Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Molecule That Shaped Society

Oxytocin.  It is a hormone that performs many functions in mammals, most notably the binding of mothers to their families, particularly their children.  It looks something like this:

Given its function, we could actually call it 'the empathy molecule.'  It is what makes people feel the joy and pain of other people.  It increases trust and reduces fear.  Hence, its role in familial binding is obvious.  But the implications of this are far-reaching.

The family unit is a microcosm of society as a whole.  Society is, of course, made up of families.  And society is, just as obviously, defined by the myriad social interactions of its members.  We all have certain norms and expectations of those interactions, independent of our culture.  For example, when having a conversation, you do not expect the other person to pull out a knife and stab you.  It is oxytocin that defines these norms - mostly based on empathy.  Therefore, we could say without exaggeration that oxytocin is the molecule that shapes society.

Indeed, the inability to secrete it is linked with psychopathy and sociopathy.

Since our happiness (or any emotional state) is simply the balance of such molecules in our brains, it's important to pay attention to what they are, why they are secreted, and how they interact with each other.  Ignoring or fighting our own biochemistry is a losing battle.

Paul Zak gave a great TED talk on exactly this:

Monday, October 15, 2012

Experience Resolution

Have you ever had a conversation and realized that the two of you were talking about slightly different things?  If so, you're ahead of the curve, especially if you stop and clarify the nature of the difference.  Many people don't realize this and continue simply to defend their point.  I've seen this so much that I wrote a post about it here:


I spent some time thinking about why this happens.  Why do we end up talking about different things?  A large part, I'm sure, is simply poor communication: perhaps we just don't articulate our idea properly.

But I think that an even larger part is that, often, we just don't have the experience to speak to a certain point.  So we [subconsciously?] pick the closest thing in our experience and speak on that.  Now, I'm using the word 'experience' a little loosely here.  I don't just mean what we have personally been through.  I also mean that which we may know through studying, conversing, or any other kind of learning.

I visualize it like this:

Imagine that the field represents all possible topics.  The black dots in the field represent our particular experiences.  The ring around each dot represents the topical area that we may feel is close enough to our experience to justify applying our experiential knowledge to the topic at hand.  So if the red dot is the topic at hand, we would apply our experience from the black dot in the center of the appropriate ring.  The area inside this ring, but outside of the black dot itself, is the area of experience mismatch.  This is the area that often leads to misunderstandings and disagreements.

If the red dot were to lie outside any ring, we would not speak on the topic at all.  Unfortunately, this is not a place most people want to be in.  This is the reason we have the rings in the first place: to expand our range of what we can speak about.  As the saying goes, "People don't care what you know.  They care even less about what they don't know.  What they do care about is what they know."

The image makes it immediately clear why two people would end up speaking about different things: because they have different experiences.  But it doesn't stop there.

The dot analogy may look familiar and that's because it is similar to the way pixels in a monitor, TV or phone work.  The dots come together to make up an image we see.  The more dots, the sharper the picture.  We refer to that as resolution.

So the lesson is not that we need to have the same experiences as someone else to communicate effectively with them.  The lesson is that there are two ways to increase our effectiveness: increase our experience resolution and decrease our experience mismatch zone.  

Increasing our resolution is definitely great, but that takes time and effort.  Decreasing the mismatch zone, however, could be done very easily.  Consider this field, with the zone removed entirely:
Wow, that leaves us much fewer topics to be able to discuss, right?  True.  But it also means that the quality and accuracy of the remaining discussions will be very high.  But to pull this off, it requires that when we don't know something, we say that we don't know it.  That's hard for a lot of people (especially men, actually).

The bright side is that if we remove these rings, we may realize our resolution is low and be moved to increase it.  So the ideal would look something like this:
  Wouldn't that be great?   

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Phuket - My Story

The following is from a guest writer who traveled with me to Phuket a few weeks back.  I present to you, completely unedited by me, his experience:

It was April 5, 2012 when I was travelling to Hyderabad along with my mother for an important function. A friend of mine agreed to drive us in his car to the venue. While we were in the car, he informed me that a friend of his was going to join us too.  Suddenly on the busy streets of Hyderabad he pulled over and as he did an amazing personality entered in the car and sat next to the driver’s seat. That was the first time I met Xerxes. After we were introduced we didn’t speak till about 15 minutes as I was too busy on my phone. But once I was done, reluctantly, I started a conversation which lasted for about 30 minutes and ended with us exchanging our phone numbers. Little did I know that those 30 minutes of conversation would eventually take me to Thailand with Xerxes. Yes friends, I travelled to Phuket in September 2012 with a person I only met for 30 minutes.
My trip began with a message from Xerxes while I was still waiting at the Mumbai airport for my plane. The message read, “Are you ready to rock?” and I replied “Yes”.  I was absolutely unaware at that time that this was indeed going to be a rocking trip. What followed was a funny and an exciting trip, the memories of which I will always cherish.
I was waiting at the Bangkok airport for my connecting flight to Phuket when Xerxes walked into the waiting lounge. This was the first time I was meeting him after April. After exchanging the routine greetings we proceed for some breakfast.  Now, what caught his attention was a ‘Tuna pie with some corn’ at McDonalds. He was in stitches each moment thereafter till he finally captured it on his camera and subsequently uploaded it on his facebook page. I kept on looking at him in amazement with so many emotions crossing my mind. I still don’t understand what was so funny about the ‘tuna pie’?
When we landed in Phuket we hired a cab and began our hour long journey to the hotel. In the cab I was, as always reluctant to strike a conversation, but Xerxes broke the ice and asked me a few questions about what I did for a living. I was pleasantly surprised to find someone who didn’t pry too much. As the conversation progressed, I was slowly but surely discovering an awesome person inside this funny man. You will note that I will now use the word ‘awesome’ quite often in this blog for all the right reasons.
Xerxes, why do you jump to conclusions and state them as established facts?’ That was exactly what I said at one point in time during our cab ride to the hotel. Why, you may ask. Well, because that is exactly what he kept on doing all the time in the cab. Simply jumping to some conclusions about me and stating them like they were some established laws of physics. From this point on we had this banter going on between the two of us. This was the first time that I was being myself on a trip with someone I barely knew. At times he would say something out of the context and I would slowly just nod my head apparently in comprehension. Finally, we arrived at our hotel and were warmly welcomed by the staff and given a cool and refreshing welcome drink. Our room was very comfortably done up, the pillows, curtains and restaurant menus well placed t demonstrated that considerable effort had obviously gone into making the room look homely.
In the afternoon we had to get to a meeting where we met up with some interesting people who gave us such a warm welcome.  On our way back we were busy planning our next three days. Surprisingly, without much debate, (which is not what one would expect in the company of complicated Xerxes) we knew what we needed to do during this action packed and fun loaded trip. As we got back to our hotel, we were dead tired and just need to chill or crash. So there we were at the bar enjoying some good cocktails. I capitulated. Nonetheless, I demurred and prayed that these cocktails were good. After a while Xerxes told me I should not be too uptight and start trying all things I have never done. Well, I must admit I loved all the cocktails that he suggested I should try.
Suddenly, Xerxes asked me if I had watched the ‘Gangnam style’ video on YouTube. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about as at times he just speaks to himself (basically, I meant he isn’t clear at times). As soon as I replied with a sharp no to his question, in a heartbeat he got his phone out and showed me the video on YouTube. Reluctantly, I took the phone and began to watch the video. After the video was over, we headed to our room. Surprisingly, I was now humming the song ‘gangnam style’. Yes, the magic of this clown had just only begun to work on me.
The next morning we were ready to take off to the exotic Phi Phi islands. Snorkelling, swimming and cocktails was all awaiting us. I was looking forward to getting some of my best photographs here. I thought that I had a good photographer in Xerxes along with me. But all my hopes were crushed and broken to pieces as you will now see.
As we reached the exotic islands, I jumped to joy to see the blue sky, clear waters and white sand. I asked Xerxes if he could take my jumping shots to which he obliged. After I was done with my photograph I asked him if he would like me to take a jumping shot for him too. I was shocked with his response. He said that he used to jump a lot but then he stopped as he suddenly turned nine. That reply annoyed me and in the face of this masterful disinterest I immediately protested saying,” Xerxes, you have the emotional intelligence of a fifteen year old lad”.  He laughed back far too loudly. “What?” He asked.
Phi Phi islands were simply exotic I was still mesmerised by its sheer beauty. The sea water was beautifully ornamented with corals and shells. I asked Xerxes to take a solo picture of me on a small bridge that connected two lovely stretches on the beach. He clicked my picture, however, he got another person into my picture. I was disgusted and objected loudly, ‘Xerxes, how could you not see this person”. He simply laughed and kept his signature giggle look on his face. I was flabbergasted until understanding dawned. I had now just begun to realise that seeing me annoyed would heighten his joy.  “What a sadist”, I said to myself. During the afternoon lunch, he saw a stray cat sitting by our table. He immediately starts playing with the cat. I think Xerxes really misses his cat ‘Tigger’ at home. Now, as for me I’m too nervous when it comes to touching animals. I knew Xerxes was aware about it. However, he forced me in his own subtle way to touch this stray cat. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do- succumb to this force or say a loud no. But he reminded me of his words to try new things and to which I said – “ok I should do this”. So submissive that I am I touched this cat and eventually ended up liking the whole experience. Finally, I touched a cat. Yippee!!!!!
Once we reached the calmer part of the islands we did snookering and the underwater world got me spellbound. We gradually approached the beach and I was all geared up to swim. I had told Xerxes that I was a poor swimmer and hence I had carried my arm bands (they help your hands float in the water) along with me. Xerxes was again in stitches and asked me to put them on so that he could take a picture of me. But I was not sure why would anyone want to do that. But with this clown (Xerxes) anything was possible.
Finally, the day culminated as we took some final photographs with our Phi Phi island tour guide. As we reached the hotel, I unhesitantly removed my camera from the bag to take a look at the photographs taken. Every picture captured by Xerxes which was intended to be my solo photo had someone from the trip inside it. I was hot under the collar but I looked at Xerxes simultaneously also trying to mask my disgust and said, ‘Xerxes, Awesome is an understatement to describe your awesomeness’ (Great sarcasm there). But seeing his expressions and smile, my disgust almost evaporated. I must point out that he has an impeccable comic timing.
In the night we went to the bar to chill out. Today I tired ‘Grand Marnier’ for the first time, all thanks to Xerxes.  While I was enjoying my drink, Xerxes took a few photos of me enjoying my drinks, and there was one photo that he really looked at and laughed his head off. He called it ‘The Samir look’. I’m still wondering why.  Eventually, we headed to our room and at about 1 am in the morning, our room phone rang. It was my family from India just concerned how I was getting along. Since I was fast asleep, Xerxes answered the phone. He tired to wake me up by calling out my name a loud. But all his efforts seemed to be in vain.  Suddenly, out of nowhere a book was thrown at me and I got up in fear. Upon realising that he has just thrown a book at me to wake me up I just hit the ceiling and shouted,”Xerxes, you are horrible” He silently replied, “What am I suppose to do, you simply refused to get up”. I just ignored and went back to my deep dreamless sleep.
The next morning at the breakfast table, Xerxes was narrating about his stay in Argentina. Those stories bored me to death but I patiently did some generous listening as he was narrating his experiences from Argentina with excitement. However, when my brains had finally frozen, I exclaimed, ‘Xerxes Argentina’s gain was India loss’ indicating that India was unfortunate to have him here.  
The next morning we had to go for elephant trekking. Both of us were equally excited about this as we hadn’t ever sat on an elephant. As soon as we reached the spot, I was surprised to see a memory of elephants all eating, playing and enjoying themselves. Xerxes caught sight of a calf who was only a year and a half old. Since he loves animals he started playing with this calf. I too wanted to try it but couldn’t gather the courage. Xerxes did insist that I touch this calf once, but I just couldn’t.
Now it was time to finally sit on one of them. But even before we sat something really funny happened. As soon as the elephant on which we were to ride arrived, Xerxes sat first on the left keeping a seat for me at the right. However, little did he know that there was going to be a big imbalance if I didn’t sit immediately. I could see some amount of fear of falling off the elephant into his eyes. He looked at me with irritation and said, “Could you sit fast, there is a lot of imbalance here”. But I pretended I couldn’t understand what he was saying and continued looking disinterested. Seeing the fear, irritation and annoyance on his face almost made my day. Believe, me seeing all those emotions on his face all at the same time, was a treat to my eyes. I was so much enjoying it. I too discovered that I was enjoying seeing him annoyed in a funny way though.  But then I finally sat and we bagan our ride.
The elephant ride was quite an adventure. After a few minutes the elephant owner asked if anyone of us would like to sit on the elephant head. Xerxes said he would go for it. Trust me as he sat there, he was drowned in fear but he kept a pleasant smile on his face throughout. After a while when he found it difficult to hide his fear any longer he asked if he could move back again. All of this was really hilarious.
Our next destination was ‘Big Buddha’. Like always I wanted to get a solo picture of myself capturing the entire statute. But Xerxes got my picture with someone else again in it. By this time I was getting used to it.  We were now on our way back. All this while the only thing in my mind was that I wanted to touch that elephant calf once. So on the way back we did cross the spot where this calf was tied. So I asked the driver to stop the car and requested Xerxes to take my picture while I played with he calf. I went to the calf all armed with courage and fearlessness. I touched it and surprisingly the calf began to play with me. A unique sense of joy and accomplishment engulfed me!
On our way back to the hotel, I told him, ‘Xerxes, tonight I’m going to finish all my calls before I sleep, so that no one wakes me up by throwing books at me’. I enjoyed myself making such tongue-in-cheek remarks. Xerxes looked at me and said in a voice only starting to reassert his authority, “Well, I thought you would want to finish your calls before we sleep so that the phone doesn’t disturb me?” But I looked at him with my normal sincerity and said, ‘”That is certainly not my priority”. He seemed dismayed and settled back in his seat while I continued grinning.  We got back to our hotel in the afternoon and headed straight to the beach.  Once we were done we headed for a late lunch to ‘Buffalo steak house’. Again this was the first time I tried some pork only on much insistence from Xerxes. Before we left we had an amazing ‘Irish coffee’. On the way back, right in the middle of the street I caught sight of a classy fountain. Without any hesitation I commanded, “Xerxes, take my photograph here”. I was pleasantly surprised that for once he actually did a good job. What is even more surprising is that fact that Xerxes responded well to my command.  Quiet often during this trip, he usually told me that he wouldn’t respond well to commands if at all I ever commanded.
We now reached our hotel and crashed for the afternoon. In the evening we headed for dinner to a classy place called ‘Mom Tri’s Kitchen’ at Villa Royale.  The food was sumptuous and sublime. On the way back to the hotel, I was very tired as it was an action packed day at the beach additionally the walk back was long. But Xerxes seemed all charged up and he was walking like he had some sort of wheels under his feet.  Now I started whining, ‘Xerxes can you slow down a bit, I’m tired’? He smiled but slowed down eventually. Well after a while, again he accelerated his wheels now I was left with no option but to start my series of whines as he was driving me up a wall, “ Xerxes, I have swam the whole day”, “this is quiet a long walk”, “My feet are hurting”, “I don’t have wheels to my feet unlike you”. Xerxes was having a hearty laugh and the smile on his face refused to fade and after a while I was enjoying myself too pulling his leg.
By the end of these 3 days, I must honestly acknowledge that I had given Xerxes some of the best or perhaps most of the best laughs, smiles and giggles of his life.  I’m sure he won’t deny that acknowledgement”
By now I had tried almost nine new things that I usually wouldn’t t have tried.  On the final morning, I saw many pillows fallen down next to Xerxes’ bed, so I innocently asked him, “did you wrestle with someone in your dreams last night?”. He instantly and almost without any hesitation replied, “No, I dreamt that the phone rang last night and I threw all these pillows at you instead of the books”. This time I was in stitches at the sheer impish tone of his response. We now checked out of the hotel leaving our luggage there and went to grab some lunch. It was a very nice day but equally hot and humid. That afternoon during my lunch I tried some amazing apple beer (again for the first time) while Xerxes had some cheery beer in quite a girly glass.
On the way back to the hotel to collect our luggage, I spotted a good view of the mountains and again commanded, “Xerxes take my photograph here”. This time with the camera in his hands he said sternly, “Don’t you know, I don’t respond well to commands?” I effortlessly said, “Take my photograph and this is a command.” I was again surprised to see him oblige. By this time I was enjoying myself simply commanding this funny man and see him obey.
On our way to the airport, I just showed Xerxes my arm bands which I didn’t use while swimming. Xerxes cautiously took out his camera and without a moment’s pause directed me to put them on. I refused initially but then eventually did it to make him happy.  That was almost the end of our trip. Phuket is such a wonderful place that every vein in my body was pulsating with life all through my stay there.
Oh, before I forget, this blog was to originally be written by Xerxes himself. But suddenly in the trip he insisted I write it.  On the way back I do remember pleading before him like an innocent person in a trail before a judge but Xerxes seemed unmoved. So finally, giving up I disappointedly said, “Fine, I’ll write it but remember I’m another number to the list of people you have saddened”. Again this was a tongue-in-cheek remark. On arriving at the airport I rushed to check in and after completing my formalities I proceed to the counter where Xerxes was standing. His flight was cancelled so he ending up staying another night in Thailand.
Xerxes quiet often mentioned during this trip that he had changed my life, but at the end of it I know that more than him, I have changed his life… and this is something that even Xerxes cannot contest.