Thursday, July 28, 2011

Tricking My Brain

Disclaimer/spoiler alert: The following insights are brought to you by the miracle of introspection, and should not be confused with factual statements about the human brain.

Sitting down to do work for a few hours at a time is very hard for me. Hell, sometimes even sitting for half an hour to do math (which I like better than most kinds of work) is hard for me. I sometimes think that I have ADD, though I can certainly read a novel for hours.

It feels like there is a part of my brain that is fundamentally discontent to sit and work. It feels like a relatively animal part of my brain - not a conscious, smart part. And it is somewhat easily tricked.

I usually listen to music while I work. I can work to a variety of music, but I find that dance music (the kind you'd hear in a club - any kind of dance club) is one of the most effective kinds. It seems to trick my brain into thinking I am having fun and moving around rather than sitting and working. It's like a part of my mind is actually moving and doing something with a rhythm, and gets soothed/tricked into letting me get some work done.

Today, Pandora on my phone was acting up and sounding shitty as it sometimes does, so I switched to Simply Noise, which I haven't tried to work to before. I have an app for it on my phone.

Of the different noises, I like the brown noise the best, and I like to make it oscillate. It sounds like ocean waves to me.Very soothing.

After listening to this for a while and working, I realized it was extremely soothing indeed. It feels very much like it makes that part of my brain think I am actually asleep. That part doesn't seem to mind sleeping - in fact, it's pretty much content to let me sleep forever. It was really an amazing feeling. I think I may try this more often in the future.

"How Can We Memorize All That??"

Memory is a funny thing.

I've spent vast hours this summer (enough time to have produced 174 handwritten pages of work and notes) studying for my real analysis qualifying exam, which I'll take three weeks from tomorrow. I have to take and pass two of these exams to be a PhD candidate. Of all of the exams available (real analysis, complex analysis, algebra, topology, and prob/stats), the word on the street is that the real analysis is the easiest (ha!) and the most memorization-heavy. Many of the other exams rely more on fundamental concepts that you have to cleverly apply to solve the problems (or so I'm led to believe).

I have a stack of the old exams going back to the 1980's. There are a lot of repeat questions, so I've been studying from the list I put together, which has the most often repeated questions of about the past ten years on top, followed by others that have appeared. These are hard questions. Many of the proofs take me 2 to 3 pages to write out, and I'll have to do 8 of them in 8 hours.

Studying for the exam has been difficult but also one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. I mean that very sincerely. It's been amazing.

One of the amazing aspects, and this always amazes me, is that you can actually learn and remember things. I'm sure if you've taken classes this has happened to you - you had to apparently memorize some amount of material, and it seemed impossible. For instance, if you take calculus, you have to know all of these different derivatives (polynomials, trig functions, natural log, inverse trig functions, etc.) plus things like trig identities, if you didn't already memorize them in a previous class. It seems (to many people, at least) crazy, like a totally unrealistic expectation.

And yet I myself know large chunks of those things, and it doesn't even feel like something I have memorized so much as something that I just know. So I know that it's completely possible to learn that information and internalize it usefully.

The amount of stuff I have to memorize for this qual seems outrageous, but there are a lot of things that, during this past school year when I took the class this qual is based on, I knew I would never be able to remember, but that I now simply know - for instance, Hölder's inequality. When I first saw it, it was totally random garbage. Now, it's something that I know, and that I know some contexts in which it can be used, and so it is just part of my mind.

If you think about all of the things you know, it's actually an amazingly gigantic amount of crap. (Do you know drink recipes? Mathematical formulae? State capitols? Song lyrics? Phone numbers? Email and web addressses? Passwords for various web sites? Avogadro's number? The chemical formula for salt? The plot of "Anna Karenina"? The name of that one British actor who was in that recent "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" movie? The details of your sister's divorce? It just goes on and on.) Even though new things sometimes seem random at first, and thus difficult to memorize, it actually seems virtually limitless, our ability to remember things.

The only thing more amazing than how much crap I can actually learn and remember is how easily I forget this, and thus how much despair I feel when faced with new piles of crap to know.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Surely You Jest: Universe Edition

So, 10 or 20 billion years ago, mass, energy, time, and everything we know about emerged in the Big Bang. What was before or outside of that? The question is meaningless because time was part of what was created, and so was space - there is no "before" or "outside" as far as we are concerned.

Stuff expanded, and after a while, through processes that are not too mysterious, our sun and planet came onto the scene. At some point(s), matter on our planet, which of course was busy colliding and interacting and doing all of the things matter does when you shine the sun at it, happened to fall into a shape that was self-replicating. Naturally, once you start self-replicating, it's hard to stop, and stuff that is better at self-replicating will manage to incorporate more matter into itself than stuff that is less good at it.

Over time, these self-replicating bits got better and better at it through the addition of defensive barriers, the incorporation of other, smaller self-replicating bits, and so on, and after a very long while indeed, many of them were conglomerating together to build absolutely enormous machines to carry them around and help them replicate. (No, no, I don't mean hippie vans. That came later still.)

Some of those replicating machines are us, humans. And because I am one of the humans I can testify that, somewhere along the line, some of the matter started to have subjective experiences. Now, if you think about it, that is just fucking weird. It's hard to even think how to describe subjective experience. If some cosmic overlord machine came along and demanded to know what the hell you were talking about, you'd have trouble being convincing. You start with, "You know how you, like, feel stuff inside? Like you can really tell you're there and stuff? Yeah, me too." If the machine didn't have that experience it wouldn't get it.

So, here I am, a gene vehicle, on this little piece of space dust. In 100 years, I'll be at best an old photo in someone's family photo album. In 1000 years, nobody will remember a damn thing about me. In 100,000,000 years it's extremely unlikely anyone will remember my species. And sometime after that, there won't be any life on this planet, and sometime after that, there won't be any planet earth, and not only will nobody remember us (not even our best art and most fantastic thoughts and culture), nobody will even know that we were forgotten. And eventually, one way or another, the universe will devolve or crunch up to the point that there will not even be anyone of any kind left to know or not know anything whatsoever.

There could be other parallel universes, whatever that means.

These questions and the answers given by science don't really make sense to me. But then, why would they? My brain is evolved for life on this planet. There's no reason I would have the mechanisms needed to understand the nature of reality itself. Nevertheless, I do find the whole thing implausible.

One could embrace a religious view instead. The ones I'm most familiar with replace the grand mysteries of the material universe with a single mystery - some god or gods. We have no evidence for these deities, but a big controller entity is in some sense more workable for my socially evolved brain than a bunch of causeless, purposeless, endless, meaningless universe. I can grapple with an entity. I am one myself. I get that.

It'd be really nice to wake up from this weird-ass life at some point and get some answers. I guess if that's what happens at death, I'll find that out at some point. If, as I suspect, nothing happens at death, then I just won't ever know it (or anything else, ever again).