reorganize its cellular structure after a learning event or trauma suggests that neurons must be more than mere slave switches. In Dennett’s view, they aren’t part of some hierarchical controlled systems bureaucracy, but rather a collection of individuals coming to together in a more democratic way, with just a tinge of anarchy thrown in for good measure.

This explains a lot of things, including why your actions are not always in sync with your intentions, because as most of us might now appreciate, keeping your neurons in line can be a full time job. By comparison, your laptop is pretty well behaved.

Save a Life: Take a Nap

Are you sleep-deprived? If you’re a working adult in America, I can probably answer the question for you: yes. Or at least, statistically, you have an 80% chance, according to a January 11 New York Times piece by Maria Konnikova.

On the fence about whether or not you qualify? Well, do you constantly feel tired during the day, or do you often find yourself falling asleep within five minutes of lying down? Chances are you’re not an efficient sleeper; you’re just not sleeping enough.

That’s not just murder on your coffee budget, it’s bad news if you’re planning on learning anything. According to a 2011 UC Berkeley study, sleep is an essential part of holding onto memories. That’s when bursts of brain waves called “sleep spindles” network up to shift fact-based info from the hippocampus, which has limited storage, to the more long-term storage of the prefrontal cortex. The more spindles, the more learning is enabled.

Unfortunately, these spindles are much more active during the later, non-REM portion of slumber, so if you’re sleeping 6 hours or less, it’s harder to form long-term memories.

It’s also bad news if you’re planning on not crashing your car. When you put sleep-deprived people in a driving simulator or give them a hand-eye coordination test, they tend to perform the same or worse as drunk people. (And if you’re considering swigging down a reasonable-seeming bottle of beer before a drive, keep in mind sleep deprivation magnifies the effect of alcohol.)

Getting 6 to 7 hours of shut-eye a night? You are twice as likely to be in a car accident than someone averaging 8 hours or more. If you’re more of an insomniac, and you can only manage 5 hours or less, that accident is now four to five times more likely for you than it is for your friend the eight-hours-a-night-sleeper.

It’s a widespread problem, as Konnikova explains. The average American today sleeps 2 hours less per night than their counterpart from 100 years ago. Between 50 and 70 million Americans are suffering from one chronic sleep disorder or another.

We are a nation of night owls, and a nation of drivers. The results are clear, and a little terrifying. Letting sleep-deprived people behind the wheel leads to at least 100,000 car crashes each year, killing an esimated 1550 people. However, since self-reporting is inherently flawed and many, many people don’t even know when they’re too tired to function, most experts suspect the real figure is much higher.

The damage isn’t just happening on the highway: a 2004 study at Harvard Medical School found that hospitals could reduce their medical errors by up to 36 percent just by capping out doctor work shifts at 16 hours a day, and 80 hours per week. Factor in commuting, showering, and the necessary time to wind down from a shift, and this still doesn’t even leave the 7 to 9 hours of sleep recommended by medical science for peak mental performance. It’s just enough rest not to stagger around like a zombie, accidentally adding salt to your coffee—or worse.

For those of you looking to minimize the casualties in your life, consider these tips for better sleep from the National Sleep Foundation.

  • Exercise can lead to better sleep (but remember to exercise at least three hours before bed; physical activity raises your heart rate and your body temperature, the last thing you need when you’re trying to wind down.”
  • Before bed, avoid anything that stimulates the body: caffeine, nicotine, and spicy or heavy meals
  • Develop a relaxing pre-bed routine that doesn’t involve screens (light can be disruptive)
  • Maintain a relatively consistent bedtime and wake-up time. Use as much natural light in the morning as possible, and in the evening, signal to your body that it’s time to sleep with a dark, quiet, slightly colder room.

And if you’re really struggling to keep your eyes open on the highway, pull over and let yourself snooze for a while. The moment the sounds of the freeway start to feel soothing, you know it’s time to give in and get some sleep.

Beyond the Punchline: the Real Meaning of Laughter

“What keeps a dyslexic agnostic up at night? Wondering if there really is a dog.”

You can debate whether that’s funny or not, but either way, we’ll probably agree that the opening statement is a joke—or at least, an attempt at one.

When many of us contemplate the concept of laughter, it goes hand-in-hand with jokes. Unless you happen to be Robert Provine.

Robert Provine’s book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation attempts to understand what actually happens during spontaneous human laughter. Provine’s research team observed over 2000 cases in a wide variety of circumstances and situations. The study included men and women, and a range of ages.

The verdict? Laughter resulted from jokes or funny stories only about 20% of the time. So if it’s not all about the punchline, what’s going on?

Provine postulates that laughter has a deeper meaning. He sees it as an evolutionary advantage associated with group bonding and social communication.

Laughter shows up in infants as early as four months of age. This, of course, supports the idea that it’s not always joke-driven, most babies not being renowned for their senses of humor.

According to Provine, laughter exists across all cultures, most often accompanying statements that demonstrate knowledge of a person or people in one’s group. For instance, Hey Bill, how are the kids? or Here comes the hardest working person on the team. Accompanied by laughter, these mundane announcements reinforce a basic connection with between others and ourselves.

And interestingly, it’s the speaker who tends to do the laughing, at a rate of two to one over the listener.

You’re thirty times more likely to laugh in a group situation, and in fact the study suggests it’s pretty rare that we actually laugh out loud when alone. Go ahead and give it a try; since laughter is an unconscious act, laughing on command is always going to be an act of counterfeit.

You’re probably not surprised to find out that laughter is contagious. We tend to laugh when we hear others laughing—regardless of whether or not we know what they’re laughing at.

Provine tells us that women on average laugh twice as often as men, and the lower your social status in a particular group, the more comfortable you are laughing around them. Conversely, having a higher social in a group means you’ll be less likely to laugh.

There’s the old saying that “laughter is the best medicine.” It’s meant to underscore the importance of humor, of jokes. And even if we amend it to “laughter is the best medicine, at least 20% of time,” as a stress reliever, it can’t be beat.

The idea of laughter as an ancient group unifier makes sense, but if Provine is right, and funny stories and jokes only constitute about 20% of laughter worldwide, maybe it’s time we agree to rev up our joke production.

So Robert Provine, an agnostic, and a four-month-old walk into a bar…

Jonesing for a Soda? Here’s Why

When we think of addiction, we might think of the heroin junkie lying on a dirty mattress with a needle in his arm, or a sweaty rockstar snorting a line of coke right after some mega concert.

We are probably less likely to think about ourselves. But when it comes to hijacking the brain’s reward system, none of us are entirely clean.

In an article from Experience Life entitled “This is Your Body on Soda: the effects of drinking one of America’s most cherished refreshments”, a 12 ounce can of soda takes on an ominous tone.  The average soft drink packs about 10 teaspoons of sugar per can. Stack this up against the American Heart Association’s daily guidelines: 6 teaspoons for women and 9 for men.

The effects of pop on your system go something like this: about twenty minutes after you chugged that can, a blood-sugar spike overwhelms your liver’s ability to process the glucose load. What your liver can’t process is converted into fat. And as the article points out, “There’s practically no limit to how much fat your body can store.”

At the thirty-minute mark, the soda’s caffeine has kicked in, dilating your pupils and driving up your blood pressure. The increase in blood pressure sends a signal to your beleaguered liver to release even more sugar into your bloodstream. That aftershock means another little fat storage opportunity for your body.

Forty minutes after the soda washed over your lips, the levels of dopamine in your brain’s nucleus accumbens (essentially, the pleasure center) go wild. Since dopamine is a feel-good chemical, designed to reward beneficial behavior, the result is a kind of ‘high’.

As with a heroin user, your system has no way of knowing it’s been hijacked, that it’s been manipulated into rewarding you for something that is actively hurting you.

Now fifty minutes have passed and you’ve suddenly got the urge to urinate, thanks to the diuretic quality of the caffeine. You’re not just losing fluids, though; soda contains phosphoric acid, which binds to calcium, magnesium, and zinc. So as the article notes, “you’ll soon be flushing those vital nutrients down the toilet.”

One hour after you knocked back the soda, you sugar crash big-time, and then begin to go into withdrawal. You’re irritable, your energy levels flag—and you’re thirsty.  Your solution? Another can of soda.

If you’re watching calories and your drink of choice is diet soda, does the above still apply? Yes. In fact, it applies more. Artificial sweeteners in diet soda have an even greater impact on your brain than regular soda.

The net result? You’ve just completed a lap in the addiction cycle. If you do enough of these laps, which is to say you’ve been drinking soda regularly for at least two months, your brain has wired itself for the soda addiction.

Over time, as a natural course for reaching equilibrium and control, your brain’s dopamine levels begin to drop.  You are no longer impacted as much by your soda intake. This means you find yourself drinking more and more to get the same high you felt before.

According to government statistics, nearly 23 million Americans are addicted to something, and one in ten is addicted to drugs or alcohol. This is because hustling our evolutionary reward system is not that difficult. Our culture has developed numerous keys that fit the lock in the brain’s nucleus accumbens.

When it comes to addiction, mega concerts and dirty mattresses are optional.