Thursday, November 7, 2013


This single little three letter word literally changed my life. It may well now be the biggest motivational force in my life. At the very end of 2013 I experienced a severe life threatening event. When I came out the other end of that event I found myself in a state of great clarity and in that state a single word popped into my mind - why?

The pursuit to the answer of this question has occupied almost all my industry and time since then. Hundreds of research papers and scientific articles and dozens of books have been read along with well over two hundred thousand words written all in search of the answer to this question. And it drives me still. To make a long story quite short, it started off as asking why a mental event happened in my mind, then why similar events happen in other people's minds and then to why people do any of the things they do. All driven by just that one question - why? And as I am not easily satisfied - you'll recall that I found all previous human attempts to answer this question inadequate (and they are) - I just keep asking. 

There is a long lecture within me about how people stagnate and lapse into dull comfortable lives because they stop asking questions (and this can be very dangerous as we'll see) but I'll stow that for now. Instead, I'll show you how my mind has worked since the end of last year. 


We all come into the world looking something like this:

This happens to be a Caucasian newborn born into a modern birthing facility but regardless of what race we are or where we were born, we all come into the world looking something like this. On the surface, we'd all appear equal at this stage. The number of neurons will be virtually the same, the various brain regions all in the same stage of development and the rate of their respective rates of growth will, at this very early stage, appear to be very close. One newborn brain will appear indistinguishable from the other even on very close inspection. (and yes, I know what some of you are thinking but we'll get to that in a later post) A newborn has no conscious awareness or thoughts or ideas or plans at all (and we'll later look into what might possibly be going on in a newborn's brain). Why then from this state do we diverge so much? No other animal species diverges so much starting from their birth state; why do humans?

For example:

Why do some of these newborns go on to feel a need and are driven to live in a place like this:

Yet other newborns will go on to feel this is perfectly adequate?

Why did one newborn go on to become this man,

who went on to do this to so many people?

Why have so many newborns - mostly males - gone on to do similar things to so many other people and on such grand scales? Why are people doing this still? Why in some areas of the world, but not in others? Why do so many of us do such harm to others? Why, for just one example out of thousands, did a bright, educated, kind and gainfully employed church going man one day tote several firearms up a clock tower and gun down forty-three people? Or why did a young man with no previous history of violence one day just slaughter his entire family (parents and all but one of his siblings)? Was it because they were "evil"? "Possessed"? If so, what makes these things happen? And furthermore, how do you know that you're not capable of doing horrific things to others? (hint - you don't). Why do we do any kind of "criminal" behaviour? Or why do we sometimes accept that behaviour and sometimes not?

Why do we sometimes follow and believe in others even though what those others are doing is clearly harmful? (as was the case with the masses of people who devoutly followed the man pictured above) What does it mean to "rebel" or to "fit in"? Why would we do either of those and why is it that sometimes either one could be beneficial at some times but harmful at others? How do we judge that? 

Why are some people driven to act in a group while others are driven to act alone? Why can the same person sometimes be group person and then a lone person?

What is "character"? What is "pride"? Why is pride one of the "seven deadly sins" yet we are constantly reminded to take pride in ourselves and our work? What is "sin" anyway? Is the definition set in stone? Speaking of stones, why in some places in the world are people stoned to death for some infraction while in other parts of the world that same human action goes on every day without notice?

Why are some people so driven and others so "lazy"? How do we define either of those? How can a person suddenly switch from one to the other? Why will two people working just as hard doing essentially the same thing get such different results? Or feel so entirely different about the same results? Or how can one person who appears to not be working hard get better results than the person who appears to be working extremely hard?

What is desire? What is sexual desire? What is a sexual impulse? Why, if sex is for reproducing ourselves, are our sexual pleasures so varied and so often seem to have almost nothing to do with reproduction? Why do some people prefer pre-pubescent children? What is sexual perversion and why is it potentially within us? Why was sex among teenagers once normal but now it's "wrong"? What is monogamy and polygamy? Are these right or wrong? Why are they "wrong" here but "right" there? 

Why are we so inconsistent? Why are we "up" one day and "down" the next? Why are we so motivated and full of energy one day and not the next? What does it mean to be "positive"? Or to be "negative"? Why do we sometimes feel positive and then negative about the very same thing? What does it mean when we're "depressed" and why do we get that way? Why do we "hurt" when we feel rejection? Or for that matter, why are some people so cold and hard? What are any emotions and why do we feel them or not feel them? Why do many of us have "love/hate" relationships with someone or something? What are "personalities"? Or why are there so many different personalities? Wouldn't it be simpler if we were all more alike?

What is physical pain? If pain is in, for example, your hand, why is it that people who had their arm amputated or lost it in an accident will feel pain in a hand that is not even there? Or feel an itch in that hand? Or feel that hand move? 

Why is that these people,

and these people,

react so differently when watching the exact same event? Why are some people in one group and other people in the other group? Why is the event concerned even important to either group? Or why do some people feel great pleasure and others disgust when listening to the exact same piece of music? We could say "taste" but what is taste? Where does it come from? Why does it change as we get older? 

Now that we mention getting older, what does it mean when we "mature" and how does this process take place? Is it strictly a chronological process? If so, why are some people so mature at such young ages and others so immature at older ages? Why do we become more "forgetful" when we get older? What is dementia and why does that happen?

What shapes our social circles? Why do some people stay together for their entire lives while others will marry five or more times? Why do some people stay single their whole lives? What is "attraction" anyway? Why do we "connect" with someone even though we are aware of the very real possibility that that person is going to talk us into doing something we know is not really beneficial to our goals in life? 

What are "goals" for that matter and why do some people feel a need to have them and be driven by them and others don't?

What does it mean to have a "heavy heart"? Or to be "lion hearted"? Or to be a "good hearted" person? Or to be "heartless"? Or to "have a change of heart"? What does a simple mindless blood pump have to do with our emotions and characteristics?

What shapes our choices? What shapes our decisions? Why do we sometimes make "good" choices and decisions and sometimes "bad" ones? How do we define "good" and "bad" choices and decisions? Why do other people feel our "good decisions" are "bad decisions"? Opinions? What then are opinions and what shapes those? Why can we sometimes make clearly bad decisions or choices but make up stories to make it seem like they were "good" choices or decisions? (which is apparent to everyone but you)

Why can someone do something that is clearly wrong and then deny doing it? Or deny that it is wrong? Why do some people drink a liquid then cannot stop drinking that liquid even though they know it's bad for them? Or some people will use a white powder then be incapable of stopping using that substance even if it means jail or worse. Or why will some people sit in front of a machine for hours a day for days on end and keep pumping their money into it even though they are losing all their hard earned money, or even money they don't have, and they know the chance of return is insignificantly small? Why will some people keep eating food that is bad for them and others keep inhaling the smoke of a plant based substance even though they have been made perfectly aware that these behaviours will lead to horrible disease and premature death? Is this the result of "faulty character"? If so, why does it happen to so many otherwise very good people?

What does "self control" mean? Why do some people seem to have it and others don't? Is this "superior character" or a "character flaw"?

What is soul? What is the human spirit? Do animals share these with us?

Why do we bond with animals and them with us? Why do animals sometimes bond with what should be rival species? 

And speaking of animals, why is it perfectly acceptable to eat the flesh of a particular animal in one culture but repulsive in a different culture? Or why do some people not eat the flesh of animals at all? Or why would some people not harm a fly but others are driven to kill animals purely for pleasure?

Why do we need to believe in things that are not true or at least are extremely implausible? (and yes, you are probably one of them)

Why will some people not stop even though defeat is already apparent yet others will give up even though victory is still attainable?

What is intelligence and why does that vary so much among us? Why are some people so good at something and others so bad at it?

What are the "terrible twos" and why do teenagers drive their parents so crazy and vise versa?

What's a "temper tantrum"? What's "road rage"?

Why are some people so stingy and some people so generous? Why do some people suddenly switch from being one to being the other?

What is prejudice and why are people like that? Is this a character flaw? Again, if so, why are so many otherwise good people like this? 

What is a "thought"? An "idea"? Where do they come from? What is happening when we "can't think straight"? Why sometimes can't we stop thinking? Why are our memories so fallible at the most critical times yet other times we can recall the most inconsequential information without effort or can't put a bad memory out of our minds? What are memories? 

What does it mean for something to “make sense” or “not make sense”? If something does or doesn't “make sense”, why isn't that universal? How do we “know” when something makes sense or not and why does this often change? What is "sense" anyway?

In fact, what does it mean when we say we "know" something? How do we measure that? And when we "know" something, how can we translate that to others and make them "know" as well? Is "knowing" universal? Why do some people feel so sure that they "know" something even though they lack the necessary education or information needed to know that something?

Why can one man claiming that he "talks with God" parlay that into being worth millions of dollars while another man claiming the same thing is considered mentally ill and put into a mental institution? Or why did a man considered to be among the most brilliant, respected and ground breaking mathematicians on the planet suddenly lose that ability and instead felt that aliens were giving him instructions to build a new world order and have his behaviour completely beholden to these instructions and then, years later, rediscover his math abilities? What is a "mental illness" anyway? Why do some people "see things" or hear people "talking to them"? Is it "wrong" to see things? Or "hear voices"? If so, why? Who decides that and why?

Why will some otherwise quite normal people just randomly blurt out obscenities?

What is "normal"?

How about some simpler questions.

How can our fingers float over a keyboard and "know" what to do without having our eyes guide them? How, after a few tries, can we "know" how to ride a bike? How can you know what these squiggly shapes on this screen mean? How can you know what 這些 奇怪 形狀 means? Or any of the other weird shapes that make up the world's languages? They're just shapes; how did they transform from simple shapes to being able to convey very complex bundles of information? How can some people be fluent in half a dozen languages while others seem barely capable in their own language?

How can some of us effortlessly perform the incredibly complex maneuvers and calculations required to guide a two ton machine among hundreds of other several ton machines going at very high speeds while carrying on a conversation with the person next to you while at the same time planning your day ahead while also dealing with some complex emotions while also being aware that someone is contacting you through a mobile communication device and furthermore probably having a good idea who that someone is without even looking all the while ignoring the very real threat of death or permanent injury if you do anything wrong?

Again, why, if we all start out so much the same are our capabilities, behaviours and lifestyles all so different?

I could go on and on and on (and do in my own time). There are literally endless questions about all the amazing things humans can do and the nearly endless variety to our behaviours. 

If many of these questions seem of the "why is the sky blue" variety, they are not. It is the quest for answers to questions like these that have given rise to philosophies, religions and myths, systems of astrology, fields of study and have been the theme to countless stories, poems and novels throughout human history. We often believe we "know" the answers to these questions and there's a good chance that you are, right now, intuitively thinking you “know” the answers (we'll at some point look at why you believe this) but I challenge you to try chase down the answers to any of these questions and nail down an objective universal truth that stands up to scientific scrutiny. Actually, no, don't do that. The effort would be so time consuming and require such a massive percentage of your mental resources that you'd have to give up whatever you do for a living and that would likely greatly disrupt your life. These are the kinds of questions that have stumped much greater minds than yours or mine since the dawn of human history. There are no simple answers to these questions. And as I alluded to in the previous post, no previous system of human thought or investigation has provided adequate - or even reasonable - answers.

Modern neuroscientific science does know where the answers lie though. They all lie in here:

We all have one of those and those that are healthy and anatomically normally formed at birth will all look exactly like that. But the devil, as they say, is in the details and it is into those details that neuroscience (and a few other cross fields of study we'll see) is poking every day and making ever more remarkable discoveries and insight. 

There are no, as I've said, simple answers to any of the few questions I listed, however. In many cases there are no answers whatsoever yet. This is because, as we'll see, the human brain is the most complex device in the known universe and furthermore, no two of them are exactly alike. 

If your curiosity and wonder has been aroused, excellent; that was my goal with this post. Now read along as we take that ride through the amazing inner galaxies of the human brain and see what we can find for answers or clues. 

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