Exercise as a Tool to Manage Stress

For any of you who have experienced a ‘runner’s high’ or endorphin rush while exercising you know how powerful the feeling can be. But there are many more chemicals at play than just endorphins and they can do much more than just make you temporarily feel good. Regular exercise can help you combat high levels of stress and anxiety.

In Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain the authors explain how exercise can become your best medicine.

Aside from elevating endorphins, exercise regulates all of the neurotransmitters targeted by antidepressants. For starters, exercise immediately elevates levels of norepinephrine, in certain areas of the brain. It wakes up the brain and gets it going and improves self-esteem, which is one component of depression.”

“Another factor from the body that comes into play here is the atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP). Produced by the muscles of the heart itself when it’s really pumping, ANP travels through the bloodstream and into the brain, where it helps to further moderate the stress response and reduce noise in the brain. It’s a potent part of a cascade of chemicals that relieve emotional stress and reduce anxiety. Along with pain-blunting endorphins and endocannabinoids, the increase in ANP helps explain why you feel relaxed and calm after a moderate aerobic workout. When you talk about burning off stress, these are the elements at work.

We all know that chronically high levels of stress is very unhealthy but did you know that it can actually destroy the connections between nerve cells in the brain?

If mild stress becomes chronic, the unrelenting cascade of cortisol triggers genetic actions that begin to sever synaptic connections and cause dendrils to atrophy and cells to die; eventually, the hippocampus can end up physically shriveled, like a raisin.

But this process can also be reversed.

Studies show that if researchers exercise rats that have been chronically stressed, that activity makes the hippocampus grow back to it’s pre-shriveled state

It’s important to note that while a lot of stress is bad, a little stress can be very good. Physical fitness is one discipline which has always advocated introducing controlled stress to your system. That is, after all, how we break down and build up our muscles. The neurons in our brains benefit from a bit of stress in the same way our muscles do.

What’s gotten lost amid all the advice about how to reduce the stress of modern life is that challenges are what allow us to strive and grow and learn. The parallel on the cellular level is that stress sparks brain growth. Assuming that the stress is not too severe and that the neurons are given time to recover, the connections become stronger and our mental machinery works better.

To get the most mental benefit from your exercise program ideally you need to spend some time pushing yourself and getting a bit outside of your comfort zone.

Psychologically, this is where you ‘confront the self,’ in the words of my colleague Robert Pyles… By going beyond where you thought you could, straining and stressing and lingering in that pain for even just a minute or two, you sometimes transcend into a rarefied state of mind, in which you feel like you can conquer any challenge. If you’ve ever experienced the phenomenon of runner’s high, it probably came in response to a near maximum effort on your part. The euphoric feeling is likely due to the mixture of extremely high levels of endorphins, ANP, endocannabinoids and neurotransmitters pumping through your system at this intensity. It’s the brain’s way of blocking everything else out so you can push through the pain and make the kill.

You also need to build a routine. The stability of a routine can have dramatic effects on your mood and motivation.

Exercise immediately increases levels of dopamine and if you stay on some sort of schedule, the brain cells in your motivation center will sprout new dopamine receptors, giving you new found initiative.

Lastly, exercising at a moderate intensity serves another important function; it helps take out the trash.

Inside your brain cells, the higher activity level triggers the release of metabolic cleanup crews, producing proteins and enzymes that dispose of free radicals, broken bits of DNA, and inflammation factors that can cause the cells to rupture if left unchecked.

Okay, maybe I won’t skip yoga tonight.

Nassim Taleb: How to Not be a Sucker From the Past

The fact that new information exists about the past in general means that we have an incomplete road map about history. There is a necessarily fallibility … if you will.

In The Black Sawn, Nassim Taleb writes:

History is useful for the thrill of knowing the past, and for the narrative (indeed), provided it remains a harmless narrative. One should learn under severe caution. History is certainly not a place to theorize or derive general knowledge, nor is it meant to help in the future, without some caution. We can get negative confirmation from history, which is invaluable, but we get plenty of illusions of knowledge along with it.

While I don’t entirely hold Taleb’s view, I think it’s worth reflecting on. As a friend put it to me recently, “when people are looking into the rear view mirror of the past, they can take facts and like a string of pearls draw lines of causal relationships that facilitate their argument while ignoring disconfirming facts that detract from their central argument or point of view.”

Taleb advises us to adopt the empirical skeptic approach of Menodotus which was to “know history without theorizing from it,” and to not draw any large theoretical or scientific claims.

We can learn from history but our desire for causality can easily lead us down a dangerous rabbit hole when new facts come to light disavowing what we held to be true. In trying to reduce the cognitive dissonance, our confirmation bias leads us to reinterpret past events in a way that fits our current beliefs.

History is not stagnant — we only know what we know currently and what we do know is subject to change. The accepted beliefs about how events played out may change in light of new information and then the new accepted beliefs may change over time as well.

Stephen Hawking Explains The Origin of the Universe


The Origin of the Universe, a lecture, by Stephen Hawking

According to the Boshongo people of central Africa, in the beginning, there was only darkness, water, and the great god Bumba. One day Bumba, in pain from a stomach ache, vomited up the sun. The sun dried up some of the water, leaving land. Still in pain, Bumba vomited up the moon, the stars, and then some animals. The leopard, the crocodile, the turtle, and finally, man.

This creation myth, like many others, tries to answer the questions we all ask. Why are we here? Where did we come from? The answer generally given was that humans were of comparatively recent origin, because it must have been obvious, even at early times, that the human race was improving in knowledge and technology. So it can’t have been around that long, or it would have progressed even more. For example, according to Bishop Usher, the Book of Genesis placed the creation of the world at 9 in the morning on October the 27th, 4,004 BC. On the other hand, the physical surroundings, like mountains and rivers, change very little in a human lifetime. They were therefore thought to be a constant background, and either to have existed forever as an empty landscape, or to have been created at the same time as the humans. Not everyone, however, was happy with the idea that the universe had a beginning.

For example, Aristotle, the most famous of the Greek philosophers, believed the universe had existed forever. Something eternal is more perfect than something created. He suggested the reason we see progress was that floods, or other natural disasters, had repeatedly set civilization back to the beginning. The motivation for believing in an eternal universe was the desire to avoid invoking divine intervention to create the universe and set it going. Conversely, those who believed the universe had a beginning, used it as an argument for the existence of God as the first cause, or prime mover, of the universe.

If one believed that the universe had a beginning, the obvious question was what happened before the beginning? What was God doing before He made the world? Was He preparing Hell for people who asked such questions? The problem of whether or not the universe had a beginning was a great concern to the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. He felt there were logical contradictions, or antimonies, either way. If the universe had a beginning, why did it wait an infinite time before it began? He called that the thesis. On the other hand, if the universe had existed for ever, why did it take an infinite time to reach the present stage? He called that the antithesis. Both the thesis and the antithesis depended on Kant’s assumption, along with almost everyone else, that time was Absolute. That is to say, it went from the infinite past to the infinite future, independently of any universe that might or might not exist in this background. This is still the picture in the mind of many scientists today.

However in 1915, Einstein introduced his revolutionary General Theory of Relativity. In this, space and time were no longer Absolute, no longer a fixed background to events. Instead, they were dynamical quantities that were shaped by the matter and energy in the universe. They were defined only within the universe, so it made no sense to talk of a time before the universe began. It would be like asking for a point south of the South Pole. It is not defined. If the universe was essentially unchanging in time, as was generally assumed before the 1920s, there would be no reason that time should not be defined arbitrarily far back. Any so-called beginning of the universe would be artificial, in the sense that one could extend the history back to earlier times. Thus it might be that the universe was created last year, but with all the memories and physical evidence, to look like it was much older. This raises deep philosophical questions about the meaning of existence. I shall deal with these by adopting what is called, the positivist approach. In this, the idea is that we interpret the input from our senses in terms of a model we make of the world. One can not ask whether the model represents reality, only whether it works. A model is a good model if first it interprets a wide range of observations, in terms of a simple and elegant model. And second, if the model makes definite predictions that can be tested and possibly falsified by observation.

In terms of the positivist approach, one can compare two models of the universe. One in which the universe was created last year and one in which the universe existed much longer. The Model in which the universe existed for longer than a year can explain things like identical twins that have a common cause more than a year ago. On the other hand, the model in which the universe was created last year cannot explain such events. So the first model is better. One can not ask whether the universe really existed before a year ago or just appeared to. In the positivist approach, they are the same. In an unchanging universe, there would be no natural starting point. The situation changed radically however, when Edwin Hubble began to make observations with the hundred inch telescope on Mount Wilson, in the 1920s.

Hubble found that stars are not uniformly distributed throughout space, but are gathered together in vast collections called galaxies. By measuring the light from galaxies, Hubble could determine their velocities. He was expecting that as many galaxies would be moving towards us as were moving away. This is what one would have in a universe that was unchanging with time. But to his surprise, Hubble found that nearly all the galaxies were moving away from us. Moreover, the further galaxies were from us, the faster they were moving away. The universe was not unchanging with time as everyone had thought previously. It was expanding. The distance between distant galaxies was increasing with time.

The expansion of the universe was one of the most important intellectual discoveries of the 20th century, or of any century. It transformed the debate about whether the universe had a beginning. If galaxies are moving apart now, they must have been closer together in the past. If their speed had been constant, they would all have been on top of one another about 15 billion years ago. Was this the beginning of the universe? Many scientists were still unhappy with the universe having a beginning because it seemed to imply that physics broke down. One would have to invoke an outside agency, which for convenience, one can call God, to determine how the universe began. They therefore advanced theories in which the universe was expanding at the present time, but didn’t have a beginning. One was the Steady State theory, proposed by Bondi, Gold, and Hoyle in 1948.

In the Steady State theory, as galaxies moved apart, the idea was that new galaxies would form from matter that was supposed to be continually being created throughout space. The universe would have existed for ever and would have looked the same at all times. This last property had the great virtue, from a positivist point of view, of being a definite prediction that could be tested by observation. The Cambridge radio astronomy group, under Martin Ryle, did a survey of weak radio sources in the early 1960s. These were distributed fairly uniformly across the sky, indicating that most of the sources lay outside our galaxy. The weaker sources would be further away, on average. The Steady State theory predicted the shape of the graph of the number of sources against source strength. But the observations showed more faint sources than predicted, indicating that the density sources were higher in the past. This was contrary to the basic assumption of the Steady State theory, that everything was constant in time. For this, and other reasons, the Steady State theory was abandoned.

Another attempt to avoid the universe having a beginning was the suggestion that there was a previous contracting phase, but because of rotation and local irregularities, the matter would not all fall to the same point. Instead, different parts of the matter would miss each other, and the universe would expand again with the density remaining finite. Two Russians, Lifshitz and Khalatnikov, actually claimed to have proved, that a general contraction without exact symmetry would always lead to a bounce with the density remaining finite. This result was very convenient for Marxist Leninist dialectical materialism, because it avoided awkward questions about the creation of the universe. It therefore became an article of faith for Soviet scientists.

When Lifshitz and Khalatnikov published their claim, I was a 21 year old research student looking for something to complete my PhD thesis. I didn’t believe their so-called proof, and set out with Roger Penrose to develop new mathematical techniques to study the question. We showed that the universe couldn’t bounce. If Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is correct, there will be a singularity, a point of infinite density and spacetime curvature, where time has a beginning. Observational evidence to confirm the idea that the universe had a very dense beginning came in October 1965, a few months after my first singularity result, with the discovery of a faint background of microwaves throughout space. These microwaves are the same as those in your microwave oven, but very much less powerful. They would heat your pizza only to minus 271 point 3 degrees centigrade, not much good for defrosting the pizza, let alone cooking it. You can actually observe these microwaves yourself. Set your television to an empty channel. A few percent of the snow you see on the screen will be caused by this background of microwaves. The only reasonable interpretation of the background is that it is radiation left over from an early very hot and dense state. As the universe expanded, the radiation would have cooled until it is just the faint remnant we observe today.

Although the singularity theorems of Penrose and myself, predicted that the universe had a beginning, they didn’t say how it had begun. The equations of General Relativity would break down at the singularity. Thus Einstein’s theory cannot predict how the universe will begin, but only how it will evolve once it has begun. There are two attitudes one can take to the results of Penrose and myself. One is to that God chose how the universe began for reasons we could not understand. This was the view of Pope John Paul. At a conference on cosmology in the Vatican, the Pope told the delegates that it was OK to study the universe after it began, but they should not inquire into the beginning itself, because that was the moment of creation, and the work of God. I was glad he didn’t realize I had presented a paper at the conference suggesting how the universe began. I didn’t fancy the thought of being handed over to the Inquisition, like Galileo.

The other interpretation of our results, which is favored by most scientists, is that it indicates that the General Theory of Relativity breaks down in the very strong gravitational fields in the early universe. It has to be replaced by a more complete theory. One would expect this anyway, because General Relativity does not take account of the small scale structure of matter, which is governed by quantum theory. This does not matter normally, because the scale of the universe is enormous compared to the microscopic scales of quantum theory. But when the universe is the Planck size, a billion trillion trillionth of a centimeter, the two scales are the same, and quantum theory has to be taken into account.

In order to understand the Origin of the universe, we need to combine the General Theory of Relativity with quantum theory. The best way of doing so seems to be to use Feynman’s idea of a sum over histories. Richard Feynman was a colorful character, who played the bongo drums in a strip joint in Pasadena, and was a brilliant physicist at the California Institute of Technology. He proposed that a system got from a state A, to a state B, by every possible path or history. Each path or history has a certain amplitude or intensity, and the probability of the system going from A- to B, is given by adding up the amplitudes for each path. There will be a history in which the moon is made of blue cheese, but the amplitude is low, which is bad news for mice.

The probability for a state of the universe at the present time is given by adding up the amplitudes for all the histories that end with that state. But how did the histories start? This is the Origin question in another guise. Does it require a Creator to decree how the universe began? Or is the initial state of the universe, determined by a law of science? In fact, this question would arise even if the histories of the universe went back to the infinite past. But it is more immediate if the universe began only 15 billion years ago. The problem of what happens at the beginning of time is a bit like the question of what happened at the edge of the world, when people thought the world was flat. Is the world a flat plate with the sea pouring over the edge? I have tested this experimentally. I have been round the world, and I have not fallen off. As we all know, the problem of what happens at the edge of the world was solved when people realized that the world was not a flat plate, but a curved surface. Time however, seemed to be different. It appeared to be separate from space, and to be like a model railway track. If it had a beginning, there would have to be someone to set the trains going. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity unified time and space as spacetime, but time was still different from space and was like a corridor, which either had a beginning and end, or went on forever. However, when one combines General Relativity with Quantum Theory, Jim Hartle and I realized that time can behave like another direction in space under extreme conditions. This means one can get rid of the problem of time having a beginning, in a similar way in which we got rid of the edge of the world. Suppose the beginning of the universe was like the South Pole of the earth, with degrees of latitude playing the role of time. The universe would start as a point at the South Pole. As one moves north, the circles of constant latitude, representing the size of the universe, would expand. To ask what happened before the beginning of the universe would become a meaningless question, because there is nothing south of the South Pole.

Time, as measured in degrees of latitude, would have a beginning at the South Pole, but the South Pole is much like any other point, at least so I have been told. I have been to Antarctica, but not to the South Pole. The same laws of Nature hold at the South Pole as in other places. This would remove the age-old objection to the universe having a beginning; that it would be a place where the normal laws broke down. The beginning of the universe would be governed by the laws of science. The picture Jim Hartle and I developed of the spontaneous quantum creation of the universe would be a bit like the formation of bubbles of steam in boiling water.

The idea is that the most probable histories of the universe would be like the surfaces of the bubbles. Many small bubbles would appear, and then disappear again. These would correspond to mini universes that would expand but would collapse again while still of microscopic size. They are possible alternative universes but they are not of much interest since they do not last long enough to develop galaxies and stars, let alone intelligent life. A few of the little bubbles, however, grow to a certain size at which they are safe from recollapse. They will continue to expand at an ever increasing rate, and will form the bubbles we see. They will correspond to universes that would start off expanding at an ever increasing rate. This is called inflation, like the way prices go up every year.

The world record for inflation was in Germany after the First World War. Prices rose by a factor of ten million in a period of 18 months. But that was nothing compared to inflation in the early universe. The universe expanded by a factor of million trillion trillion in a tiny fraction of a second. Unlike inflation in prices, inflation in the early universe was a very good thing. It produced a very large and uniform universe, just as we observe. However, it would not be completely uniform. In the sum over histories, histories that are very slightly irregular will have almost as high probabilities as the completely uniform and regular history. The theory therefore predicts that the early universe is likely to be slightly non-uniform. These irregularities would produce small variations in the intensity of the microwave background from different directions. The microwave background has been observed by the Map satellite, and was found to have exactly the kind of variations predicted. So we know we are on the right lines.

The irregularities in the early universe will mean that some regions will have slightly higher density than others. The gravitational attraction of the extra density will slow the expansion of the region, and can eventually cause the region to collapse to form galaxies and stars. So look well at the map of the microwave sky. It is the blue print for all the structure in the universe. We are the product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe. God really does play dice.

Follow your curiosity to Nassim Taleb on the Notion of Alternative Histories.

Kyle Bass: How Freediving Enables Better Decision Making

Kyle Bass

Below find an excerpt taken from an interview between Raoul Pal and Kyle Bass (a hedge fund manager based out of Texas.)

What resonates with me here is the need to find a way out of a world where we are pulled in a thousand different directions and find an internal quiet. In turn these quiet and intimate moments with ourselves enable us to excel.

Pal was asking about how Bass keeps balance in his life.

Kyle Bass: I’ve searched for that my whole life. I found it about six years ago. My favorite thing in the world is to do freediving and spearfishing. I know you live on an island. I could do that if I wasn’t running this firm, meaning as a lifestyle choice. I have a little Hemingway in me.

Raoul Pal: What is it about spearfishing and freediving that you like? I don’t spearfish. Freediving, I’ve had lessons in, and it’s a fascinating thing because it’s very internal.

Kyle: It’s internal. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s like when you think about the greatest battles in the world, they’ve always been civil wars, just like I think the greatest battles you and I fight are in our head. It’s between ourselves. The biggest battles that most people fight are with themselves.

When I was in college, I helped pay for college through … I had a diving and an academic scholarship. I was, primarily, a springboard diver. That was, I would say, 80 percent mental, 20 percent physical, even though it looks all physical. It’s you versus yourself. It’s you convincing yourself that you can do this, and do it as well or better than anyone else.

Freediving, very similar. It’s you knowing yourself. It’s you teaching yourself how to regulate your heart rate. It’s how to control your emotions. It’s made me better at controlling my emotions in the office.

Raoul: It’s kind of where I was going to get to this.

Kyle: The beautiful part of freediving for me and spearfishing is the day-to-day “grind” that we go through. My phone rings 24/7. I take that back. I turn my phone off at night, so there’s only a select few that can get through at night.

But during the day, I’m pulled in a thousand different directions. Regardless of how much I try to control my path through the day, things pop up. You have people everywhere pulling you 50 different ways.

The moment I go underwater in the ocean, it’s Zen-like for me. My phone can’t ring. No one can bother me. I’m typically there with people that I want to be there with, my team. I always dive with a team. Then it’s me versus myself. It literally is Zen-like, and I’ve gotten so much better at being calm that I go 8-10 hours a day.

Raoul: Wow. Because a lot of people do the similar thing with yoga, and actually, yoga and freediving have a lot in common.

Kyle: Do they?

Raoul: Yeah. Lots of the great freedivers now learn yoga to understand how to control their body and control their minds.

Kyle: I have a problem with yoga. My mind drifts. When I’m freediving, I’m focused. I’m focused on the potential threats, because I primarily do it all in the Bahamas, so we see sharks every day. I’m not that afraid of sharks. I respect them.

The difference, for me, between yoga and freediving is in yoga you’re sitting there, and you’re in a solitary moment, and you’re trying to focus on things mentally. But — I don’t know, I need the freediving aspect of it to be really centered. … That’s how I get centered.

Raoul: Yeah, you have a physical focus then, as well.

Kyle: Yeah. I’m always searching for the next great hogfish, or grouper, or lobster to eat that night. We eat what we shoot. It’s a beautiful, beautiful cycle that I go through, and I can do it for weeks on end.

Raoul: When did you take up freediving, and how did it change you in terms of how you work?

Kyle: It didn’t, initially. It was just something I’d always wanted to do. I found a young man on an island in the Bahamas. I asked around and said, “Who’s the best spearfisherman on the island?” Everybody said, “It’s Dave. It’s Dave. It’s Dave.”

This 17-year-old kid who had been bitten by sharks on his hand. He had been cut up on his foot by a propeller, and he’s just a great kid. Over the years, he’s become my boat captain. He’s now, I guess, 23 years old. We’ve been partners now for six years. Every moment, every chance I get for vacation, that’s where I go.

Raoul: As I said, you’ve actually noticed that whole process of learning that spill into your work, and it makes you calmer in how think about things?

Kyle: Yeah. You have to stay focused. If you trade on emotion, you lose every time. Every time. If you can divorce yourself of that, especially those real extreme and extremist, those emotions you feel, you have to go the other way. You have to.

Love as Moral Knowing

“Love allows us gently, respectfully and intimately to slip into the life of another person or animal or even the earth itself and to know it from the inside. In this way, love can become a way of moral knowing that is as reliable as scientific insight.” — Arthur Zajonc

In an interview with Krista Tippett, commenting on this phrase, Zajonc, author of Meditation As Contemplative Inquiry: When Knowing Becomes Love, says:

Now this is again something which as a scientist you can’t prove, so I’m not trying to convince anybody. I’m trying to though speak up on behalf of or for those people for whom when they hear that they go, “I know that place. It doesn’t happen all the time, but I know that place.”

At a certain point William James talks about this when he’s writing about mystical experience. It’s noetic. It’s completely compelling for the person who has it, and it doesn’t change anything for the two of you.

To me it’s like teaching. When I’m teaching a class and I’m up at the blackboard, and I’m having my epiphanic moment in front of some differential equation and the students are all looking at me cross-eyed.

…but then you can see the one in the back all of a sudden just got it. Then the one in the front goes, “Oh, I see that, too.” In other words, it can be contagious, but each one has to do it on their own. It’s a moment of insight. Knowledge is not something you can just move across the table, and the other person has it. It’s an invitation to exploration to think, to ideate.

Then there’s that “Aha.” I think you could say that the moment I’m describing there is a moral analog of that moment. Sometimes it happens at the hand of a teacher. You might say a moral teacher or something of that or a moral dilemma that you’re in the middle of and you just can’t see your way through.

Then you make your steps and find that place where all of a sudden it gets clear. That doesn’t mean you can’t make mistakes. Somehow people think because you can make mistakes. To me if you can make a mistake then you can also not make a mistake. They come with each other.

(image source)

A Successful Businessperson Has to Learn to Say No


“The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It’s very easy to say yes.” — Tony Blair

Tony Blair isn’t the only one who thinks that. So does Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett. Focus is everything.

One of the clearest signs of poor leadership is the inability to focus — it’s easy to say yes and it’s very hard to say no.

Seymour Schulich elaborates on this in Get Smarter: Life and Business Lessons:

This piece of wisdom was instilled in me many years ago by Joe Rotman, an entrepreneur who is the benefactor of the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto. Many years ago, prior to the philanthropic work that made him famous, I arranged for a meeting so that I could gather the insight of an astute businessman who’d built a fortune in the resource business, primarily through oil and gas production.

“Every successful businessperson has to learn how to say no,” he told me that day. If you spend your life in business, you will see dozens or perhaps hundreds of potential deals. A small number will be highly attractive; most will be average or below average. The path to superior results is to accept only the best ideas — indeed, no venture capitalist or merchant banker could survive for very long without saying no to 90 per cent (or more) of the pitches he sees.

You can be diplomatic, firm, or a combination of the two, but you must be comfortable with the idea of handing out rejection. Rotman’s lesson became rooted deeply in my consciousness and caused me to be much less wimpy about turning down venture capital deals, start-up companies, and charities.

It’s not so much what you do but rather what you don’t do that matters.

Follow your curiosity to eight ways to say no with grace and style.