by Brian Tomasik

This page collects some random thoughts from 2016 that are too short or too unimportant to deserve their own essays.

Neurotransmitters are like local variables

5 Dec. 2016

In the past, I was confused about how the same neurotransmitter could mediate many different functions. For example:

Approximately 90% of the human body's total serotonin is located in the enterochromaffin cells in the GI tract, where it is used to regulate intestinal movements. [...] The remainder is synthesized in serotonergic neurons of the CNS, where it has various functions. These include the regulation of mood, appetite, and sleep. Serotonin also has some cognitive functions, including memory and learning.

In the popular imagination, serotonin is one of the "happy chemicals". So what is it doing also regulating gastrointestinal motility?

Relative to my current (though still inadequate) understanding of neuroscience, the answer is obvious: A molecule is as a molecule does. Happiness is not somehow intrinsic to the serotonin molecule. Rather, serotonin can be used to signal various things in various places, and in some cases, it can trigger a suite of knock-on effects in the brain that are constitutive of happiness. Serotonin is just a signal and a simple way for scientists to track what's happening. The molecule itself has nothing special about it. So, in other contexts, the same molecule can be used to signal other things to other parts of the nervous system.

Serotonin is like a local variable in a programming language. It takes on its meaning based on context, and you can use the same local variable in different functions to different effects. For example, we might have both of the following functions within the same Python script:

def add(a,b):
  serotonin = a + b
  return serotonin

def say_hi():
  serotonin = "hi"
  print serotonin

Brookshire (2013): "The simplicity of a single molecule and its receptors is what makes dopamine so flexible and what allows the resulting systems to be so complex."

"Hole in the Bottom of the Sea"

31 Oct. 2016

When I was young (maybe in the age range 4 to 8?), my family and I visited my paternal grandmother's house in Utica, NY. We were sitting at the table for lunch, and I went to the toilet in an adjacent room. I shut the door and forgot that sound could still transmit between the rooms.

As I sometimes did in those days, I began singing Grover Monster's rendition of "There's a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea" aloud to myself, in a raspy Grover voice. This continued for a few minutes, after which I washed up and returned to the dining-room area. None of my family said anything explicitly, but as I returned, they all had smirks on their faces. At that point I embarrassedly realized that they had heard my private performance.

Things people love to hate

24 Aug. 2016

I generally avoid actively disliking things, except for actual moral tragedies like suffering and cruelty. I find it unpleasant when people expound on how much they dislike a movie, food, person, etc. For one thing, those attitudes put down people who do like those things. But beyond that, it seems like it might reduce life satisfaction to focus on how much you don't like things.

Rather, I prefer to like almost everything (that doesn't cause morally serious harm) because life is more enjoyable that way. Everything is special in its own way and can be appreciated. If you tell yourself you don't like something, you'll probably like it less and therefore enjoy it less.

One reason people express their dislikes is that it's a way of bonding. Finding other people who also dislike something establishes connection. The extreme example of this is outgroup hatred, such as racism. But plausibly similar dynamics also operate when people, e.g., rag on Justin Bieber; it's just that the latter case is more socially accepted (and less socially caustic).

One thing people love to hate that I like is Auto-Tune. I enjoy Auto-Tune both to enhance normal singing as well as when it's used for artistic effect. Probably some people dislike (or claim to dislike) Auto-Tune because it's "cheating". Other people might claim it's not "wholesome", in the way that store-bought food is supposedly not as high-quality as home-made food. But whereas nutrition has relevant side effects on one's health, a preference for or against Auto-Tune seems purely aesthetic, and you may as well enjoy Auto-Tune as much as you can (unless disliking it makes you even more satisfied with yourself than liking it would).

Many people also have a strange prejudice against "y'all", since it's associated with the US South. But it's a really useful word. Using "you" is ambiguous between "you, a specific person" and "all of you". "Y'all" is a helpful way to distinguish those cases. Perhaps for the same reason, German (and maybe other languages) has a separate word for "you all" ("ihr") than for "you" ("du"/"Sie").

Seeing things "in person"

9 Aug. 2016

I don't understand very well the impulse to travel in order to see a place for yourself. I find that watching videos and looking at pictures on Google Images can be a reasonable substitute for actually traveling, without the stress, jet lag, and cost of actually traveling. Why is it important to see a tourist attraction in person when you can Google it and see lots of pictures that are better than any pictures you could take yourself?

Presumably part of the explanation is that people don't travel to a place just to see it; they do so in part to have the feeling of having been there, which provides a sort of extra sense of awe, similar to touching a religious relic. And people want to be able to say "I've been to Italy" when signaling their status in conversation.

It's also possible that people haven't actually tried the alternative: Looking up pictures, videos, and travel diaries online, and seeing that they're actually pretty amazing in their own rights. Maybe because these alternatives are so cheap and available, they don't feel special?

I think one good justification for seeing something in person is if you want to look for things that you can't find online or that may not be often reported. For instance, it may be valuable to visit a charity in person to get a pulse on the work culture and those employee attitudes that may not be expressed publicly. Or you might worry about selection bias in the information you can find online, so you want to get a more representative sample of something yourself. And so on. But these efforts to improve factual accuracy aren't very relevant to travel done for the sake of leisure, where entertainment rather than truth is at least ostensibly the main goal.

Update, 13 Jan. 2017: In response to this paragraph, someone sent me their personal testimony about travelling:

For me, the main purpose of travelling is not to see sights but to meet people who have very different life experiences and to have interesting conversations with them, to really "dive into" completely new experiences with all five senses, and most importantly to get closer to the people I'm travelling with. To substitute for this, looking at pictures alone is not sufficient, but maybe this is possible to some extent by reading travel diaries, spending weekends with the people I like, listening to new kinds of music, cooking new types of food etc.

Always learning new words

9 Aug. 2016

I once knew a native German speaker who said she never encountered German words that she didn't already know. I found this remarkable, though maybe she mainly read news/etc. articles written to be understandable by lots of Germans? However, she also said that she was always learning new English words.

I, too, am always learning new English words. I probably look up an average of ~3-5 words per day, counting technical terms. In high school, I used to study SAT-type vocabulary a lot, both in preparation for the SATs and for fun. Now the two main classes of words that I look up are (1) slang, for which I often consult Urban Dictionary and (2) technical words, often biology terms. I don't consider slang any less meritorious than "cultured" vocabulary, and I'm unsure why someone would, except for signaling reasons.

Of course, I probably forget the meaning of most of the words I look up, but I also forget most of the content that I read in general. I think reading word definitions is a pretty informative activity because a word encapsulates a concept important enough that people bothered to invent a word for it.

I doubt that my rate of learning new words will decrease substantially over time, in part because there are so many existing words in the English language and in part because Urban Dictionary is always growing, accumulating both widespread and obscure words from people around the world.

Divorce may be better than the alternative

7 May 2016

Many commentators decry rising divorce rates in recent decades. However, I suspect that this trend is positive on the whole.

Insofar as divorces result from bad marriages, it's plausible that getting a divorce improves the situation relative to not getting one. If the spouses are rational actors with properly calibrated expectations about future outcomes, then if they get a divorce, the divorce must have been a net expected benefit to at least one of spouses and possibly both. (However, there may certainly be cases where one side benefits and the other side is harmed. On the other hand, if one side of the relationship is suffering so much as to get a divorce, it's not clear that the other side actually benefits in the long run from continuing the marriage.)

I haven't looked into the details of why divorce is rising, but presumably it has something to do with less social taboo around divorce and greater financial independence of women? Both of these factors are about greater freedom to make one's own decisions without constraint, so both should be welcomed.

There are some cases in which rising divorce rates could be a bad sign, such as if they resulted from people marrying too young and thereby making it more likely they'd end up in an unhappy marriage. But marriage ages are rising, not falling, in recent decades.

What about the impact on kids? I'm not sure divorce is that bad in the typical case. It's probably better than having parents together who fight all the time. But these are just my speculations without knowing the relevant literature on this topic.

Meta-lucid dream

19 Apr. 2016

I've on rare occasions had lucid dreams in which I could control what happened next, though usually that power ended within 1-2 seconds.

Two nights ago, I had a dream that seemed subtly different. Rather than directly controlling what happened next, I felt as though the character of myself within the dream (viewed from a third-person standpoint) could control what happened next. In particular, my dream-self decided that his current situation was frightening and chose to transform the world into Super Mario's rolling green hills, green pipes, and Goombas. Then my dream-self's powers ended.