Richard G. Petty, MD

The Sixth Extinction

“Once we spread out into space and establish colonies, our future should be safe.”

— English Theoretical Physicist and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, 1942-

Five times before the world has almost died. Many experts believe that we are now in the Sixth Extinction. More accurately known as the Holocene extinction event, it refers to the widespread, ongoing mass extinction of species during the modern Holocene epoch that began 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age.

The previous ones were all a very long time ago, and were probably caused by cosmic events:

  1. 444 million years ago: the End Ordovician
  2. 360 million years ago: the Late Devonian
  3. 251 million years ago: the Permian-Triassic transition
  4. 200 million years ago: the End Triassic
  5. 65 million years ago: the End Cretaceous (this is the one that you probably learned about in school: it was the one that is thought to have ended the reign of the dinosaurs)

The reason that so many people are becoming more conservationist in their outlook is that the observed rate of extinction has accelerated dramatically in the last 50 years to a pace that is greater than the rate seen during the Big Five extinctions.

Unlike the previous extinctions that were likely caused by astronomical events, most experts attribute the sixth extinction directly to human activities. So they can be a good barometer of where we are going wrong with the world. Since 1500 AD, 698 extinctions have been documented by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

In the United Kingdom, the publication of the Stern Report that outlined the frightful impact not of extinctions but of global climate change, was endorsed by the current Prime Minister, Tony Blair. He endorsed it not out of the goodness of his heart, but because the report demonstrated the impact not just on people but on the economy. It seems a shame that it takes money to persuade some people in high places to do the right thing. Naturally the Stern report has had more than its fair share of criticisms. But the fact that more people in politics and industry are talking about global climate change and the impact of our activities on people and on many other species is obviously a good thing.

However I think that the real change in how we live with the earth lies not simply in understanding the impact on our bottom line, but in our own level of development. Rather tha following Stephen Hawking’s advice and heading off into space, we need to get ourselves in order, unless we want to take all the behaviors that have caused this catastophe with us.

In recent years I have been persuaded by the spiral dynamics model. As more people embrace the Green, Yellow and Turquoise Memes they understand not just intellectually, but viscerally, the importance of preserving the planet and terminating the headlong rush toward the sixth extinction. Ken Wilber has written eloquently about the downside of what he calls the “Mean Green Meme.” But once enough of us make the jump to second-tier thinking there are no longer these mean downsides. Just a constant desire, need even, to nurture and preserve the planet.

One of the reasons for my efforts to assist your personal growth and development is that neither health nor illnesses exist in isolation. They are born from and affect everyone in the individual’s social group, and their resolution requires the cooperation of everyone in the group. And that social group includes the planet and all the creatures around us.

I have been asked to start sharing yet more of the practical techniques that have helped thousands of students over the last 30+ years, so I am going to start creating a new set of podcasts to help anyone who would like them.

“By 2050, at bio-extinction’s current rate, between 25 per cent and 50 per cent of all species will have disappeared or be too few in numbers to survive. There’ll be a few over-visited parks, the coral reefs will be beaten up, grasslands overgrazed. Vast areas of the tropics that have lost their forests will have the same damn weeds, bushes and scrawny eucalyptus trees so that you don’t know if you’re in Africa or the Americas.”

–Stuart L. Pimm (English-born American Conservation Biologist, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology Environmental Sciences and Policy Division at Duke University and Originator of the “Food chain” concept in research into extinction of plants and animals, 1949-)

“Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.”
— Henry David Thoreau (American Essayist and Philosopher, 1817-1862)

The Omnipresent Ohrwurm: Ten Secrets for Having an Idea Remembered

Last month I wrote something about a phenomenon that I’m sure that you’ve experienced: having a tune get stuck in your head. James Kellaris has used the term “Ohrwurm” to describe this phenomenon.

I made brief mention of the way in which research into the ohrwurm may inform other fields, such as addictions.

The other big topic that may be illuminated by the ohrwurm phenomenon is the way that ideas, trends and fashions gain traction.

Some successes are created: you may or may not like Madonna or Britney Spears, but both of them are talented. The question is this: why did they first make it? In some senses both had the right set of talents be molded into a highly successful products. People in the music business saw their potential and that both were just right for the market of the time. Thousands of similarly gifted people just never had the opportunity to be made into stars.

Some successes are the results of memes. I’m speaking here about memes with a little “M,” to differentiate them from the Memes of spiral dynamics. Ideas, fashions and trends spread through society like the measles.

But are there any characteristics of psychological or social ohrwurms? What is it about some ideas, concepts or products that just have a great big hook that makes them not just memorable but irresistible?

People have been asking that question for years, but now it begins to look as if we might be getting close to generating some sensible answers based not on market research or focus groups, but on neuroscience.

A book called Made to Stick will be coming out in the New Year and identifies some of the characteristics of ideas that become popular and stick in people’s minds. The authors’ have come up with:

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional Story

I’m sure that they are on to something.

But I think that there is more.

In the original piece about the ohrwurm I mentioned three characteristics of a tune that gets stuck in our heads:

  • Simple
  • Incongruous
  • Repetitive

The same principles and a few more are crucial in getting a message to resonate:

  1. Simplicity: It’s much easier to believe that the motivators of human behavior are pain and pleasure, or that Men are from Mars and Women from Venus, than getting into the messy realities of human motivations and interpersonal relationships
  2. Clarity: The simple idea must be expressed in a cogent and incisive way
  3. Incongruity: This is essential: we know that the brain is hardwired to respond to novelty. Yet despite being incongruous, the odd, strange, unexpected idea must afterwards fit into the rest of our knowledge and beliefs about the world. We can only take so much incongruity!
  4. Repetition: Few ideas – whether true or false – are embraced and adopted if they are only heard once
  5. Emotional resonance: You are unlikely to be interested in or remember something that has no emotional meaning for you
  6. Integrity: The idea or concept must have internal consistency
  7. Believability: The idea needs to come from a trustworthy source
  8. Consonant: The idea or concept needs to resonate with your own core beliefs or core values
  9. Practical: Most people need to be able to see simple, concrete actions that they can take
  10. Beneficial: There is a sliver of self-interest within all of us: something else that is hardwired. Unless we can see that we will derive some benefit from an idea, it is unlikely to have much traction

Now I am going to let you in on a secret. I do a lot of public speaking and I could not work out why my talks, lectures and speeches seemed to be so popular.

One day a friend from Canada told me that he had also been mystified by my popularity as a speaker. Then he told me that he had discovered my secret: I am a storyteller. It took me a while to grasp what he was saying, but then I realized that it was true. Whether presenting research data, ways to improve your life or an inspirational speech I constantly tell stories. And so does every other good speaker that I know. And the keys to telling good stories?

They are these ten points.

Try them out for yourself and see what you think.

“A man’s success in business today turns upon his power of getting people to believe he has something that they want.”
–Gerald Stanley Lee (American Professor, Writer and Lecturer, 1862-1944)

Memes and Magical Thinking

There were so many excellent papers at this year’s British Association Festival of Science, that I still haven’t had been able to comment on all of them, but here’s another one that I found interesting for two reasons.

Bruce Hood, who is Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol, presented an interesting paper on the near-Universality of superstitious beliefs and magical thinking. In his view people are naturally biased to accept a role for the irrational, and magical thinking is hard-wired into our brains.

Magical thinking is invaluable to an artist: being able to make new connections is the key to their creations. But it has long been argued that either rejecting or accepting magical thinking may both be potential triggers of psychopathology. I once treated a young Israeli man who, during the first Gulf War, became convinced that Saddam Hussein was personally writing the Israeli man’s name on each Scud missile. He refused to remove his gas mask, and eventually his thinking became delusional.

Bruce’s conclusion is that magical thinking and a belief in the supernatural is an evolutionary adaptation. He goes on to argue that the rabid atheists who blame organized religion for the spread “illogical thinking” and a belief in the supernatural and are just plain wrong. Instead he contends that religion may capitalize on a natural bias to assume the existence of supernatural forces.

In a world in which religious fundamentalism is something of a challenge, he had this to say:
“It is pointless to get people to abandon their belief systems because they operate at such a fundamental level that no amount of rational evidence or counter evidence is going to be taken on board to get people to abandon these ideas.”

Bruce has carried out studies to show how the brains of even young babies organize sensory information. They supply what is missing and use the information to generate theories about the world.

In adulthood, the visual centers of the brain still fill in details that are not there, as shown in common visual illusions such as the blind spot. Several years ago we did some experimental work on facial recognition, and it is remarkable how little information is needed to recognize a face: the brain supplies the missing pieces of the picture. This childhood “intuitive reasoning” persists in to adulthood and may explain many aspects of adult magical beliefs. We are programmed to see coincidences as significant and to attribute minds to inanimate objects.

One form of this is known as pareidolia in which vague and random stimuli are misperceived as recognizable patterns. Examples of this are seeing shapes in clouds or in a fire. With the new information from the European Space Agency, perhaps we could include seeing the Face on Mars.

Professor Hood used an interesting example. He offered members of the audience the chance to wear a sweater, for which he would pay them a sum of money. They were all happy to do so, until they heard that it had supposedly belonged to a mass murderer, when suddenly there were no takers. Many said that they felt that the clothing was contaminated with evil.

But I don’t think that Bruce has taken something else into account. According to the theory of spiral dynamics, we are all mixtures of Memes. We tend to associate magical thinking with the Purple Meme. It would be very valuable to look at a person’s developmental level and to see how much he or she engages in magical thinking. Someone once said to me, “Are you superstitious?” I said, “No, but I do understand that there are many forces at work in the Universe, and we do not yet know all of them.”

Are you a magical thinker, or is it that you are aware of the unseen forces of the Universe?

“The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.” –Eden Philpotts (Indian-born English Novelist, Dramatist and Poet, 1862-1960)

When Being First Is Not the Only Thing

Regular readers and anyone who’s looked at my blogroll, knows that I like Zach Lynch’s consistently insightful blog.

He has been working on a project for four years, and now it appears that someone is coming out with some of the same ideas in a book that is due to arrive in late September.

This does not look to me like plagiarism. Once a new idea is out there, it quickly spreads, and people will run with it.

You might be interested to see some of the comments that I made on Zach’s site.

The other book may be superb. But the important point is that although being first is the only thing in competitive games, in the world of ideas that will help us, being first is not the only thing.

Being correct is the only thing.

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