Saturday, September 11, 2010


"Belief is a state of mind in which trust or confidence is placed
in some person or thing"

I’ve always wondered, do we really live in the physical world we call reality, or do we live in a world we create ourselves, right inside our craniums? If we really live in the physical world, why don’t our actions reflect reality? I have observed that most of the actions we do are based on what we believe. Seeing is believing, but we rarely disbelieve things that we don’t see. Do you not believe in air?

A child, when told there’s a monster in the cupboard will start believing in it. All the child’s action will be based on that belief, no matter how mommy tells the child that monsters doesn’t exist. The child becomes scared, anxious and will have trouble sleeping. It is as if once the belief has been implanted inside the mind, it intensifies and sticks, almost impossible to eradicate. The reality is that there is no monster inside the cupboard, but the child’s action is not based on reality. It is based on what he believes. Only when one day the child has grown up to realize that monsters don’t exist, and stop believing that there are monsters in the cupboard. I call this ‘the awakening’. The awakening is a sudden moment when your belief shifts. It could be a change into a belief that reflects more of reality, but it could also be the opposite.

Let’s take it to a more grown-up context. What if there is someone you hated somebody so much you wanted to kill him. Then somebody told you, you don’t have to kill him, he’s already been diagnosed with a terminal cancer. Then he goes on to tell you that he was acting so annoying lately because of his cancer, he was distressed. Then you’re attitude towards the guy you hated changes. You believe you understand his sufferings. Your actions will be based on that belief. You will start treating him better, and probably forgive him for whatever annoying things he had done. But what if what your friend told you was a lie? The guy’s perfectly healthy, but in your mind he’s not. Without knowing the reality, your actions are based solely on what you believe. You treat him as if he’s dying. But isn’t it better and less stressful to feel compassion towards the guy anyway? Him having the disease or not?

Our brain is a goal-seeking organ. Once it believes in something, when a belief is deeply seated inside the mind, it will move our muscles, makes us tick, and we go towards the things that we seek. Things that we believe in. If we believe that we can, we can. People whose belief is firm and strong, when the world contradicts their belief, they seek not to change their belief. They seek to change the world

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Suppressing Depressing Thoughts

Have you ever heard the phrase: "Jangan benci Cikgu, nanti susah nak masuk ilmu ape yang dia ajar, fail exam nanti!". Here's a scientific look:

As I mentioned in one of my post, memories are stored in chain. When we learn, we can't take in only the knowledge into our memories, but also other things associated when we study the knowledge, for example, who was teaching it, the place where you study it, the book you read it in, or even the color of the writing (that's why colorful notes work better for remembering). We store a whole chain of memories instead of just the memory of the knowledge. The same is with recalling what we've learned. When we recall what we've learn, a chain of memories are brought up into consciousness. If the first time you heard about 'Napolean Bonaparte' was when teacher A taught you, recalling facts about Napolean will automatically bring up the image of teacher A who taught you about it.

Now, here's a brain fact:

"Our brains tend to repress the memories that we find depressing"

We can see this in people who survived from post-traumatic disorder. People suffer post-traumatic disorder after going through traumatic, or painful and depressing experience. Throughout the phase of the disorder, the patient is continually in a state of depression because he or she can still remember the traumatic experience. When doctors asked about the traumatic experience, the patient can recall the event in vivid details. But our brain has a defense mechanism to overcome this depression: by attempting to forget or repress the bad memories forever. After the patient is free from the disorder, we can ask the patient to recall back the memories of the traumatic experience. Surprisingly, the patient will forget most of the experience, the details become blurry, and sometimes, the patient don't remember at all! The brain was successful in repressing the bad memories.

The details of the events was forgotten because it was chained to the memory of the traumatic event, and our brains tend to repress the memories that are depressing. So, the event, along with all the details was somewhat 'erased' from our minds.
The brain hasto do this in order for us to survive. If we voluntarily keep on replaying the bad memories, our brain will fail to impliment this defense mechanism, something wrong will happen to our brains. This can lead to schizophrenia, or in common words insanity or craziness. People who chose not to forget or let go off their traumatic memories are the ones most likely to become crazy or insane.

In learning, it is hard for us to recall what we've learned when the memory of the knowledge is chained to something that we hate or find depressing. This is especially true when we hate the person that is teaching us the knowledge, or even if we hate the environment we're studying in. Firstly, when we hate the teacher, we would most probably choose not to bother what he or she says. So one thing is that less memory is stored. Secondly, even if we do listen and try to remember what the teacher says, the memory of the knowledge is chained with the memory of the teacher. Remember that we recall in chains, so we can't recall what the teacher says without recalling the memory of the teacher. Since our brains will try to repress things that we hate or find depressing, the knowledge, along with the memory of the 'hated' teacher, will be repressed and forgotten.Same goes to the environment we study in. If we find the place or school we study in is depressing, it takes a lot more effort for us to take in and recall what we've learned. Everything is chained, so if we hate one part, the brain will try to repress the whole chain of memories, including our much needed knowledge

Thursday, May 6, 2010

On Intelligence

A quick update on what I've learned recently. Lately I've been doing much reading, which left little time for writing, but don't worry, its not like I'm going to stop writing. Isn't writing with more knowledge better?

I read in the book 'On Intelligence' by Jeff Hawkins about, well, as the title suggests: Intelligence. It states that intelligence can be defined by a simple equation:

Intelligence = Memory <-> Prediction

I'm going to elaborate a little on this. Memory is everything we store in our brains. It could be our own experience, what we've heard or seen, or what we've read. Prediction is the ability to guess accurately what will happen next. In the equation above, intelligence is the interrelatednesss of memory and prediction. We predict things based on our past memories, based on what we've experienced before. Like a medical student can predict that this patient has this disease because he read somewhere in the textbook that the symptoms of this disease fits the patient. In mathematics we learn by steps until we can solve a mathematical question. The first thing we do is memorize the steps. We repeat and memorize the steps until one point where we don't have to memorize anymore and start predicting. "Oh, I've seen this equation before, and I know how I can solve this". You start predicting and automatically know what to do next and get to the answer.
We predict at every, and even in the simplest levels, and its all based on memories. An example of everyday life is predicting your friend's voice. Your brain does this predicting unconsciously so you don't realize its happening. Even before your friend starts saying anything, your brain predicts how his voice will sound like, and when he starts to speak, your brain will acknowledge the prediction. Let's say if suddenly your friend starts to talk, and what comes out is not his voice but your Uncle's voice. Now wouldn't that be weird? Your brain feels that its prediction is violated, it will become confused, and you will start paying attention to the difference.

So basically, the more you read, the more you experience, the more memory you have. Predictions are based on past memories, hence the more memories, the more predictions you can make. Now that would make you more intelligent right? Not necessarily. Reading a lot stores a lot of memories, but without the ability to predict, the memories are for nothing. Prediction is based on past memories, but not just one or two memories. Prediction is based on the combinations of memories, because nothing in this world is exactly the same as you read it in a book, or exactly the same as your past experience. The most intelligent people in the world are not the ones who remember the most, but the ones who can relate from one memory to another, and make predictions from it. In business, the market is never stable. An intelligent businessmen won't make an investment based on what happened to the market yesterday. He makes prediction of the market tomorrow, based on the market yesterday, the day before, weeks, month, even years before. He predicts a pattern, does an analysis, and invests according to the pattern.

A good doctor is not a doctor who sit in his room all day reading textbooks. A good doctor is a doctor who routinely meet different patients with the disease, note the similarities and differences between them, detects a pattern, and predicts whether the next patient has the same disease. He predicts the course of the disease, and expects what manegement to be given next if this happens, what management to give if that happens. These predictions can't be found in textbooks. The occurences of disease is different in each and every area. A disease might be common in one place but not another. So a doctor bases his predictions not only by the textbooks he reads, but also from the area and environment of the place he works in.

Do you know the mere difference between reptiles, mammals and humans? Reptiles and other non-mammals don't have a neocortex, the layer of the brain where memories are scattered and stored. So they can't remember, so, intelligence is out of the way. Mammals have neocortex, but covers a relatively smaller area than humans brains. So, they can store memories. However, their neocortex is only 3 layers, in comparisons to humans which have 6 layers of neocortex. This difference, it shows, prevents the ability of mammals to predict. Humans, having 6 layers of neocortex, is blessed with the ability to predict.

That makes us different from animals. Non-mammals don't have memories, you can teach an iguana to use a hammer for a million years and it won't even recognize that you've been its teacher for a million years. Mammals like monkeys have memories. When taught to hammer nails again and again, they will soon learn to hammer nails, but they can't predict. So all they know is that hammer is used to hammer nails. Humans are blessed with the ability to predict. We've seen and known that hammers are used to hammer nails, but we also know that it can be used for other stuffs. Like breaking open things

So basically, without memories, we are iguanas, without the ability to predict we are monkeys, and with both the ability to remember and predict, we are intelligent human beings.

Conclusively, to be intelligent, we need to gain a lot of memories, and smart to associate them into predictions. As the equation goes:

Intelligence = Memory <-> Prediction

So go read and experience a lot of things in the world, but always intelligently associate what you've learned with one thing or another. Prediction, after all is the key to success in life. Successful businessmen predicts the market, successful architects predicts the future buildings, successful fashion designer predicts the future fashion trend, successful engineers predicts the future technology...the lists goes on and on...

Thursday, April 29, 2010

My Indonesian Friends

My Indonesian Friends

Just came back from a small farewell dinner with my Indonesian friend, Aji and Lydia. Through our conversations, we were taken back to our HNMUN days, how we missed it, and realized it has been over a year since. Most surprising is that the things we remember the most were the challenges that we faced throughout our journey. Like the suspense when I was left behind on the first flight, our troubles when we got separated and lost after visiting Liberty Island, how me and one of my friend, Hanif got stuck with the subway ticket. Me and Hanif (again) lost our money at New York. I lost it at the ATM , he lost it at the hotel room. How we me and Aji gambled through Washington looking for the hospital he was born in. Me gambling through Boston looking for the place I used to grow up in. How we walked a long way through Chinatown looking for a bus to Washington. There was much we went through; even this blog wouldn’t be enough to fit everything in.

One of the most memorable moments is when we got lost in New York and ran late for a dinner with the Indonesian Ambassador at the consulate. We were from Liberty Island and lined up for the ferry. There were about 15 of us, and we got separated when there’s only 5 space left inside the ferry and the rest of us were left behind. So we had to wait for another ferry which we waited for another 45 minutes! We went easy at first, but then realized we were already late for the dinner! Our Faculty advisors had already arrived at the Consulate and were furious that we are late.

We were already late, and once we got onto the mainland, no taxi were to be found! We walked and walked to find one, but to no avail. So we decided to take the subway. This is when me and Hanif got stuck. Remember the cool American subway in New York you see in movies. Those are not real New York Subways. Those are Hollywood subways. The New York subway we went through was ancient. It’s so old that me and Hanif got stuck at the gate. Our ticket was sucked in, but we cannot pass through. So we went to buy a new ticket, but the machine was busted! It’s bank note slot was busted, so we had to use coins, which we didn’t have, so we had to beg people to for a change of coins with our bank notes. So we passed, got onto the subway, on our way to the consulate. We ran all the way to 58th street from the subway, where the Consulate was supposed to be, but when we arrived there, no Indonesian consulate can be seen. We asked around, and nobody knew anything about an Indonesian consulate. We were puzzled and checked the message our Faculty Advisors sent to one of my friends again. It reads 68th street. 68th? we were on the 58th, that’s 10 blocks away! We were so in a rush, that we misread it! We were lucky that there were many taxi on the 58th, so we took it straight to the consulate.

When we arrived, we can see our faculty advisor’s face all red. We’re an hour late! He’s furious. But we were in the consulate, and there were VIPs, people from other Universities, and all, so we decided to play cool. But it was very awkward because everybody else was wearing blazers, batik and tuxedoes, and we were in our jackets and jeans! We were supposed to change first but because we were running late, we decided to just go straight to the event. But the best thing I remembered is that we all played it cool, and introduced ourselves to the embassy people. They were delighted we finally made it.

At the end of the dinner, there was a band playing. They play classic Frank Sinatra kinda songs. Then, they asked if any of us wanted to sing. Me and Aji has the same passion for classic songs, and one of our favorite is Frank Sinatra’s ‘Fly Me to The Moon’. We were tensed before, running all over New York, and we knew later we’d have a scolding session by our Faculty Advisor. So, why not gamble singing a song in front of everybody?

And so we did, we asked them to play ‘Fly Me to The Moon’, and we both sang together. To our surprise, the head of Indonesian consulate stood up, took his wife’s hand, and started dancing! Then, the other’s followed. Before I know it, everybody was up and dancing. It was one of the joyous night of my life! Not just that I’m not used to sing in public, but now I’m singing in an Indonesian Consulate with a whole lot of people. On our way back to our hostel, I sang Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’ all the way. Fitting isn’t it? Singing ‘New York, New York’ in New York, passing through the city lights, the glittery Times Square which never sleeps. The city that never sleeps as they say. It was beautiful indeed. Then, when we arrived, as we expected, we had a ‘scolding session’ with our faculty advisors. But we settled it okay, and were like best friends again the next day. I will always remember that night in New York

Friendships are built through the hardships we went together. Once a friendship is born, it knows no boundaries. I don’t care whatever tensions that happened or will happen between the Malaysian and Indonesian governments, I love my Indonesian friends. We went through a lot together. When I am with them, never once I felt as an outsider. Even as the only Malaysian in the team. Being together for a year, practicing every Saturday, at cozy cafĂ©’s that I love, and finally getting to the US, and safely back again. It was the best moments I had here in Indonesia.

I couldn’t believe I will be leaving very soon. 3 years has gone by, and I will be leaving my Indonesian friends for good. Who knows when we’ll meet again. Whenever that will be, I’m sure all of them will be successful people in the future. Perhaps we’ll meet again in the US, me attending an international conference, and they were there too. Only, that time we’ll be real the delegates, representing our country for real. Who knows?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Our Brains Are Made of Plastic?

Perhaps the greatest discovery of the last decade is that our brains are plastic. Neurologists call it ‘the phenomenon of brain plasticity’. Yes, our brains are made of plastic! Okay, of course not, but brain plasticity is the ability of our brains to change in response to learning and acquiring new skills and experience. So our brains are not actually a complicated super computer, but a complicated…brain! There’s nothing in the world closer to it. Unlike computer hardware which does what it does, stores memory and stuff, when a task given is overwhelming or over its maximum hardware capacity, we need to get a new hardware, or a new computer. Our brains, on the other hand, responds to the overwhelming challenge and grows accordingly.

Did you know that the brain of life-time video gamers is 13% larger than the average population?

Yes! They are larger, but…they are EMPTY. Okay, not good example. That was supposed to make you laugh. Anyway, here’s another:

Did you know that the brains of London Taxi drivers are 15% larger than London Bus drivers?

Yes, they are larger, especially at the brain area called the ‘hippocampus' where the awareness of space is processed. Scientists believe this is so because they spend much more time each day thinking of the best route to go by, compared to the bus drivers who follow a set of routine routes every day. This process of thinking and memorizing routes and places causes the brain to grow.

It has long been known that Einstein’s brain is larger than most of us, but the greatest mistake scientists of the past made is to postulate that he was born with it. Only recently, with the discovery of neuroplasticity, we know Einstein grew his brain throughout his lifetime of study and experience.

This ability of the brain to grow is remarkable, especially in the field of education and medicine. In medicine, it gives hope to those who acquired disabilities after a stroke attack. Stroke, which causes the death of a patch of brain cells, can cause paralysis of a part of the body. It has long been thought that it is permanent. But in a new rehabilitation technique, the patient's normally functioning limb is tied up (so it can’t be used). After awhile, the patient slowly gains control over the other limb which once thought to be permanently paralyzed. This hasn’t been discovered until recently because of the prior doctrine that brain cells can’t grow and most patients give up even before trying because:
  1. They become comfortable with their existing functioning limb
  2. It takes a LOT of effort to move the bad limb
  3. It takes a LONG time before we can see improvements

Perhaps the most amazing case is with the child patient known as ‘Jodi’ who underwent a ‘hemispherectomy’ at The John Hopkins Hospital in the US as a last-resort treatment for her seizure. HALF of her brain was removed. Common logic is that she would lose HALF of her brain function, paralyzed at one side, and is unable to speak. The neurosurgeon that did the operation, Dr. Benjamin Carson, also had thought of it and warned the parents of the complications. However, an amazing thing happened. She begins to speak again after a few days, and began walking after a few weeks…with half of her brain! Today, she scores straight A’s in her exams and living a relatively normal life. On brain scans, it was found out that all the functions on the part of her brain that has been removed is now transferred to the existing part of the brain, and that part of the brain grows. Isn’t that amazing? If a child with half of her brain can grow and learn normally, how about us with fully functioning brains?

Taking paralysis and the ‘bad limb’ as a metaphor, here’s what preventing us from growing our brains:
  1. We become comfortable with our existing knowledge and experience
  2. It takes a lot of effort to gain new knowledge
  3. It takes a long time to see improvements

Here’s something I found on a lecture about neuroplasticity by Dr Mark Barnes & Janae Adamson. These are the optimum environment for our brain to grow when learning:
  1. Attention / Focus – You know you’re focusing on your studies when you lose track of time, or when you don’t checkout Facebook notifications every 30 seconds
  2. Intensity – Learning which involve intense emotions are most effective. Like studying the subject you feel deeply about, for example studying heart failures because a loved one suffers from it creates an intense emotion.
  3. Timing – It takes a night’s sleep to properly organize what we have learnt. The most important ones are stored in long-term memories during this time
  4. Constraint – Like regaining control of a bad limb, we learn more effectively when going the hard way, like without using aide such as calculators, checking the answers at the back every 10 seconds. We need to struggle to grow our brains
  5. Visualization – Our unconscious brain can’t really distinguish between a memory of real experience and a vividly imagined situation. So if we visualize a skill (especially clinical skills, OSCE, for medical students), we would actually activate the part of the brain involved in actually doing the real thing
  6. Imitation – Watching a person do something activates the observer’s part of the brain involved in doing the same thing. That’s why children dance along when they see adults dancing. As we grow up, our conscious functions in the frontal area of the brain inhibits this

Friday, April 16, 2010

How Our Brain Cells Determine Our Talents

What’s the difference between the brain of the talented and the less?
Why do the world’s top athletes or musicians start young?
What’s the formula of being a Nobel-prize genius?

In one of my articles, ‘The Scientific Difference between Liking & Wanting’, I have mentioned about brain circuits. In this article, I would expand on them. Specifically, how it determines our talent, and how can we use it to improve our skills. Brain circuits consists of a few ‘wires’ we call neurons, which transmits signals from our senses to our brain. From there, the brain processes the information, decides a response and ‘wires’ back the information through another set of circuits to appropriate parts of the body. Like when you are eating hot dogs when you are supposed to be on a diet, and then your friend suddenly comes up to you and say “Hey, why are you eating? Aren’t you on a diet?” The words made its way from your ears to your brain, processes it, decides a response, and sends back signals to your hand, mouth and tongue muscles, throwing away the hot dog and say “Oh no, no, I was just looking through that hot dog. I think it’s really hot…uh…the dog…anyway, why are you here?” Your brain tries to change the topic of hot dog to distract your friend. That’s our brain, it’s smart.

A neuron is like a wire cut off at both ends where at each end will be the shrub of shiny coppers sprouting out from the plastic insulator at the middle. In neurons, these ends are called dendrites on one end, and synaptic knobs on the other. In between those is the long part of the wire we call axon. Most neuron don’t have axons long enough to make it all the way to the brain. So the synaptic knobs connect to the dendrites of another neuron by small divisions called synapse (like soldering ends of wires to make it longer) until it reaches the brain. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer a neuron as a ‘wire’, and synapses as ‘wire connector’.

Unlike fishes or worms, most of our wires can’t be grown again after childhood. Logically, the more wires we have, the faster, the more accurate we respond, right? However, the good news is, we can always add more ‘wire connectors’. We don’t really have to grow new wires. These wires form basic function, like lifting your hand, or tilting your head (even a baby can do that). Scientists believe that even if we have the brain of a fish, we can still button our shirts! But that’s as long as we add wire connectors. Fishes don’t have much wire connectors like in humans, hence they don't wear shirts. Adding more wire connectors will strengthen the connection. In science we call this ‘synaptic plasticity’, the strengthening of synaptic connections. A strengthened connection allows you to respond faster, more accurate, and with less effort.

Now here is how wire connectors work:
  1. The more we use the wire, the more wire connectors are built
  2. The more wire connectors there are, the stronger the wire connections
  3. The stronger the wire connections, the faster and more precise the connection signals
  4. The faster and precise the connection signals, the less aware you are that you are using them

Remember, wires are just parts of a circuit. So when a circuit is used, not only one, but a few bunch of wires gets stronger. The last two points are the most profound. It holds the key to our talents, to being an Olympic athlete, a world-class musician, or a Nobel-prize winner. Now let’s go back to the questions:

What’s the difference between the brain of the talented and the less?
Why do the world’s top athletes or musicians start young?
What’s the formula of being a Nobel-prize genius?

To answer these questions we’ll need real-life proof. Let us start with Tiger Woods. Taking scandals aside, Tiger Woods is no doubt the world’s greatest golfer. However, he didn’t turn into a world champion overnight. He became a champion after decades of brain wire strengthening. There is no doubt that he started playing golf when he was very young, but how young? It was accounted that at the age of 5 months, Tiger started watching his dad play golf on a baby chair. By 9 months, his father made him a sawed-off golf club which he could handle. By 1 year old, he started going to golf courses. At 2, he already won Under Age 10 golfing competition. After the age of 11, he surpassed his father’s skill, and was never again beaten by his dad in golf. He won his first national junior tournament at the age of 13. I guess I do not need to keep on. You get the point from here. The question is not ‘what else did he won?’ but ‘what was happening inside his brain?’

Playing golf involve complex movements, requiring precise coordination between the mind and muscles. When I say complex movements, it means that it involves a lot of muscle-brain circuits. For example, the one controlling hand movements, the one maintaining the hip positions and the ones keeping the eyes on the ball. Everything needs to be precisely coordinated. However, as stated before, the more we use these wires, the more connections are built, the stronger, faster and more precise the connections, and hence, the less aware he is that he’s using it. Remember the first time you try to play the guitar, piano or learn dancing? It was a struggle wasn’t it? You need a lot of effort. You need to be so attentive to the movements of your hands, your fingers or your feet. But after hours and hours of practicing it feels less of an effort, until you reach a stage where you can play a song or dance and talk to your friend at the same time. That’s because the wire connectors inside your brain have become strong enough that you start doing the movements automatically. We call this 'automaticity'. Once you have reached automaticity, you don’t need to pay enormous amount of attention on what your muscles do. Hence, allowing you to play music or dance while paying attention to other things, like talking to your friend. That is exactly what happened to Tiger Woods.

Since 5 months old, Tiger has started strengthening his connections, at the age of 13, he already perfected his craft, with connections as solid as steel. By that time, the complex movements of hitting the golf ball ceases to be an enormous effort. It’s already automatic, and when that is combined with focused attention, he starts shooting like a machine. Tiger keeps on winning because he has an advantage over others: he has strong wire connectors since young, and all he has to do is keep on practicing to keep ahead of others. There are many other world-class athletes that start young. Roger Federer starts playing tennis at six. Lionel Messi started playing soccer at five. This is not limited to sports. Mozart started composing his first piece at 4. Jimi Hendrix started playing the guitar at 10. Each and everyone of them started stimulating their wires at a young age, and day by day strengthening them to perfection so that when they reach adulthood, they’re already the master of their art.

Now do not be disappointed when I said that most of them start young, thinking that it is too late for you. The essence of what I have explained earlier is not actually starting young, but spending a whole lot of time honing your craft more than anyone else. For example, before the rise of The Beatles, there were many other bands that started playing young. However, The Beatles went the extra mile by playing for 8 hours a day even before their first hit single, strengthening their ‘music wire connectors’ each and every minute they play. Soon, they surpassed the abilities other bands which mostly played 3 to 4 hours a day. Pablo Picasso once did a painting in 2 minutes and sold it worth millions of dollars. When asked how he created the masterpiece in just 2 seconds, he answered: “It took me 20 years of practice to do that painting in 2 seconds’. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the founders of Sun Microsystems were given access computer at a time when computer access is limited to others, allowing them to strengthen their wire connections long before others. Today, they are the big players in the computer industry.

Hence, it is apparent in that world-class achievers either start young or spent countless hours on the things they’re focused to. ‘Focused’ means that they aim to be the master of one, instead of being the jack of all. Tiger Woods never changed his focus to tennis. Federer never tried to be a musician. Bill Gates never wanted to join the bands. They are all focused on the things they like and good at. They focused on it like crazy, strengthening their wire connectors related to their craft. As what Robin Sharma, the author of the bestselling book ‘The Monk Who Sold his Ferarri’ once wrote:

Daily improvement + focus = genius

It means find something that you like and focus on it, improving it each and every day. It doesn't have to be golf, tennis, or music. It could be literature, business, science or even Lego-building. You can become a genius in any field you want by applying the formula. So, what kind of genius you want to be in the future? Start practicing today. Nothing is too late. If you practice and improve every day, no matter how little, in 5 to 10 years from now, you will become a world-class achiever. When that day comes, I'd be happy to hear from you

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Memory Recall & Prejudice

How can an expert doctor deduce a diagnosis even from the moment a patient enters the room?
Do you know that when you judge someone you barely know, you are actually judging someone else you already knew before?

In my last post, I have explained that memory is better stored when we use multiple circuits together. Today, I will explain about memory retrieval. How do we recall the memory we have stored, and what it has to do with intuition, wild guess, and even prejudice. First, here’s an experimental view. For long, scientist has thought of a specific cell in the brain which stores memory. Like when you remember a news article you read yesterday, it is stored in a cell in your brain, so that when we remove that area by operation, you’d lose the memory. They later discovered that memory doesn’t work that way by this experiment:

In the 1920s, a scientist by the name of Karl Lashley believed that there is a certain area of the brain which stores memory. So, he tried to destroy different parts of the brain of rats. Beforehand, the rats were trained to go through a maze with a cheese at the end. In other words, the rats were able to remember the route to the end of the maze without ever encountering blind ends. After destroying the parts of the brain, and the rats going through the maze, his hypothesis were accepted, all rats forgot how to get to the end of the maze, encountering more blind ends.

However, something puzzled him. He destroyed DIFFERENT parts of the brain in every rats in search of this ‘memory cell’, but the problem is, EVERY rat, no matter where their parts of brain destroyed is, forgot their way to the end of the maze! In other words, no matter where they destroy the area, they still forget. So, where is this memory cell? This experiment failed to locate a specific area or cell for memory storage, but what it discovered is much more intriguing: There is no such thing as a specific cell or area for memory storage and memory is actually a link of different brain circuits scattered throughout the brain. Memory is everywhere inside our brains. When we recall a fact, we don’t activate a single ‘memory cell’ located somewhere in our brains, we activate many cells scattered throughout our brains. That’s why destroying any parts of the brain affects memory. It is not the memory cell is destroyed; it’s the brain circuit that is destroyed

Confused? Let me explain further. Lashley’s student, Donald Hebb expended his teacher’s experiments and came out with a few findings. Hebb proposed that memory is an interconnection of brain circuits, and the activation of one circuit activates another. He also deduced, from the experiment done by his teacher, memories are stored in different parts of the brain depending on the senses used. For example, what we see is stored in the visual cortex, a part of the brain. What we hear is stored in the auditory cortex, a different part of the brain. Let’s take an example. Let’s say you’re in a lecture and your teacher gave you an important fact you would later remember. During memory recall the next day, you cannot ‘extract’ only hearing what your teacher has said. It is ‘linked’ with seeing the teacher, so the image of the teacher will also come out in your mind. Unless you didn’t look at the teacher when she explains, now that’s rude, isn’t it?

As I have explained in my previous post, memory is stored better when we combine different circuits, like seeing and hearing circuits. So we remember better if we see and hear at the same time, rather than just hearing, because those memories are linked, and activation of one activates another, creating a stronger memory and recall. Another example is the perfume your mother always wears. When you smell that perfume again somewhere across the globe, the image of your mother would come out, won’t it? That’s because one circuit activates another, so when the memory from ‘smelling circuit’ is activated, it automatically activates the ‘seeing circuit’, hence the image of your mother. The amazing thing about this is that even the SMALLEST stimulus that activates the SMALLEST circuit will activate other LARGER circuits, like a domino effect, allowing you to reassemble the whole picture in your mind.

Now what does this has to do with the great doctor and the stranger? Let’s start with the doctor. This link of one circuit towards another is called ‘engrams’. The linking of circuits doesn’t only apply to ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’. It also links between past memory circuits. As I said before, even the SMALLEST stimulus that activates the SMALLEST circuit will activate other LARGER circuits, like a domino effect, creating a large picture. An expert doctor is a doctor with years and years of training and experience. In his brains, memories circuits of different types of diseases he has seen are scattered throughout his brain. So, from the moment a patient enters his room, a single, even the smallest detail in the patient, could trigger a whole lot of memory. Like the drooping eyelid, the puffy face, the aching gait, the rapid breathing, anything! One symptom relates to another, so the doctor starts looking at the skin appearance, the color of the eyes, and so on, without even touching the patient. All this happens even without the doctor thinking. It just comes out like a torrent of water. That’s what I call thinking without thinking. So usually, the most expert of doctors already know the diagnosis beforehand. But of course, we need to be sure. We can’t confirm the diagnosis without properly examination of the patient. We’d get sued!

This linking of circuits can be very useful, but it’s like a double-bladed sword, where it has its disadvantages. Here comes the story of Big Bob:

Big Bob is a large, hulking figure. Like the one you see in wrestling shows. Everyday, Big Bob goes to work at a local factory by the same bus, with the same driver. This driver is the opposite of Bob. He’s small, skinny, frail, and a little bit judgmental. Everyday, the driver would pick up Big Bob, and every time he enters, he will say to the driver “BIG BOB DOESN’T PAY!”. The driver, small and skinny as he is, didn’t want trouble. He’s actually afraid of Big Bob, so he let him ride the bus for free. This went on for years, until one day, the driver had financial problems, and was so stressed that morning. Then, he picked up Big Bob, and, as usual, Big Bob will say: “BIG BOB DOESN’T PAY!” With the financial problem the driver was having, he couldn’t take it anymore and shouted to Big Bob: “Who do you think you are?! You think just because you’re big and all muscular, you’d get a ride for free?? Everyone pays, including you, BOB!” Confused why the driver got so angry at him, Big Bob says:

“Big Bob doesn’t pay because Big Bob got a monthly pass”, and showed the driver his pass, which he always wore on his belt.

So, the essence of this story is prejudice. Here’s how it is related to engrams. As I said before, a memory circuit will activate another. When we see a big, muscular man like Big Bob, we’d tend to remember the violent, bullying wrestlers we saw on TV. Big Bob ain’t a wrestler, but when we see one, the image of violence in the TV with someone big and muscular like Big Bob will appear. Because our memory circuits are interconnected automatically. We didn’t choose to be that way, but its biologically meant to be. Scientists even did an experiment where beforehand, the subjects, who were white people, were specifically told not to be judgmental or prejudice. They were shown many pictures of a white man and a black man for ONE SECOND, and push in a button labeled “GOOD” and “BAD” as fast as they could. These people were known not to be prejudice, they are highly educated scholars, and plus, specifically were told not to be prejudice. But when they started showing pictures of black people, they still, press the ‘BAD’ button most of the time, and this happens to everyone in the experiment. They only got one second to press the button, so they don’t really have the time to think. So when our conscious mind doesn’t work, the unconscious takes over, where memories of black people we see in Hollywood movies comes out, the articles about criminals by the black people. We consciously choose not to be prejudice, but our mind actually doesn’t. Our mind depends on our memories, which are interconnected to one another.

The same goes for judging someone you barely knew. Simply put, when you judge someone you don’t really know, you tend to link him or her to someone similar that you’ve already known before. Like a women who has relationship troubles with men in the past would associate other men with the one she knew before. It’s just like the case of Big Bob. That’s how first impressions lead us.

So, taking things back home, after reading all these crazy stuff I wrote, what do you think of me? Who do you link me to? Well, I’m sorry to say, you can’t judge me from my writings, cause you’ll soon realize that what you judge is really someone you already knew. When you meet me in person, you’ll see that I am a whole different person than you previously thought

Sunday, April 11, 2010

How our memory works and how to remember better

Why do we easily remember some facts but not another?
Why do we remember more what we did on last New Year’s Eve than what we do 3 days ago?
How do we improve our memory?

Most people with great memories aren’t really good ‘rememberers’, they are great ‘associators’. Have you’ve seen one of those colored pen advertisements saying that by using those colored pens to make notes, you’ll remember 70% more? It’s not really the color that makes you remember more, it’s the association between the words and the color. For example, let’s say in a biology note you wrote the word ‘chlorophyll’ in green. Your brain registers both the word and color together through different circuits which end at the same part of the brain. Firing through two circuits makes the signal stronger, which in the end, is stored in the brain better. Like making a dent on a piece of steel, hammering with both hands creates a deeper dent compared to using just one hand. So is using 2 of your brain circuits, like in this case the language circuit (for the word chlorophyll) and color recognition circuit (for the color green). The more circuits are fired, the deeper the memory is embedded in our brains.

Now that’s only the association of language (the words) and color. It doesn’t have to be only 2 circuits. The more circuits are fired together, the deeper the memory is embedded. There are unlimited other association, like associating the information with shape by drawing, with sound by reading out loud, or, most profoundly, is by associating it with emotion. Do you remember the details of the dullest day of your life? The days where you’re neither really happy nor sad, you just have nothing to do. All you do is stay on your bed or looking out the window watching the day pass by? Chances are you won’t. But if I ask you to remember the happiest or the saddest day of your life, I believe you can come up with more details. Like the people you talked to, the clothes that you wore, and the people you’ve encountered. Emotion plays an important role in memorization. It’s like the heaviest hammer there is. One strike creates a deep, deep dent. One emotion circuit firing makes a deeply embedded memory. We remember our happy days, and also the worst days of our lives because it is associated with our emotions. To take advantage of it, we can remember more when reading the things that interest and excite us. Remember that you remember all the storyline and how the character in the comic book you like ended up? But you can’t remember the storyline of that historical event you consider boring? That’s memory and emotion in action.

One way to make remembering fun is by eliciting emotional responses by imagination. For example, if you’re required to remember that the main exports of a certain country is coffee, sugarcane and bananas, imagine yourself drinking coffee added with sugar (processed from sugarcane) while eating bananas. That’s really weird and somewhat funny isn’t it? Who drinks coffee with bananas? But that, is what stimulates our emotional response, and makes us remember better. I know it takes time to think of those kinds of associations but the effects on memory are profound!

So, like it or not, to pass exam, you either have to like what you read, or keep on repeating them until it creates a deep ‘memory dent’ inside your brain. Oh, I haven’t explained to you about repetition? Repetition is reading again and again the information that you read. This is really a boring way to memorize, but it works. It’s like you repeatedly hammer a piece of steel, the more you hammer it, the deeper the dent is. Luckily, I do have a technique which is much more effective than just reading repeatedly, but takes a little more effort. Here’s how. The conventional way of note-writing is like this:

“The heart is a muscular organ found in all animals with a circulatory system (including all vertebrates), that is responsible for pumping blood throughout the blood vessels by repeated, rhythmic contractions”

Man, that’s dull, so here’s another way of writing:

“The heart is a ________ organ found in all animals with a ________ system (including all _________), that is responsible for pumping _____ throughout the blood vessels by repeated, ___________ contractions”

Isn’t this familiar? It’s like “fill in the blanks with the correct answer” in primary school! Anyway, first, you read the full text. Then you make a note like the above. Now, the most important part is you leave out the words that are critical to remember. Like ‘circulatory’ or 'rhythmic'. It doesn’t make sense to leave out the word ‘the’ or 'with' does it? This is not an English prepositions test! The trick is like this, on the next page, you fill in the answers to those blank spots
  • muscular
  • circulatory
  • vertebrates
  • blood
  • rhythmic
So, the next time you read the note, you try to remember what the correct word for the blank spots is. If you cannot remember, halt it, don’t turn to the next page! Take a guess! After you have taken guesses of all the answers, then you turn to the next page. If your answer is correct, you will stimulate your emotion of happiness. Yay! But, if you got it wrong, don’t worry. Because you took the guess instead of just looking at the answer, you in a way telling your brain that “Hey, you’re giving out the wrong facts here!”. The brain will register the error, and, as a result will make you remember the answer better. Better yet if you gave the wrong answer because you are confusing it with another fact. That mistake will clear up the confusion. As they say, we learn more from our mistakes.

So, by doing this kind of note-writing, you don’t have to make the mistakes in the exams. Make the mistakes now, in your room, so that when you enter the exam hall, you’ve already done enough mistakes to make you a perfect scorer! (You might ask why not just buy an exercise book, do the exercise and check your own answers instead of painstakingly writing those ‘fill in the blanks notes’. But if you’re asking this question you might be a primary or high-school student. In university, we don’t have many exercise books to test our knowledge. Lecturers like to write slides and slides of presentation and expect us to remember word by word. They don’t like to do exercise books. So this is one of the way)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

On weight gain, weight loss and diet

Why is it for those who are overweight, losing weight seems to be the hardest thing? Why is it for those who are underweight, gaining weight seems to be as hard? Why is it, after successfully losing or gaining a few kg of weight, after a few weeks, we’re back at our previous weight?

There are many factors for these, including genetics and environment. However, the strongest tendency factor lies in your childhood. Most people knows that excess energy are stored in our body as fat, but many are also are mislead by believing that fats are just stored under the skin, the more fat it is, the more it is distributed under the skin. This is not so, if so, we would not have our body shape, and most of us would look stupendously dull, if you know what I mean. However, most important of this fact is that it holds the answer to the questions above:

Why is it for those who are overweight, losing weight seems to be the hardest thing?
Why is it for those who are underweight, gaining weight seems to be as hard?

Fats are not merely deposited under the skin surface. Fats are stored inside containers we call ‘adipocytes cell’, which are distributed throughout our body in different density. It means that there are more adipocyte cells in your hips than your arms. These fat containers, once we grow up as adults, are almost never added, except in extreme, and I mean extreme weight gains. So, the more fat there is to be stored, the more these containers expand themselves. In our childhood, however, the case is different. When we were a child, when our mama feed us with all of those delicious foods, extra energy are still stored as fat in these containers. However, different than in adults, once these containers are full, they will divide into two, doubling the number of container. This occurs throughout childhood that when it comes to early adolescent, the number or fat containers determine how much fat can be stored in the body for life!

Hence, for those ‘generating’ many fat containers during childhood (children who are overweight) have the tendency to continue becoming obese in their adult life because there are many fat containers to store fat compared to those children who are not overweight. For children who are underweight, however, will have a hard time gaining weight because there’s not much of these fat containers when they reach adolescence. Hence, the only way to gain weight is to fill in these containers, and expand them, which is, logically, harder compared when you already have many fat containers and all you have to do is fill them in.

So, there it is, try to recall, what shape were you in when you were a child? It may be too late for us to change the number of fat containers in our body, but now that you know this, stop your uncles, aunties or anyone you know from overfeeding their child. Tell them it will affect them throughout their life. Get rid of the myth that 'a fat child is a healthy child'. Well, maybe for the time being, but what about when he or she grows up?

Now there arise another question on why is it, after successfully losing or gaining a few kg of weight, after a few weeks, we’re back at our previous weight? Here I’m going to introduce you to a messenger released from fat stored in the containers called ‘leptin hormone’. These messengers are continuously released from the fat containers and enter our blood, eventually arriving at the brain. Here, this messenger leptin will tell the brain to “eat less, eat less!”

Now what happens when we successfully lose a few kg? The less fat there are in the containers, the less leptin are produced, and hence there are fewer messengers to tell the brain to “eat less!” The brain, now that no one tells him to eat less, will, of course, eat more! We may not be conscious of this, because our brain works in mysterious, unconscious way. It may manifests as the snacks we unconsciously nibble while watching TV (we call this mindless eating), or the ‘little bit’ more portion of rice we scoop into our plates, thinking “Owh, I’ve lost a few weight, a little more rice now wouldn’t hurt”. This happens until we reach our previous weight, which is our ‘set point’. This set point is the weight that our body thinks is the ‘normal weight’ although it doesn't seem normal to you. It is set ever since we became adults. Haven’t you realize that your weight stays the same most of the time ever since you reach adulthood? (But mind you, you will, however slowly gain weight once you start aging. It’s because your metabolism decreases, but that’s another story)

The same goes for hard-gainers. Once they have successfully gain weight, the more fat there will be in the fat containers, and the more messenger leptin will be produced. Hence, telling the brain to “eat less!”, and the brain follow orders, and you, although unconsciously, obey to the leptin’s orders too.

Here I will come to a conclusion. You might be disappointed upon reading this post, hoping that I would provide ‘miracle’ scientific knowledge on how to lose or gain weight. I’m sorry to tell you that there is none. Naturally, at least. There are many drugs and procedures that can make you lose weight, but I am not going to recommend you any. There are far too much risk in those. So to get your perfect weight, you need to work for it! You need to consciously go against the unconscious orders to eat more. We can control our unconscious by constantly being aware of our actions. After successfully losing a few weight, there’s no ‘bonus’ that you’re allowed to eat more. Beware of those latent snacks by the TV. Most importantly, go exercise! Everyone understands that the formula for weight loss is ‘energy used is more than energy consumed’, but very few put that in practice. So, go jogging, cycling, swimming, play soccer, anything that uses much energy. It doesn’t has to be boring. Do what you like. If you like basketball, then, play basketball! ‘Nuff said.

For hard gainers, instead of depending on the fat to grow more, you can resort to grow muscles. Muscles are 2 times heavier than fat. Get the myth out of your head that ‘to grow muscles, you need to grow fat first. Because fat is the one that will transformed into muscles’. That’s completely misleading! Fat and muscles are completely different type of cells, and you don’t need one to grow another. ‘Nuff said. All you need is enough protein, which can be gained by our daily intake of meat, chicken or fish. So go ahead, try weight lifting. Some women out there might be thinking “No way I’m gonna lift weights and have to bulky bodies which looks like men”. They are mislead by the myth that if women lift weight, their body will become bulky like men. The fact is, no, women won’t be bulky like men unless you go for extreme weight lifting, like the ones they used in Olympics. In women, the amount of ‘testosterone hormone’, or the hormone that grows muscle, is much much less. Plus, the shape of a male and female’s muscle are slightly different, so you won’t end up like shaping like men (unless, as I said before, you go for the ‘ala Olympics weight lifting). However, don’t forget to put in other exercise such as jogging or cycling in your routine. It helps the heart to function better. Weight lifting does not help much for the heart.

So, there it is, weight loss, weight gain, and the science behind it. For all those struggling to achieve the perfect weight, keep up the good work and never give up! Hope that helps!

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Difference between Liking and Wanting

Do you know that when you like someone, your brain doesn’t necessarily want him/her? Conversely, do you know that your brain can want something that you don’t even like?

Is there a difference between wanting and liking? Only within the last decade, scientists have found out that there is. Here’s a simple explanation. Everything from outside is perceived by our senses, the sight, smell, sound, and taste of it. From there, it goes on its way to the brain through a few circuits (we called it neuronal pathway), which once have reached the brain, will elicit our response, such as liking, wanting or hating. Neurologists have this device which can detect the active circuits (the circuits that are being used). For example, if you see a flower and you like it, the circuit from your senses into your brain will light up. Many people thought that liking and wanting are the same. It makes sense, doesn’t it? For example, you want a cheeseburger because you like it. You want to play basketball because you like it. For many years, scientists thought of it too, but a failed experiment revealed it’s wrong.

An experiment was done on rats and primates, in which the ‘want circuit’, the circuit which is activated when you want something, is cut off. Scientist believed that this will suppress their ‘wants’ towards food, so that the rats wouldn’t have an effect towards the presentation of food (in this experiment, a cheese). But what they discovered was surprising. The rats instead still move towards the food like a hungry animal, but once it came close to the cheese, the rat just stayed there and didn’t eat it! They tried moving the cheese, and still, the rat moves towards the cheese, but then just stayed there, not eating it. It totally puzzled the scientists. So they used the device to detect the brain circuits, and realized that although the ‘wants circuit’ is cut off, another circuit which ends at the same area of the brain lights up. Now this is the discovery of the ‘like circuit’. The scientists concluded that there are different circuits in the brain for ‘liking’ and ‘wanting’.

A rat that move towards a cheese, but does not eat it

This finding explains much of our unexplainable behavior. Like why do smokers still smoke though they know it’s bad. Why we’d really like to wake up early in the morning, but turned off the alarm and went back to sleep anyway. Why everybody wants to be successful, but only some really do something about it. Why drug addicts repeatedly inject themselves with morphine, although it is painful. Why is it that we can like someone, but we don’t necessarily want him or her. Why some severely battered wife still sticks with her abusing husband?

It’s all about the distinction between ‘liking’ and ‘wanting’. Ask the smokers, they might say that they don’t really like the act of smoking, but they want to smoke anyway. However, saying that wanting and liking signals goes through different pathways in the brain, it doesn’t mean that they fire off separately on different occasions. In fact, most of the time, they fire simultaneously. That’s why when we want to eat, we’d eat what we like. When we want to play, we’d play what we like to play. We must remember that those two pathways end up at the same part of the brain. Hence, when both pathways fire together, it creates a greater response! In the case of addiction, however, the substances in the drugs or cigarette alters the brain chemistry, so that the ‘want circuit’ is fired more.

So, taking this finding into daily lives, I’d that if you want something in your life, fire off both of your ‘like’ and ‘want’ circuits. If you want something, make sure you really like it, or it won’t work. Don’t become a doctor only because your family told you so. You must be willing to like it in order for you to want it. Or else, sure you’ll become a doctor, but most probably, an average one, unless on the way you find medicine very interesting and start liking it. Do the things that you like, and success will follow On the other hand, if you like something, don’t say that you’d like it. Say that you WANT it. Don’t say “I’d like to be a world-known architect’, say “I WANT to be a world-known architect”. If you like something, deeply want it. Do something. Fire off both of your ‘want’ and ‘like’ circuits! That, my friend, separates the daydreamers and the achievers. CheerioS!

Research paper:

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Overcoming Fear

“We come this way but once. We can either tiptoe through life and hope that we get to death without being too badly bruised, or we can live a full, complete life achieving our goals and realizing our wildest dreams”

Bob Proctor, self-made millionaire

A child showing fear

Fear is a natural emotional respond towards a threat, such as pain and danger. It is innate, which means that it is there since the day we were born, and it is there in every human beings anywhere, at anytime. It exists in the age where sabre-tooth tiger still roam the earth, and it still exist today in the modern world. The thing is, unlike 3000 years ago where sabre-tooth tiger could be lurking anywhere around the bush, the threats we face today are rarely life-threatening. Some of our fears aren’t even justifiable (a research done shows that 90% of what we fear and worry about never happens!), but the emotional respond towards it is the same as being face to face with a sabre-tooth tiger. We fear taking responsibilities, speaking in public, starting on a new project, asking for a raise, taking that exam, leaving a job that you hate, or even talking to that girl (or guy) that you feel that you’d spend the rest of your life with. I’m going to take speaking in public for example. Some people equate the thought of it to impending death (I’m serious). Just by thinking about it, a burst of adrenaline rushes through our veins, our hearts beats faster, our breaths become shallow, our hands become cold. This is our body response towards fear. Many people let these natural responds stop them from achieving their wildest dreams. Most people know that effectively conveying their ideas to others in a meeting, or in a speech, is necessary step towards a achieving their success, but because of fear, like a caveman confronted with a sabre-tooth tiger, they run away.

Now here’s the science behind fear. Fear, along with joy, sadness and anger are part of our basic or innate emotions. They are controlled by a small part of our brain called the amygdala.

The amygdala, in relation to other parts of the brain involved in fear response

Research has shown rats with toxoplasmosis, or simply put, a rat infected by a parasite that destroys their brain, specifically the amygdala, show less fear, including towards cats. (I think in the cartoon show ‘Tom & Jerry’, Jerry had his amygdala destroyed by toxoplasmosis). This behavior, as a consequence, makes them easily caught and eaten by cats. That’s lucky for the parasite, which uses cats as their permanent home. So what if we destroy our ‘fear centre’ in the amygdala so we’d be well on our way towards success? Yes, we’d be able to speak in public effortlessly, we’d leave the jobs that we hate in pursuit for a better one, and we’d go on and talk to that girl who we’d spend the rest of our lives with. However, we’d also be jumping out of skyscrapers without a parachute on a daily basis, believing we could fly, we’d go on for a leisure walk, found out and find a big fat guy across the street, and tell him: “Hey, I think you’re big, fat, and stupid”, and get a punch right in the face. So you see, destroying our fear doesn’t work. Fear is necessary. Yes, it is necessary, but don’t let it stop you from doing the things that are necessary for a better life!

So how do we overcome fear and do the necessary steps toward a better life? The first step is to realize that your fear is actually unfounded (skip this step if your fear is life-threatening, like the fear of jumping off an airplane without a parachute, or the fear of jumping into a pool full of crocodiles at the zoo). In 2004, a research was done at Columbia University where two groups of people were shown fear stimuli (like pictures of vampires, snakes, spiders, ghosts, you name it!) for different periods of times. One group, let’s name this group A, was shown the picture so fast and short in duration, that they didn’t get the chance to really observe and consciously think about them. The other, group B, was shown for a little longer period of time, giving the subject a little more time to consciously perceive the pictures. Researchers observed that the people in group B experienced less ‘fear activity’ in the amygdala. They are less fearful, although the fear stimuli is the same! Fear is almost entirely autonomic, or in other words, we don’t consciously trigger it. However, the research suggests that we can consciously control our fear responses by thinking and justifying the fear itself. The people in group B are less fearful because they consciously think and justify their fear and think: "This is not worth all the fear, they're just pictures", while the people in group A didn’t get the chance to do that. They rely on the autonomic fear response. This helps 3000 years ago when it is practical to just run away instead of observing the color of the sabre-tooth tiger, and what a sharp teeth it has, but today, running away from our daily fears is usually not live-saving. The monumental research on fears and our conscious control over it can be viewed here:

So taking it into our daily lives, justify your fears. What would happen if you ask for that raise? The worst thing could happen is that you got rejected, and you’re salary is as it was before. No boss has ever cut an employee’s salary simple because he asked for a raise. You lose nothing. At least you tried, and your boss knows you wanted a raise, and would think about it in the future. What would happen if you asked someone out for a lunch, and you got rejected? You don’t have anyone to have lunch to begin with, and again, you lose nothing, and surely, you’re not dead! So think and justify your fears, tell your brain that it is okay to do scary things that’s necessary for a better you. When we think carefully about our fears instead of just letting it run its autonomic course, the ‘fear activity’ inside our amygdala decreases. We feel less fearful, and ready to take on life’s challenge!

Skeptical aren’t you? You may say: “I think it’s the 100th time I told myself I can speak in public, but how come I still can’t? What should I do?!” For some people, the above technique works, but for some other people, nothing else can be done but, in the words of the psychologist Susan Jeffers:

“Feel the fear and do it anyway”

If you can’t control your fears, so what, as long as you know what you’ll do is not life-threatening, feel the fear and do it anyway! Once you feel the fear and take the actions anyway, you’ll realize, right in the face, that your fears are unjustified. For instance, most people going on a roller coaster for the first time experience extreme fear. But once they did it a few times, they begin to feel the fun and joy in doing it and begin to say “Hey, that was so much fun, let’s do it again!” Now let’s see the science behind this. Going deeper into this structure we call amygdala, there is and area called the median forebrain bundle, or MFB in short. This is where we process our ‘rewards and punishment’. Reward, is when we get something that induces joy. For example, a mother taking a child out for an ice cream for helping her clean up the house. The ice cream is the reward for the action of ‘helping clean up the house’. This is processed by the child's MFB, and stimulates the amygdala to produce a feeling of joy. As a result, the child ends up doing more of the action (in this case, cleaning up the house) in the future, to get more rewards (ice cream). This is proven by experiments done on rats. In a rat cage, a lever is connected to an electrode, which in turn is connected to the MFB area of the rat’s brain. Every time this lever is pressed; it will stimulate the rat’s MFB. Soon, the rat will learn that pressing on the lever induces a satisfying feeling, or perhaps joy (we’ll never know what a rat feels), and it keeps on pressing on the lever again and again over 3000 times, ignoring the needs for food and sleep! How profound are our need for rewards and joy.

A rat electrically stimulated at the MFB area when it presses on the lever. It was reported that the rat repeatedly presses the leaver over 3000 times, ignoring food and sleep

Now let’s apply that science in real life. If you finally gather the courage to speak in public, felt the fear, but went on to speak anyway, how many people would tell you: “Dude, that was total disaster! I’ll never want to hear you speak in public again, go back to your cave or something!” Almost never, most people would complement your courage, tell you you’re good, tell you the things you could improve on, or by the least, say nothing. When you realize that the fear of speaking in public is unfounded, and it feels quite good to have your ideas across to everyone, little by little, you’ll feel the joy in it. Your brain will perceive it as a reward, and like a mouse in the cage experiment, you’d want to do it again and again! The clichĂ© ‘first step is the hardest’ is true, but once you overcome the fear of the first step, nothing else will stop you.

So there it is, overcoming fear and the science behind it. As a conclusion, I’d like to say that running away from your fears is so 3000 year ago, so come on man let’s get out into this world! Life is too short to be living in fear.

Taking it home: I’ve always dreamed of being a doctor who inspires others towards a better life and a better health, mind and body. Writing and medicine are both my passion, so I’ve found that the right medium for achieving what I wanted is through writing. However, I still have my fears. Its natural isn’t it? I’m afraid if what I’ve written is too complicated, or didn’t make sense at all to you. So, if you sincerely find what I have written interesting or motivating, please leave a comment and stimulate my amygdala to produce joy, and, in the near future, do more of these writings. Thanks!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Craziest Journey...Ever!

The Takeoff

Have you’ve ever experienced a moment of total devastation, and then suddenly came a miracle, you couldn’t believe it you’d want to cry or laugh out hysterically?

I have

It was a fine morning on the 9th of February 2009. It was a date I’ve been waiting for over a year, ever since I received one of the most gleeful SMS informing my selection as one of the delegates to represent Indonesia to the Harvard National Model United Nations 2009 in Boston, USA. Our flight to the US was in the evening, and little I know, just a few moments before take-off, a series of unfortunate event waits.

By evening all 15 of us gathered at the Jakarta airport. We all got our documents ready for inspection. When the time for boarding comes, we lined up to have our passports checked. I was the only Malaysian in the group, so I was the only one lining up in the ‘Foreign Passports’ row. By the time I got to the Immigrations officer, the other delegates had already passed the checkpoint. I was the last, and as if I was not delayed enough, it took a long while for the officer to inspect my passport. “Is there a problem, Sir?” I asked, realizing that it was taking a lot more time than usual. “Yes…where is your Re-entry Permit?”. “My what?”… It took me awhile, but then I got the idea of what he’s asking. That was when my heart starts to beat really fast.

“Owh God! How could I forget!” I totally overlooked an important document I’m supposed to get. I was too dependent on the faculty advisors that I left all the documents handling to them. I thought everything was settled, but I forgot the fact that I there was one document I’m supposed to settle as a foreign national. The faculty advisors also overlooked it, but they are not to blame since this is the first time ever they’re having a foreign student as a delegate. I could feel the adrenaline rushing through my vein when the officer told me this:

“You have to return back to Bandung, and get the documents settled in the morning”.

Return back to Bandung and get it settled in the morning? I’m on my way to one of the most important conferences in my life, a conference I’ve prepared for over a year, a conference I’ve worked my ass for, every single day of the last 9 months, and you tell me to come back tomorrow morning? One thing is that I would definitely miss my flight, second, I would have to reschedule my flight, which could be a great hassle, and the third thing is that it would definitely cost me more money as if I have not spend much enough for this trip. Fourth, and most importantly, it would mean I’d miss 1 or 2 days of the conference, and the conference is only for 3 days! I told myself: “I’ve been waiting so long for this, and I can’t just let this happen!” Me and my faculty advisors tried to talk this out with the officers, but they insisted on me getting the documents. I wouldn’t want them to miss their flights as well, so I told them to just go on without me, and convince them I’ll catch up later. So they all went on the plane, leaving me behind, all alone...

Devastated, I sat on the floor, waiting for my luggage to be returned to me, thinking of my ultimate bad luck. I was scared that there will be no more vacancy for tomorrow or even the day after tomorrow’s flight. This late, buying a ticket to the US is simply mad. I was afraid that I wouldn’t make it to the US at all! That would be crazy since the Ministry of Tourism Malaysia sponsored my flight tickets. What if they know I didn't even set foot in the US?

Finally accepting what just happened, I got a cab, and was on my way to return to Bandung. All the time inside the cab I was praying that everything will go well with the reschedule. I really hoped for a miracle. I really believed a miracle will happen. Then, when I was about half an hour away from the airport when I got a phone call. I was guessing it was my friend, but it’s not.

“Hello, Lutfi, this is…, your friend’s…, aunty”

That friend was one of the delegates which just took off. In my mind, I thought, ‘okay my friend’s aunty, how can you help me?’

“My nephew told me about the troubles you had at the airport. Don’t worry, I’ll help. My husband’s the head of Jakarta airport Immigration Officer, for now, you turn back to the airport, my husband has informed the officers that you will be having your documents made there at the airport. Everything will be settled. All you have to do is write an official letter to the Immigration later”

The head Immigration will help? It was like Bill Gates coming home to fix my computer! I was so thankful beyond expression; I don’t even know how to describe it. All I can say is that I was thankful to God. My prayers has been answered. Miracle happens I asked the cab to turn around, back to the airport, I went. The good thing is that our flight transits at Singapore, and our next flight to the US won’t lift off till the next morning. So I can meet the others at Singapore. Since I missed the first flight, I had to buy a new ticket.

But then, the nightmare just hadn't end yet...

There’s only ONE TICKET LEFT to Singapore, and it was 30 minutes before boarding! If I miss this flight, then I had to reschedule the whole journey! Might as well I came back in the morning as before. I thought to myself, 'I can't give up this far, a miracle just happened, so it will happen again!' So I just bought the ticket, which took the attendant quite a while to get (since it’s really last-minute), and things get real intense when I got only 5 minutes to check-in, and the check-in counter is at the one end of the airport, and here I am at the other end! It guess the distance is about 500 m.

The attendant ask me to run. So I did. I ran the whole way with my luggage, and turned the heads of everybody I passed by. I made it right on time, but I guess bad news never ends. They told me I had to run again, because the fights is lifting off in 5 minutes. The people really rushed their work, got my documents done, I ran to the gate. I remembered that I was really gasping for air right before reaching the gate. I’ve never ran that hard in a while, and bringing the extra luggage made me more exhausted than ever.

I passed through the gate just minutes before it closes, and that was when I felt that my bad day ends. I took the flight to Singapore, and met the others there. My faculty adviser was very relieved to see me, and the first thing I told her was: “I just went through hell…and survived”

Monday, March 29, 2010

Sunrise, sunrise!

I've discovered that best time to do yesterday's hardest things that you decide to put off until today is early in the morning. When last night it seemed like a huge, highly challenging task, in the morning, it seemed a lot less. Same work, different time, different perception, different results. Isn't human psychology weird? But that's how it works.

Think of your days as an ascend on a hot air balloon with yourself and weights on it. It'd be wise to throw down the heaviest weights early during the flight. Makes sense, doesn't it? The earlier you get rid if the heavy weights, the lighter your journey will be. Same as the heavy tasks you hold in your to-do lists. Get rid of them earlier,
and the easier your day will be. Some people put off the biggest tasks for the last. Hoping it will suddenly disappear or seem lighter at the end of the day. Well I'm here to say it rarely will!

So do your biggest tasks in the morning. There's something magical about the morning, don't you think? I think everyone loves the morning, it's the starting of a brand new day. No matter how miserable yesterday might seem, today we can start the day with happiness. It's scientifically true. The morning is where your cortisol (a.k.a your 'stress hormones') stays at its lowest levels of the day, and even light exercises can boost your endogenous endorphins a.k.a your happy hormones (source: So wake up early, do a little stretching, enjoy the sunrise, (if you're a big fan of coffee like me, enjoy a shot of espresso too!) and go get those hardest works done!

Here's a song by Norah Jones called 'Sunrise' which is a great song to enjoy your morning with:

Typical Sunday morning at my balcony. In this picture: (from top to bottom) Morning sky, majestic mountain, intense coffee, superb spaghetti. Not in this photo: The sun rising, the sound of river flowing down below, windy weather, me singing along to 'Sunrise' by Norah Jones.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Lessons Learned

38th Annual General Meeting of PKPMI-CB. Me on the podium

It has been a year since the post 'Experience is the Best Teacher'. Time flies so fast, a year has passed, and yesterday was the end of my term as Chairperson of the Malaysian Student Association. So, was 'experience the best teacher' for the past one year? Yes, sirree! Here are the top 10 lessons I've learned through experience:
  1. A small act is actually larger than the biggest dreams, so it's okay to dream big, but start small. Like, asking?
  2. Doing something, even small things is better than sitting down worrying. Worrying is like a rocking chair, you know. It gives you something to do but gets you nowhere
  3. Not everyone thinks like you. Even if you think it's the most obvious thing, another person would think it isn't. The beauty of diversity. So, as what Stephen Covey always say: seek first to understand, then to be understood
  4. Nothing is easier than talking, but nothing is harder than walking the talk. So, always under promise but over deliver
  5. Leadership ain't a popularity contest. You don't make the popular decision for people to like you, you make the right decision. You'll have your critics, of course, but so what? They won't show up at your deathbed anyway
  6. Get fit to lead, it's so depressing when you're sick but have so much things to do
  7. Take a break once in awhile
  8. Success don't last forever, but experience do. So don't become obsessed with past glory, but use the experiences to tackle new challenges with the spirit of a beginner
  9. The past, however glorious or miserable it is, is still the past. Today is a new beginning. That's why its called the 'present'
  10. Life is too short to be miserable!

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Korean Language Barrier

My lens was focused on the old Korean man. He was talking to my father, I thought of taking a candid. But suddenly, he turned to me and asked

"What are you doing?"

"Uh...I'm sorry?"

"What are you doing?" The man asked again with a serious face. I heard him the first time but I just wanted to be sure.

"Taking your picture?" The man gave me a puzzled face. In my mind, I thought ‘is it illegal to take pictures without permission here? Wait, I’m not in North Korea am I? This is the democratic South!’

"He's doing medicine" my dad said

“Ah, like father like son, good, good!” he laughed

So that was what he meant. Having just eaten the most bizarre food ever, now I just heard the weirdest way to ask what I’m studying. But that's Korea. Their English can be quite confusing. Like earlier we went to a bread shop and I asked the shopkeeper: "What's this filled with?" The girl looked at me, took out her cell phone in a rush, and started typing. ‘Okay, I’m asking a question here and this is the best time to message her mom?’. I didn't really mind, but as I turned away, she called

"Mister, mister"



“What?” I asked. She looked at her cell phone, and said the weird word again: “Pain-eppol-jem”

That was when I realized, she was actually looking through the dictionary in her cell phone. It was ‘pineapple jam’. She was talking about the bread filling. So, as I said before, that’s Korea.

The old man was a doctor, a friend of my dad. He invited us for a lunch at a Korean cuisine restaurant in downtown Seoul. So we had all these weird foods with weird names served in front of us: Kimchi, Kimbap, Kongbap, Bibimbap. The only food wasn’t there was ‘Bapbi’, (thank you).

At the restaurant. The old man at the back was the one I was talking about. See his serious facial expression as he looked at the camera?

My sisters were all excited since the foods were similar to the ones in their favorite Korean series: Boys over Flowers. For me, the only familiar food was ‘Chap-chai’ because it’s all over Indonesia: Cap cai ayam, cap cai daging, cap cai cumi, you name it! So we ate all of it, took more pictures (now I know that it is legal), and went back to our hotel.

The next morning, we went skiing. At the counter where we got our skiing gears, was a young woman. My sisters thought she looked a lot 'Chiang Jinn' from Jewel in The Palace series. I saw some of the episodes on NTV 7 and I had to agree. Anyway, we asked whether there will be a transport for carrying all these gears to the skiing spot. I thought she understood, but suddenly she took a snowboard on her shoulders, and began walking towards the exit. Did what we just asked translate into ‘hey you should go skiing now’ in Korean? But then, before reaching the door, she turned and walked back to where she had started. She was looking at us the whole time she was walking. Not looking towards where she’s going, like a crab, can you imagine that? Then, she said:


‘What ok?’ I thought

“I think she meant we should return the snowboard after using” my sister suggested

“No, I think she meant the snowboard's not heavy, we can carry it by ourselves” I said

Then she did the motion again, to the door, and back again.

“I think she‘s actually a crab cursed into a human. Like in Little Mermaid, just this time Ursula sent Sebastian the Lobster”

After awhile, she pointed out the window, towards a signboard which reads: Starhill Ski Resort: 100m.

We understood. She was trying to say that the skiing spot is near, we don’t need a transport for all the gears, and we can just walk there. Oh, Koreans, I had a great time in your country, especially playing charade with you guys =D

At Gyeongbokgung Palace. Probably the place where they shot 'Jewel in the Palace'

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