<![CDATA[The Microscoop - Blog]]>Tue, 27 Jun 2017 22:13:20 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[The Sky as a Part of Life]]>Sun, 03 Jul 2016 23:15:17 GMThttp://themicroscoop.com/1/post/2016/07/the-sky-as-a-part-of-life.html
So often we smartphone-reliant, vehicle-driving, grocery-shopping inhabitants of developed countries hear that we are too separated from nature. This is very true. We don’t think twice about our reliance on fossil fuels to take us place to place; the thought of “relying on nature” conjures up images of spear-clenching Neandertals despite the fact that up until very recent times, people in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries relied on nature quite a bit. Travel, farming, and reading maps required basic to intermediate knowledge of geography and the physical environment as a whole. Especially with the rise of Almanacs, sun/moon/weather patterns were considered to be much more general knowledge at the time. 

I often wonder what it would be like to plop a 20-something from “the past” (anywhere up to the early 20th century) alongside a current millennial and ask each of them to complete some sort of task involving the physical world (understanding directions to a place, for example), and just observe how they each respectively solve the problem. How obvious and extreme would their differences in problem-solving be? Would these cognitive variances be attributed—at least in part—to differences in exposure to nature?

One particular society that not only relied on nature, but was truly fluid with it, was (and in many ways still are), the Hopi.

The Hopi American Indian tribe, located in the same region of Arizona for over a millenium, descended directly from a group of Ancestral Pueblo people as early as the 12th century BCE. The Hopi are believed to have lived in the same area the longest of any North American tribe. Since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many ethnographic and archeological studies of the Hopi have been conducted since trade expeditions drew whites to their region (Loftin, 2003, p. 68). Despite the attempt of the United States government and others to impose cultural change in their society (Loftin, p. 69) the Hopi have largely retained and continue to use astronomical methods originating from the beginnings of their prehistory. Furthermore, this time-honored astronomy is imbedded with strong cultural significance because the knowledge it provides is fundamental to not only basic timekeeping and agricultural methods, but also their ceremonies, organization of daily life, and understanding of the natural world. The astronomical methods used by the Hopi people did not serve a single purpose; rather, they held pronounced cultural meaning in addition to their practicality. Main implementations of Hopi astronomy that are also culturally manifested include solar and lunar-based calendars, rituals, and the direction system.

Timekeeping in the form of calendars, which regulates both agricultural and ceremonial event cycles, is one of the most prominent and ancient applications of Hopi astronomy. The Hopi permanently transitioned from a meandering to sedentary society between 500-700 BC (Loftin, p. 63) which brought the need to establish agricultural organization (Aveni, 2003, p. 171).  These calendars originated extremely early and have endured throughout agrarian Hopi existence. Additionally, unlike many observed ancient societies such as the Mayans or Incas, which are now non-existent, the Hopi people remain thriving in most of their original, indigenous locations, relatively isolated until contact with European missionaries in the 1870’s (McCluskey, 1977, p. 175). This seclusion allowed for the ancient Hopi calendar to survive and be observed in the modern era. Its deep-rooted integration (along with other astronomical methods) into daily life and culture has, in comparison to the length of time that the Hopi have inhabited their Anasazi region, only recently been studied.

The complex Hopi calendar was first studied in the 1890’s in one of their most undisturbed present-day villages (McCluskey, 1977, p. 175). Regulated by horizon sun observations, it was not strictly reserved for agricultural usage (Ruggles, 2005, p. 186). Ceremonies dealing with many aspects of cultural life occurred throughout the year according to lunar and solar calendars; along with “rain” and “good harvest,” these various astronomically regulated ceremonies also brought “good health” and “peace.” (Ruggles, p. 186).

The basis of both the Hopi agricultural and ceremonial calendars (which often are referred to together throughout the literature) is tracking the points of sunrise and sunset on specific locations of the horizon. In addition, these horizon points “are themselves sacred places” (Ruggles 187). They are associated with and often are the sites of certain festivals, usually composed of a sacred Tawaki (Sun’s House), which serves as a point of reference, identification, and religious significance for the Sun Priests (Aveni 1982 p. 34). The Tawaki usually contains a kiva, which is a small chamber reserved for spiritual or religious rites (Aveni 1982 p. 34). The fact that the Tawakis, so important in Hopi religion, are placed on the very spots that the sun rises and sets is no accident; this deliberate connection of physicality with spirituality entirely illustrates the cultural nature of their astronomy.

The observance of Soyal, a solstitial festival celebrating the 9-day-long winter solstice ceremonies, is one of the religious festivals regulated by astronomy and a perfect example to explain the many astronomical facets of Hopi ceremonies. First, it launches the making of prayer-sticks, symbolic objects pertaining to the specific festival, to be placed at a Sun Altar about ten kilometers away towards the midwinter sunrise (McCluskey, 1977, 176). McCluskey states that one of the purposes of Soyal is to “turn back the Sun” from going too south (176). However, in addition to the presence of the cultural material of the prayer sticks, there are other, ritualistic reasons for Soyal, shown in the katsinas.

Like all the other ceremonies regulated by the astronomical calendar, the presence of the spiritual katsina or kachina (plural, katsinam or kachinas) are essential to the festivals. The following is the definition of katsinam from the official Hopi Tribe Website:

Katsinam are Hopi spirit messengers who send prayers for rain, bountiful harvests and a prosperous, healthy life for humankind. They are our friends and visitors who bring gifts and food, as well as messages to teach appropriate behavior and the consequences of unacceptable behavior. Katsinam, of which there are over two hundred and fifty different types, represent various beings, from animals to clouds. (Visitor Etiquette from the official Office of Cultural Preservation).

The presences of the katsinam occur at specific times in the Hopi year during their respective ceremonies or rituals. They are impersonated in the form of masks and plentiful dancing, along with dolls and other symbolic objects (Kennard, 1971, p. 12). So Soyal, like many other festivals, cannot commence without its respective Sun Priest dressed as the Soyal-specific katsinam entering the village from a specific direction (in this case south), placing prayer sticks by a ceremonial kiva, and thus introducing the beginning of the Winter Solstice (Kennard, p. 20). More katsinam are introduced during the rest of Soyal and during other, sequential ceremonies throughout the year. The fundamental organization for these annual traditions is the Hopi calendar maintained by solar (and lunar) observations. These observations are the reference points on when to start and end each festival and move fluidly to the next, and are organized within a systematic calendar.

In 1977, McCluskey quantified the Hopi calendar in terms of calculating the range of dates, cycles, and degree measurements for different Hopi moon months, including analyzing the ceremonial and agricultural cycles and identifying observation points of solar festivals and lunar festivals. (See Table 1). Based on his data, it is clear that agricultural and ceremonial events are not only both regulated by the same calendar, but also concur or overlap at specific time points. Therefore, the Hopi’s basic astronomical purpose, agricultural precision, is interconnected on a higher level with religion, spirituality, and culture as a whole. One of the best examples of this is the Powa, the month dedicated to planting (McCluskey 1977 p. 176). During this month, a variety of ceremonies and rituals are conducted that illustrate fundamental agricultural as well as cultural purposes. First, bean planting occurs following the sight of the crescent moon (McCluskey 176). Soon after, corn and seeds are planted. Most significantly, just before the start of the Powa, a chant is sung containing 20 almost-identical verses that change only to incorporate the different points on the horizon where the sun rises and sets (McCluskey 176). This deliberate concurrency of an idiosyncratic ritual (chanting) along with one of the most common ancient archeoastronomical reference methods (solar horizon points) is perhaps the most striking example of the intertwined nature of Hopi astronomy and culture. 

McCluskey focused on the quantification of the Hopi calendar. However, I would like to elaborate on its simultaneous astronomical and cultural implications. Some of the 17 lunar months are named with an agricultural purpose, such as “Planting Moon” and “Harvest Moon,”—common farming activities regulated in many ancient societies by astronomy. But other months exhibit names such as “Purification Moon,” “Dangerous Moon,” and “Initiates’ Moon”—implying the time of what are clearly culturally significant time periods. In addition, some of the names of the months, such as “Kya-muya” and “Isu-muya” are repeated, reflecting the dualistic nature of the Hopi year (McCluskey p. 177).  It is interesting to note that the dualistic months—the months that occur during two separate durations per year—possess more cultural, and less utilitarian, names. While Planting Moon, for example, occurs but one a year, Dangerous Moon occurs at two separate times. Furthermore, the Hopi year is dualistic in another way: the beginning half of the year (winter and spring) includes the katsinam and is centered on agricultural preparation; the second half does not incorporate the katsinam and focuses on harvest. Of course, it is impossible to pinpoint the exact reasons as to why and how the Hopi developed this dualistic system, but it is clear that the Hopi year is divided into two main cultural sections, each with significant rituals, months and purposes, and cannot occur without astronomical knowledge and unique cosmological belief systems.

Along with the ceremonial events and calendar, astronomy is fused into other aspects of Hopi daily life, such as the cardinal directions. The Hopi directions starkly contrast, both methodically and meaningfully, with the typical Western “North-South-East-West.” Although their directions usually match up or are very close to North-South-East-West, the directions—like so many other aspects of Hopi astronomy—take on a higher, dualistic, cultural meaning. These directions are centered about a particular village and therefore differ from one village to the next (Ruggles 187). Instead of being abstract, geometrical notions, the cardinal directions literally correspond with the directions of the sunset and sunrise positions on the horizon (Aveni, 1981, p.32). Additionally, the directions divide the world into four quarters, spanning outwards from the centered village. Conceptually, this division of the world (known as quadripartite cosmology and exhibited also in Navajo, Pawnee, and other indigenous North American groups) fuses the literal, physical Earth with the metaphysical and spiritual cosmos. The differences between spiritual reality and physical reality are blurred. More intertwined than separate, the directions connect the natural world with the spiritual and thus unite empirical observations with cosmology (Aveni, 1981, p. 34). The directions take on an almost characterized form, similar to the katsinam, because each is associated with a specific color and bird feathers (See Figure 1).

Figure 1 (Aveni, 1981, p. 33) shows the centered village (ñá-Kur-bi) and the six cardinal directions branching out, marking specific sunrise or sunset sites on the horizon along with their corresponding colors and feathers. The colors and feathers are manifested, usually, in katsina decorations during festivals and ceremonies; each color painted on a katsina pertains to a certain direction (Colton, 1959, p. 13). The cardinal directions and their respective associations, therefore, not only coordinate physical orientation but they also provide greater, more specific meaning to various forms of Hopi culture.

By bridging astronomical and cultural knowledge, the Hopi developed a system of scientific and spiritual understanding that has withstood a millennium, along with the resulting traditions that are so unique to their people. Their annual calendar, rituals and ceremonies, and cardinal directions attest to the equally astronomical and cultural basis for their customs. Stories such as the clearly dualistic creation myth acknowledge astronomy as the origin of life: two brothers, one of which brings Purification (or final judgment), travel from the heavens to start life on the fourth world: Earth (Mills, 2011). Shaping their understanding of the natural world, Hopi astronomy results in a unique, empirical worldview that regulates order and organization within daily life. 

References

Aveni, Anthony F. (1981). Archaeoastronomy in the New World. American Primitive Astronomy. 32-35.

Aveni, Anthony F. (2003). Archaeoastronomy in the Ancient Americas. Journal of Archaeological Research, 11(2). http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/41053196.pdf?acceptTC=true

Bostwick, T. W., Bates, B. C., & Zoll, K. J. (2010). Introduction to Archaeoastronomy of the American Southwest. Archaeoastronomy, 23.

Colton, Harold S. Hopi Kachina Dolls. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1959.

 Hopi Office of Cultural Preservation. (2015, March 5). Hopi Cycle of the Year: Kachina Ceremonies and Visitor Etiquette. Retrieved from http://www.crossingworlds.com/articles/hopicycle.html

Kennard, Edward A. (2002). Hopi Kachinas. New York: Kiva Publishing.

Loftin, J. D. (2003). Religion and Hopi Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

McCluskey, Stephen C. (1990). Calendars and Symbolism: Functions of Observation in Hopi Astronomy. Archaeoastronomy, 15.

McCluskey, Stephen C. (1977). The Astronomy of the Hopi Indians. Journal for the History of Astronomy, 8, 174-195

Mills, Thomas O. (2011). Hopi Creation Story and Global Warming (In Our Human Hands). Retrieved from http://www.nativetimes.com/index.php/life/commentary/5025-hopi-creation-story-explains-things

Ruggles, Clive L. N. (2005). Ancient Astronomy: An Encyclopedia of Cosmologies and Myth. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc.

Voth, H. (1973). The Traditions of the Hopi. Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus Reprint.


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<![CDATA[Is it Worth It to (attempt to) Understand Consciousness? *gulp* **here we go, folks**]]>Sun, 12 Jun 2016 20:25:52 GMThttp://themicroscoop.com/1/post/2016/06/is-it-worth-it-to-attempt-to-understand-consciousness-gulp-here-we-go-folks.htmlConsciousness. What is it. Where does it come from. Why do we have it. Is there even such a thing as an immaterial "consciousness" separate from our bodies, our brain? 

These questions aren't new; Descartes and co weren't the first to ask them and won't be the last. "I think, therefore I am" has been upheld, challenged, dismissed, and dis/agreed upon from all angles of prismatic-like discourse from philosophy to psychology to religious studies. There won't ever be an answer, so at this point, the search to understand consciousness has dwindled in favor of more time-pressing, society-benefitting problems. 

What I find so interesting about consciousness--its source, primarily, but also its mechanisms-- is that we've been arguing about it for so long, yet our rate of understanding it is so far below our understanding of nearly every other phemonema. It can be argued that the problem of consciousness is so far out in the most obscure corner of psychology, the most subjective science out there, so this shouldn't be a surprise. 

But I still think we should study it. And a small minority of scientists have been, and are, continuing to do so. 

The notion of consciousness not only showing properties but also being a property is propelled by David Chalmers, who argues for the existence of conscious experience as its own physical entity. According to Chalmers (1991), everything has consciousness, just on certain levels (humans have a higher level of consciousness than ants, for example, which have a higher level of consciousness than bacteria which have a higher level than molecules, etc). If this is true, then some might say that the property argument discredits the Hard Problem’s existence, because if, say, protons—structurally and functionally identical to one another in every way—display a certain “level” of consciousness, then how do they differ in their subjective gateways to experience, the very essence of consciousness? The heart of the Hard Problem lies in the very subjective nature of consciousness. Any attempt to objectify consciousness therefore strips its idiosyncrasy to a physical, “easy problem” reduction. 

First, it must be established that the Hard Problem is separate from “easy problems.” An opponent to this viewpoint, Daniel Dennett, cites the empirical example of the optical illusion of change blindness as evidence for experience being simply a compilation of all of what our senses are communicating (Dennett, 2007). At a TED conference in 2007, Dennett showed a video of a surgery behind color-changing squares —the audience did not notice the color changing despite being told, “watch carefully” (Dennett, 2007). Dennett suggests that our failure to detect background changes within a scenery montage shows that experience is shaped by what we are or are not attending to, which is an explicable, “easy problem” mental process. However, Dennett fails to explain why the audience chose to focus on the scene and not the many colorful squares, both quite salient stimuli. Therefore, change blindness only reinforces the hard problem because the members of the audience clearly felt experiential connections to the surgery video, leading them to watch it. Also, Dennett’s usage of change blindness to attempt to discredit the Hard Problem shows his misinterpretation of the Hard Problem itself, and therefore is an inapplicable explanation. Dennett claims that we overcomplicate consciousness in a way analogous to our over-estimation of visual processes (Dennett, 2007). However, failing to detect visual change is not the Hard Problem; it is just a failure on the part of the “easy problems” which can be explained in normal visually processed steps.

Dennett’s example does, however, raise further questions concerning the contradictory nature of the Hard Problem debate. Despite the individual differences in experiential reactions (e.g., various audience members may have felt indifferent or perturbed or curious about the surgery), the reactions were all based from the same stimulus that led to the same displayed behavior: watching the surgery instead of the squares. Whatever the vehicle behind conscious experiential processes between individuals happens to be, it appears to fluidly operate at all of the mind’s hierarchical modules outlined Jerry Fodor (1985): reflexes, perception, and cognition. Is it possible, then, for consciousness to have both inferential and non-inferential, and both encapsulated and non-encapsulated properties? The audience members reflexively followed the schema of “going to a presentation” whether or not were are aware of this conformity. Still, their non-encapsulated beliefs and unique experiences of the world governed their interpretation of the presentation as a whole. This possibility of consciousness showing modular properties, while doing nothing to solve the Hard Problem, could at least partially explain why the endlessly contradictive solution has not been sourced.

An answer could lie in Gestalt theory: the composition of consciousness as a property, in a sentient being or system, must be more than the sum of its individual, conscious particles (a gap-based phenomenon eerily similar to the structure of the Hard Problem dilemma itself). Instead of attempting to identify the physically immaterial (at least for scientific purposes), empirical methods can indirectly study the observed correlates of consciousness. Guilio Tononi bases his Integrated Information Theory on the premise that the amount of consciousness in a being is correlated with the amount of integrated information generated by the system (Tononi, 2008). IIT allows this end product of all our sensory inputs (the integrated information, phi) to be measured empirically via an EEG-style electrode cap (Lang 2013).

Of course, one must question the accuracy of Tononi’s projected phi value—is it really possible to take into account every single possible sensory input of consciousness?  How encompassing (and accurate) are the TMS-EEG technologies that supposedly approximate the amount of integrated information? Once again, the question returns to the possibility that some information cannot be captured physically. Additionally, the notion that a conscious system must have a certain level of integrated information to be defined as such is at odds with Chalmers’s panpsychism. If Chalmers is correct, and that bricks and pine needles possess consciousness which Tononi basically defines as integrated information, then what about the whole building and the whole pine tree? Where does one integrated system end and the other begin? Yet some, such as Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at the Allen institute for Brain Science in Seattle, are both IIT fans and panpsychist aficionados who believe the two theories can be bridged. Koch cites the postulation that integrated information only exists at “local maxima” of the physical world, and that as long as the “causal relations among the circuit elements . . . give rise to integrated information, the system will feel like something” (Koch 2014). Thus, only some things, things that must be integrated according to a mysterious natural algorithm, have a phi value greater than zero. The real hard problem is: What then defines these causal relations?

Tononi’s technology does not explain why or how conscious experience occurs, yet its purpose—a proposed method to end anesthesia awareness—shows huge promise in medical advancement (Lang 2013). IIT proves that, while it may never be possible to explain the origin of the Hard Problem explicitly, studying consciousness can lead to practical and beneficial applications for society.

Although arrows fired to the Hard Problem solution have missed the target, it is clear that the gaps between where they land and the true solution, whatever that cause might be, provide insight. As theorists and scientists continue to follow the trail left by these gaps, the overall outlook on consciousness has shifted from “Where does subjective experience come from?” to “What are the laws that make experience different?” It may not matter where qualia come from, but if scientists continue to further postulate the laws governing integrated information, then consciousness will become closer to being a property in our collective reality. 

References

Chalmers, D. J. (1995). Facing up to the problem of consciousness. Journal of consciousness studies, 2(3), 200-219

Dennett, D. (1991). Consciousness Explained. New York: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0140128670.

Dennett, D. (2007, May 3). The illusion of consciousness.

TED Talks. Podcast retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjbWr3ODbAo

Fodor, Jerry A. (1985). Précis of The Modularity of the Mind. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8(1), 1-42

Koch, Christof. (January 2014). Ubiquitous Minds. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://christofkoch.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/cr-panpsychism-jan-141.pdf

Lang, Joshua. (January 2013). Awakening. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/01/awakening/309188/

Tononi, Giulio. (2008). Consciousness as integrated information: a provisional manifesto. Biological Bulletin, 215(3), 216-242.

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<![CDATA[Know Those Mosquitoes]]>Sun, 26 Jul 2015 00:51:48 GMThttp://themicroscoop.com/1/post/2015/07/mosquit-ell-me-more.htmlDo you have that friend who, post-outdoor BBQ/camping trip, seems to return with far more mosquito bites than everyone else? Or are you that person, perhaps?  I seem to get bitten a LOT each summer, no matter how much bug spray I douse myself in. Yet my sister seems to possess a magical power that allows her to sit a mere few feet away from me at the 4th of July fireworks, not bother with bug spray, and not receive a single bug bite.

All frustrations aside, I do find this curious. I happened to bring up the question "why do some people get bit more than others?" to a professor whose lab I work in, Dr. Craig Cady. (Side note: the lab is actually a stem cell lab, but Dr. Cady received his Ph.D. in entomology, so you could say he's a reliable source..)

Dr. Cady says that bug bite frequency boils down to a few main variables: CO2 generated from the person, CO2 present in the blood, heat generated from the person, and levels of various acidic elements or other compounds in the blood, such as lactic acid or cholesterol. Now, just because I get a lot of bug bites does not necessarily mean I have abnormally high cholesterol levels--it is possible that my body is more efficient at processing cholesterol, a component of cell membranes.

As for the lactic acid (or anything else acidic, for that matter), bugs love it. I do happen to be a pretty physically active person, especially during warmer parts of the year (all-day beach outings? Yes, please.) So, it would make sense that I might have somewhat higher amounts of lactic acid circulating through me, along with the fact that I’m producing more CO2 and heat as I run/bike/swim/rollerblade/jetpack/pogo-stick around.

A bunch of research has been conducted (and still is being conducted) regarding why bugs show personal preference to certain individuals. Other possible variables that scientists are considering include blood type (studies have shown possible correlation with O Types), metabolism, and the amount of naturally occurring bacteria found on human skin (the germier the better, apparently.)

So there you have it! As with many weirdish phenomena, there definitely isn’t one set trait that makes some people more attractive to mosquitoes. Even though there's definitely still work to be done in narrowing down all these factors, and figuring out what factors are present person to person, this question won’t be “bugging” me any longer!

Sources: Dr. Craig Cady at Bradley University, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-do-mosquitoes-bite-some-people-more-than-others-10255934/


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