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October 2021 - Answers With Joe

Month: October, 2021

Forget Yellowstone – These EIGHT Supervolcanoes Could Destroy The World

Supervolcanoes are bigger than you think, and there are more of them than you think. There are, in fact, eight supervolcanoes around the world that have changed the geography of continents and caused mass extinctions. What are these volcanoes? What causes them, and most importantly, could we survive one?

Today we take a deep dive into one of the most destructive forces on the planet. And if you think that supervolcanoes have been over-hyped… trust me, they haven’t.

TRANSCRIPT:

The Minoans

3800 years ago on the Greek island of Crete, the Minoan civilization was one of the most powerful kingdoms of the bronze age.

In fact, Minoan culture was once so dominant that given a few hundred years, we might have been calling all of Greece Minoan.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, they disappeared from the region and from the historical record. So much so that we don’t really even know what they called themselves. The name “Minoan” refers to their ruler, King Minos.

And we only knew of King Minos in 1878, when his palace was discovered and excavated on Crete.

It was only after this discovery that more sites were discovered on Crete and nearby islands and we got an idea of just how extensive this civilization was.

What happened to the Minoans is still a bit of a mystery. But most agree it had something to do with this:

This is the Greek island of Thera, also known by its Latin name, Santorini. Today it’s one of the most popular travel destinations in the world, known for its distinctive architecture, dramatic 300 meter tall cliffs and stunning views of the Mediterranean.

But it didn’t always look like this. As you’ve probably already figured out, Thera is an active volcano. In fact it’s had minor eruptions 3 times in the last 100 years. But it was the eruption that occurred sometime between 1600 and 1700 BCE that reshaped not just the island of Thera, but the entire Mediterranean region.

It was an explosion that turned a giant mountain sticking out of the sea into this, a caldera, basically a sink hole.

This was basically a mountain that just blew up. Estimates say it exploded with a force of over 100 atomic bombs.

Recent estimates say the eruption could have ejected 60 cubic kilometers of rock and ash, with samples found up to 30 kilometers away.

Krakatoa, Tambora, and The Year Without a Summer

For comparison, the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa and the tsunami it created killed 36,000 people. Thera was 4-5 times more powerful than that one.

The tsunami from Thera would have devastated the Minoan’s coastal settlements on Crete and wiped out their navy.

Not to mention put enough ash and dust into the air to cause a global drop in temperature, much like the Tambora eruption in 1815.

This would have caused years of poor harvests and food shortages while the Minoans were still recovering from the damage done by the tsunami.

They didn’t vanish overnight, but they were weakened to the point that when conquerors from Mycenae came calling, the Minoans didn’t stand a chance.

They were crushed and within a few hundred years they were culturally assimilated, and then forgotten to time.

Not to mention the knock-on effects of the Thera explosion may have played a part in the entire collapse of the Bronze age around 1177 BCE.

The Thera explosion was truly epic in scale and influence, maybe one of the most consequential volcanic eruptions in the history of our species. And yet… When you set it next to the Yellowstone caldera, it looks like this.
(show pic)
Awe… That’s adorable.

 

Supervolcano Defined
This is the difference between a volcano and a supervolcano. You literally can’t see a supervolcano from the ground.
The four, overlapping calderas that form much of Yellowstone measure 70 by 45 kilometers (43 by 28 miles) and some of that area is outside the park
Yellowstone qualifies as a supervolcano because two of the eruptions that formed its calderas were supereruptions
To be a supereruption, a volcano has to eject 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles) of material into the air.
Would a thousand kilometers be a megameter? Megometer? It would be a megameter, right? How come I’ve never heard of a megameter? Is that a thing?
Anyway, whatever you call it, it’s about 17 times the ejecta of Thera.
You know, arguably the most consequential volcanic eruption in human history.
According to Jake Lowenstern of the U.S. Geological Survey, Yellowstone’s supereruptions ejected “enough material to bury the state of Texas five feet deep!”
When I read his quote on yellowstone.org, I couldn’t tell if he meant both supereruptions together or each separately and it turns out no, each eruption could have buried the entire state of Texas.
Eruptions are rated on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, or the VEI and supereruptions rate as a VEI Magnitude 8, or M8.
The ancient Thera and Tambora 1815 eruptions — both of which lowered global temperatures, remember — were rated an M7.
Which sounds pretty close, but the VEI Index is logarithmic, so Thera and Tambora were only one-tenth of the way to a supervolcano.
Luckily for us no supereruptions have occurred since prehistoric times. But… Yellowstone isn’t alone. There are several supervolcanoes around the world just waiting to end that streak.
So how bad would it be when – not if – that happened?
No Easy Answers
To answer that question, it might be helpful to know why supereruptions happen. And the short answer is — there are a lot of long answers.
Volcanology is a field of study that’s constantly shifting and eroding.
That’s a metaphor!
So most volcanic activity happens along tectonic plate boundaries. It’s the cracks in the pie crust where the filling oozes through. I’m a little hungry.
Thing is, not not all volcanoes are born at the edge of a tectonic plate. Some, like Yellowstone, form right in the middle.
So one theory involves so-called “hot spots” the Earth’s mantle. Also known as Large Igneous Provinces.
Hot spots melt rock into magma, which then oozes out or erupts. Makes sense, but what causes the hot spots?
Mantle Plume Theory
According to geophysicist W. Jason Morgan, they’re caused by mantle plumes.
In 1971, Morgan proposed that these plumes originate deep in the Earth as a bubble of hot material.
Like I wear this shirt a lot and this is how we normally see the layers of the Earth displayed but of course it’s not perfectly symmetrical and round, it’s loaded with bulges and mantle plumes. It’s got curves yo.
But that’s mantle plume theory, the Earth is a giant lava lamp and hot bubbles of magma rise through the crust, melting rock along the way, and the heat pressure builds up and explodes in a giant supereruption.
Plate Theory
The problem is, not all scientists are convinced mantle plumes exist.
According to Plate Theory, off-boundary volcanoes are the result of crustal extension, which is my new favorite science phrase.
This states that movements of the plates cause changes in pressure far from the plate boundary.
So if local mantle rock is close to its melting point, depressurization can heat it to a magma state.
Felsic Magma
What happens next depends on several conditions, one being the composition of the magma.
Large volcanic eruptions, including supereruptions, tend to be what are known as felsic.
“Felsic” is a combination of “FELdspar” and “SILicon” – the high concentration of silicon makes it more viscous, so it resists flowing slowly through cracks.
What it does instead is it builds up in large pockets, melting the rock around it, releasing gasses that build up pressure until there’s nowhere for it to go and then Boom.
What makes a supervolcano “super” is the amount of energy in its eruption. No matter where the magma comes from, supervolcanoes have much larger chambers to hold the flaming death they must hurl at the sky.
Over the past 36 million years, there have been something like 42 supereruptions.
That number varies because figuring the VEI of ancient eruptions is tricky, but let’s take a look at some of the best known supervolcanoes.
Yellowstone
Let’s just start with Yellowstone, because I was already talking about it earlier and like I said, it’s had a couple of supereruptions.
The biggest one was the Huckleberry Ridge Supereruption that formed the largest portion of the caldera 2.1 million years ago. The second one called Lava Creek, extended the caldera’s Eastern boundary some 640,000 years ago.
Both of these supereruptions ejected enough ash to cover most of what is now the Western United States.
But those two eruptions are only part of Yellowstone’s volcanic history, in fact there have been around 80 smaller eruptions since the last supereruption.
The US Geological Survey classifies these as “relatively nonexplosive”
“Relatively” is the key word here, apparently some were the size of the Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991 that killed 847 people and destroyed 37,000 acres of forests.
Thankfully nothing so destructive has been seen at Yellowstone in tens of thousands of years. In fact the last volcanic event there was 70,000 years ago.
La Garita Caldera and Wah Wah Springs
But Yellowstone isn’t the only supervolcano in North America, actually there’s… a surprising number of them.
At least seven supereruptions occurred between 36 and 18 million years ago that helped shape parts of California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado.
This includes that La Garita Caldera in Colorado and Utah’s Wah Wah Springs Caldera which happened just two million years apart — a drop in the bucket in geologic time.
By the way, Wah Wah Springs may be a funny name, but it was a monster eruption, it’s estimated to have ejected 5500 cubic kilometers of debris.
Aside from the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, the Wah Wah Springs supereruption may be the most energetic single event to happen on Earth.
It dwarfs Yellowstone’s biggest eruption by a factor of five. In some places, deposits from the eruption are 13,000 feet thick.
Flat Landing Brook Formation
And believe it or not, even that might be beaten by another supervolcano in North America called the Flat Landing Brook Formation in Canada.
I say might because it happened so long ago it’s hard to tell if it happened in a single event or over multiple supereruptions.
All we know is that 460 million years ago, this formation deposited 12,000 cubic kilometers of material over the area.
It’s assumed this was an ongoing process over millions of years but if it did happen all at once and ejected more than 10,000 km-cubed, it would break the Volcanic Explosivity Index.
M8 is supposed to be the upper limit, but ten-times an M8 should be an M9, a magnitude that’s off the chart
Mount Toba
Finally stepping out of North America, Mount Toba in Indonesia is another supereruption that could break the scale.
I’ve talked about the Toba explosion before, it happened fairly recently, only 74,000 years ago and it’s been thought to have nearly wiped out early humans – though that theory is falling in popularity.
Anyway, it’s ejecta has been given a range between 1500 to 13,000 cubic kilometers, which would would dwarf Wah Wah Springs on the high end.
Lake Taupo
Then there’s Lake Taupo (Toe-paw) in New Zealand, whose supereruption named Oruanui turned Mount Taupo into Lake Taupo about 26,500 years ago.
This wasn’t the largest supereruption on record but it was the most recent, and it has some interesting features.
For one thing, it happened in stages, with long breaks between. Most supervolcanoes don’t work like this but it’s thought that it may have been drawing magma from another pocket along the Kaiapo fault.
This might have caused the pressure to build more regularly and explode in 10 different phases.
Over those phases it ejected 1170 cubic kilometers. Again, that’s on the low end for supervolcanoes but it was still strong enough to cover islands 1000 kilometers away in 18 centimeters of ash.
So even if you’re a megameter away, you can still get dusty.
On top of all these supervolcanoes I mentioned there’s also a couple in South America, including the Cerro Gaucha in Bolivia and the Andes Central Volcanic Zone in Chile.
Interestingly, more than half of all the supervolcano eruptions around the world have been in North America.
Mass Extinction
That makes for a grand total of 8 supervolcano sites around the world. And none of them have gone off in a while. (nervous) Which is a little unsettling.
But exactly how borked would we be if one of these bad boys blew its top? Would it be an extinction-level event? Looking back through history can give us a clue.
Because the largest mass extinction on record is thought to coincide with a series of volcanic events.
Assuming, of course, you don’t count the current anthropocene extinction event we’re currently seeing right now, in which the volcano… is us. Be the volcano.
The Permian-Triassic extinction event, dated to around 252 million years ago, took place at the same time as the formation of the Emeishan Traps in China and Russia’s Siberian Traps.
These “flood basalt provinces” were shaped by tens-of-thousands to a million of years of eruptions and lava flows that also released massive amounts of carbon dioxide, which changed the climate drastically. And killed 96% of marine species and 73% of terrestrial species.
Again, this took place over a length of time longer than our species has been in existence. A single supervolcano explosion probably wouldn’t be enough to totally wipe us out.
But… it wouldn’t be great either.
First of all there would be massive devastation anywhere near the supereruption site. Remember that a Yellowstone eruption could bury an area the size of Texas under 5 feet of ash and magma.
So you can pretty much expect the western half of the United States to be uninhabitable for a while. That alone would displace or kill between 100 and 120 million people.
Beyond the local area, we could probably expect worldwide food shortages due to a combination of cold temperatures and acid rain, which is another fun side-effect of volcanic gasses in the atmosphere.
The atmospheric problems would probably clear up relatively quickly, in a year or two. But if the Minoans taught us anything, it’s that nature is only one part of the equation. The rest is societal.
Because society will absolutely collapse. And here’s how you can prepare for that.
Worst Case Scenario
First of all, stock up on toilet paper.  Because we’ve all seen how fast that can disappear.
You’ll also want to stock up on shelf-stable food, any medicine you need, and supplementary vitamins
Gas masks are essential if you’re anywhere near the eruption because not only do they release toxic gasses but also a lot of CO2.
Giant pockets of CO2 passing over your town would be deadly if you don’t have access to an oxygen supply, so you might want to keep some extra oxygen tanks around.
And once you’re done hiding from gas clouds, you’ll be ready to hide from a much bigger danger. Your neighbors.
When the food starts going away, people get a little crazy. We saw some of this in 1816 after the Tambora explosion and crops started failing.
Hell just the several days of darkness as the ash spreads around the world would make some people go a little primal.
So it wouldn’t be the worst idea to have an underground bunker with an electric generator, because electricity infrastructure would be massively damaged and plants will start going offline.
Of course the generators would only last a little while. Chances are transportation corridors would be closed, so gas will eventually run out when trucks can’t get to the stations.
So you’ll want to have some source of localized power. Solar is good but limited as the ash has darkened the sky, so having some wind power would help out a lot.
Just be ready to defend that when the angry hoardes come calling.
In fact, some speculate that we can expect to see communities springing up around nuclear power plants because they would still be making energy for a long time after the eruption.
Humanity would recover eventually. Maybe with our current level of technology, we would have the ability to get back up to speed faster than the Minoans were able.
Luckily, all of these sites and large igneous provinces are being studied obsessively and nobody thinks there’s a threat of a supereruption happening anytime soon.
And even then only the worst of the worst case scenarios would end our species. But it’s possible. Maybe even inevitable.
And there are other threats besides volcanoes, asteroids and the like that threaten our planet; this is the reason many people argue that we should colonize the solar system.
Don’t put all your eggs in a basket filled with supervolcanoes.
We live on a dynamic and volatile planet. One guided by forces that we can’t control.  Supervolcanoes are a sobering reminder of that.
But, and I can’t repeat this too much, it could be thousands of years before another supervolcano goes off, and there are other threats that are a lot more immediate. So let’s focus on those.

Apparently “Mind Blindness” Is A Thing

 

What do you “see” in your mind’s eye? Is it as real as looking at a photo? Or do you not see any images at all? It turns out there are 3-5% of the population who don’t have the ability to form images in their heads. It’s a condition called “Imagination blindness” or Aphantasia, and it was only recently discovered.

 

Along with Aphantasia is the opposite end of the spectrum, Hyperphantasia, where the mind’s eye is so vivid, it’s hard to distinguish between what’s real and what’s imagination.

It opens up a lot of questions about how we see and perceive our world.

 

I want to start this video with a little exercise. So if you don’t mind playing along with me, here’s what I want to do…

I want you to imagine a dog. Any dog. Just whenever I say the word “dog” what comes to mind? And then I want you to go into the comments and describe what you see in as much detail as possible. Go ahead and pause the video, take your time, just what do you see when I ask you to imagine a dog.

 

Go ahead. (wait a beat. Eat something)

 

All right, so some of you will have described a very specific dog, specific color, hair length, size, age, maybe it’s even doing something like panting or sleeping or running.

A certain percentage of comments might describe it exactly like looking at a photograph or a video.

 

For others, the description might be of a vague dog, no specifics really but still a dog.

And of course most of those comments will describe your mom.

 

But if recent studies are any indicator, there’s about three to five percent of you that weren’t able to visualize anything at all. Maybe didn’t even understand the question.

Because it turns out that some people don’t have a mind’s eye.

 

This inability to visualize in your mind’s eye is a condition called aphantasia. It’s also known as “image-free thinking.”

Those who have aphantasia are unable to create images in their minds of people, places, and objects.

 

On the complete opposite end is a condition experienced by 10 to 15 percent of people called hyperphantasia.

That’s when someone has extremely vivid visualizations in the mind’s eye.

https://aphantasia.com/what-is-aphantasia/

 

[Basic definitions:
Aphantasia = no ability to create visuals in your mind’s eye
Hyperphantasia = inability to turn off the visuals in your mind’s eye]

To be clear, it’s not simply that some people have one or the other and some don’t. It’s a spectrum.

According to Dr. Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter in Britain, “This is not a disorder as far as I can see,” “It’s an intriguing variation in human experience.”

 

And Dr. Zeman should know because he coined the term a-phantasia. Phantasia being the Latin word for fantasy or imagination. So, A-phantasia is someone who is without that.

He coined this phrase in 2015 after meeting a patient he named “MX” who could no longer imagine after undergoing heart surgery.

 

After telling the patient’s story to the media, people started coming out of the woodwork to say that yeah, they can’t do that either.

And this is when things got interesting because it turns out this is a relatively common experience, but people didn’t really talk about it because they didn’t realize their experience was any different than anybody else’s.

 

We just kind of assume that other people’s experience of imagining things is similar to our own, so we don’t question it. It kind-of took someone losing it for us to know that it was something you could be without.

 

Although it wasn’t totally out of the blue. British psychologist Francis Galton first reported similar cases way back in 1880.

He conducted a study where he asked 100 participants to imagine their breakfast tables. Twelve people claimed to have very dim mental images or no imagery at all.

 

But this research was practically ignored for more than a hundred years until Zeman came along with MX’s story.

Now even though the term “aphantasia” technically means “without imagination”, that’s not really what’s going on here.

 

People with aphantasia can still be imaginative and experience the world fully. They just don’t do it with what we might call a “mind’s eye”.

In fact, they’re probably really good at knowing facts, but struggle with episodic memory and remembering faces.

 

When asked to describe his fiancee, one person told the BBC in 2015 that he can think about her, that she’s brunette, and that she has her hair up at the back.

“But I’m not describing an image I am looking at,” he said. “I’m remembering features about her, that’s the strangest thing…”

 

In other words, some people with aphantasia can recall things they’ve seen, but it’s memory and not imagination.

Also, it’s not just visual images. Fairly recently it swept social media that some people have an inner monologue and some people don’t. That’s a kind of aphantasia.

For what it’s worth I don’t just have a monologue, I have a dialogue. Between multiple characters. My brain’s basically a Monty Python sketch. And I personally can’t imagine how someone could function without that, but a lot of people do and that’s super interesting to me.

 

Actually my writer Jason, when he was researching this topic, he found out that a member of his improv group has aphantasia.

He said that he kind-of has an inner monologue, but it’s just a string of words, unless he imagines it in like an actor’s voice, then it’s like his thoughts have a narrator. And as for images, he says he can remember a similar image and extrapolate from that, but to put it in computer terms, images are more like a database entry with various qualities of the image listed but the link to the image is broken.

 

And this is a common thing I ran across researching this, that people with aphantasia can recall various details of an image but it just doesn’t form an actual image in their minds. Now to switch to the other side of the spectrum for a second, someone with hyperphantasia might see pictures in their mind so vivid that they can have trouble telling the difference between imagination and reality.

 

In fact, for some people the visualization in their mind is more visceral and affecting than looking at an actual image.

The artist Clare Dudeney described this in an interview with Science Focus in 2019, saying, “When people describe some terrible accident, I visualise it so strongly that I feel it’s happening to me.” She added, “I can watch gruesome things on TV and be fine, but a passage in a book can bring to mind such vivid images that I faint.”

 

Honestly, I might be closer to that than I am to aphantasia. Sometimes I’ll be daydreaming and maybe I’ll imagine trying to catch something and I’ll knock things off my table. Happened a lot when I was a kid in school actually, I got stared at a lot.

 

[It’s not just a “some people have it and some don’t” scenario. It’s a spectrum and on one extreme is aphantasia and hyperphantasia on the other. Most people fall somewhere in the middle.

It was only given a name recently when (details in the TED talk) someone had a brain injury and they noticed they couldn’t visualize afterwards.
It’s not something that was understood to be a thing because people don’t question how they experience the world; we just assume everyone experiences it like we do. It took someone losing it to know what it’s like to not have it.

How people with aphantasia and hyperphantasia experience the world]

 

But like Dr. Zeman said earlier in the video, this isn’t a cognitive ailment by any means, there are pros and cons to both extremes of the spectrum.

 

Some of the positive traits for aphantasia include:

– High abstract reasoning
– Increased concentration skills
– Being more present in the moment

Some disadvantages include:

– Unable to dream in pictures
– Inability to imagine the faces of loved ones who have passed away
– Being lost when someone describes something you haven’t seen or experienced

For hyperphantasia, the pros may include:

– Seeing everything vividly in your head
– Ability to plan things in more detail
– Resuming dreams after waking up

And the challenges may include:

– Seeing everything vividly in your head
– Reliving situations over and over in your head
– Losing focus

 

In fact some have argued that people with aphantasia are better able to deal with traumatic experiences because they don’t recall it as vividly and immediately as other people do.

Whereas someone with hyperphantasia might be more prone to conditions like PTSD because every time they remember the trauma it’s like it’s happening all over again. So if you have aphantasia, you might be more likely to work in scientific or mathematical professions than other people, you might have a natural leg up in those areas.

 

Which might make you ask, where do you land on this spectrum, what natural abilities might you have because of it? Well, there are several tests to help determine that. British psychologist David Marks developed the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) in 1973. Researchers refer to it most often when they study imagery extremes like aphantasia and hyperphantasia.

 

The test includes four scenarios in which you’re asked to rank how vividly you can see them in your mind. The scenarios include imagining a loved one’s face, a favorite store, or a pretty landscape. The one-to-five ratings go from “no image at all” to “perfectly realistic.”

 

Another evaluation is the Spontaneous Use of Imagery Scale (SUIS), which measures general occurrences of imagery in daily life. It consists of twelve scenarios and uses a five-point rating scale. A Dutch version uses nine scenarios.
https://psyarxiv.com/j2h8k/download

 

SUIS doesn’t measure the auditory part I mentioned earlier, the inner monologue thing, it only focuses on visual imagery. SUIS is concerned with the frequency and likelihood of mental imagery, compared to the VVIQ that focuses on the vividness and quality of mental images.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4538780/

 

There’s also the Object-Spatial Imagery Questionnaire (OSIQ), which was created to evaluate individual differences in visual imagery experiences and preferences.

 

It has two scales:

– Object imagery, which evaluates preferences for processing and representing colorful, high-res, and pictorial images of specific objects
– Spatial imagery, which evaluates preferences for processing and representing relations among objects, spatial transformations, and schematic images

 

Binocular rivalry is another way to measure mental imagery. This process investigates the neural mechanisms of perceptual awareness. Visual perception alternates between our eyes during binocular rivalry when we’re presented with two different fields of view. The back and forth of perception relies on the strength of inhibitory interactions between neuronal groups in the visual cortex.

 

Studies using binocular rivalry priming have shown that aphantasia is more due to a lack of sensory imagery and not a lack of metacognition. That was a lot of big words and I think it broke me. I’ll put links to all these tests down in the description if you want to go see where you lie on this scale.

 

Pros and cons of aphantasia and hyperphantasia

A few things that stood out was that it’s possible people with aphantasia might handle traumatic experiences better because they can’t visualize them whereas people with average or hyperphantasia relive bad memories over and over more vividly. However, being unable to visualize in your mind might make some types of work impossible (TED talk mentions architect)

 

Types of tests to see where you are on the mind’s eye spectrum:

VVIQ
SUIS
OSIQ
Binocular rivalry

 

But hold on a second, if we experience visuals in our “mind’s eye” so differently, does that apply to how we see things in general? Like how does our brain process visuals in the first place?

 

Here’s a brief rundown.

The optic nerve travels to two places, the thalamus and the superior colliculus, which helps determine where our eyes and head move. Visual input then travels to the visual cortex from the thalamus. The visual cortex is located at the back of our brains. It’s where the building blocks of vision are combined to produced perception.

 

Researchers believe that visual processing occurs through two information streams:

– Where Pathway – which deals with object movement and location
– What Pathway – which recognizes and identifies objects

 

But the visual cortex can be divided into several distinct sub-regions, with simple visual features located in lower areas and more complex features in higher areas. The primary visual cortex is at the bottom, and it’s sensitive to basic visual signals like object orientation and direction. The next area up responds to contours, textures, and if something is in the background or foreground.

 

After this area, the pathways carrying What and Where information split up into specific brain areas. For example, the inferior temporal cortex that represents complete objects is located at the top of the What hierarchy. There is even a part of this cortex called the fusiform face area that specifically responds to faces.

 

But this bottom-up approach to processing vision is slow. That’s why the brain also relies on top-down mechanisms to process visuals.

Since a lot of information gets lost by the time it reaches the brain, our brains construct reality for us based on past experiences and stored information. Top-down mechanisms affect things like attention, object expectation, scene segmentation, and working memory.

 

The entire visual pathway, except for the retina, is influenced by top-down mechanisms. Knowing this, how do we create images in our heads? In other words, how does imagination work in our brains?

 

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2013 helps answer this. The study’s researchers analyzed multiple patterns of fMRI data and discovered it wasn’t just the visual cortex alone that contributed to imagination.

 

There were twelve “regions of interest” also involved. Brain areas like the cerebellum, the medial frontal cortex, and the precuneus helped create a “mental workplace” to create imagined people, places, and things.

 

People with aphantasia who have difficulty imagining things may have had it their whole lives, or it was brought on by a medical or psychological condition. Another reason people with aphantasia might not be able to visualize may be due to cortical excitability.

 

In other words, how sensitive the neurons are in your frontal cortex. In a study published in eLife in 2020, scientists discovered that the less excitable someone’s visual cortex is, the more vivid their mind’s eye. “When we found that cortical excitability was negatively correlated with imagery strength, we were at first surprised,” lead researcher Rebecca Keogh told Aphantasia Network. “But as all of the other experiments started to line up showing the same trend, we became excited that we had found a potential underlying mechanism that explains individual difference in imagery ability.”

 

The researchers conducted further studies and arrived at a theory that those who have hyperphantasia either have a not-excitable visual cortex, an excitable prefrontal cortex, or both. And those who have aphantasia have a more excitable visual cortex, a less excitable prefrontal cortex, or both.

 

And I said before, this experience varies across individuals. And it’s not one or the other, it’s a whole spectrum.

[Any research into how we create visuals in our brains (Reticular Activating System?) and why on a physical level some people can’t do it

Inner monologue similar – some people have it and some don’t.

My own experience (might do one of these tests on myself and see what I get. I feel like I lean toward hyperphantasia)]

 

For me this is just further proof that how we see the world is unique in so many ways. I mean we’re literally over here talking about how we visualize the world differently.

 

And maybe now that we understand the “phantasia” spectrum, it can open up conversations about how we see things differently. Maybe this is the beginning of a new era of understanding and celebrating our different worldviews.

 

Any day now. Any day now that could happen.

Victorian Medicine Was Completely Insane

Here we go again. I recently covered the Victorian Era but today I want to point out the incredibly weird health and beauty practices that Victorians were into back in the day.

As I say in the video, Victorian medicine was a mix of terrible old ideas and terrible new ideas, from people drinking radioactive water to eating ground-up mummies our transition to the modern medical system we see today hit some interesting bumps in the road.

Oxygen Is Killing You | Answers With Joe

We all know you need oxygen to live. But why? What happens to oxygen in our bodies? Why does it keep us alive? And maybe most importantly, why does it slowly kill us?

In today’s video, I explore the process of respiration, how it’s weirdly similar to fire, and why we rely on one of the most corrosive elements in the universe to survive. It gets weirdly existential.

 

TRANSCRIPT:

What is it about fire? What is it about the dancing of the flames that you can’t help but get lost in them? Why do we gather around and stare at them in groups? Sure, we gather around them for warmth, but go to any campfire, everyone’s staring at it. We can stare into a fire for hours, it can hold our attention as well as any TV show.

Maybe we’re just drawn to non-repeating patterns. Maybe there’s something about the color that is especially pleasing to our eyes. Maybe we’re just moths.

There are some who believe that fire is what made us who we are. That once we learned to control fire, it not only changed how we ate, making it possible to get more nutrition out of food, but also that watching fires stimulated our brains, gathering around the fire provided opportunities to bond and communicate with others, share ideas, and all this extra stimulation grew our prefrontal cortex and made us humans.

Our connection to fire goes way deep, in fact, the chemical reactions that power our cells and bodies are very similar to the ones that are involved with combustion. We are, in a very real sense, living fire.

There’s a toxic substance that surrounds you all of the time. It’s in the air you breathe and the water that you drink. It’s in every cell in your body. And it’s slowly eating away at you.

I’m not talking about that feeling of imminent doom. Though it’s there.

I’m talking about oxygen, something you probably don’t think twice about… until you can’t breathe.

We all know we can’t live without oxygen, that oxygen is essential for life, at least life as we know it on this planet. But… why?

What exactly does it do after we breathe it in? Why did we evolve this way, and where did it come from in the first place?

I don’t know about you but I’d never really thought about it. Then I did. Turns out it’s really interesting. Interesting in a, “oh, cool a new existential crisis” way.

So let’s start with what you already know.

The majority of oxygen on our planet comes from photosynthesis. Plants and trees take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen.

And then we breathe in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. That they turn back into oxygen. It’s the great oxygen cycle that powers our world.

The oxygen cycle that is interconnected with the carbon cycle because CO2 is just an oxygen molecule with a carbon on it.

Sunlight hitting water vapors can also produce oxygen by splitting it off of water molecules.

But the biggest producer of the planet’s oxygen supply comes from one of Earth’s tiniest organisms: Prochlorococcus.

This species found in the oceans produces up to twenty percent of the oxygen in our biosphere.

In fact, scientists estimate that the ocean is responsible for up to eighty percent of our oxygen supply.

But the world hasn’t always been like this.

Before about 2.4 billion years ago, there was very little oxygen in the atmosphere, it was mostly nitrogen, carbon dioxide and methane.

And the oceans may have been green and not blue, because of all the iron in them.

And there was single-celled life at this time, but it was anaerobic life, meaning it doesn’t need oxygen.

But then, about 2.4 billion years ago, some photosynthesizers showed up, specifically cyanobacteria, which used the sun to convert that carbon dioxide and water into energy.

And the waste product of this reaction was oxygen.

This new way of making energy was super efficient compared to everything else and cyanobacteria just took over the world, each one of them farting out oxygen in what scientists call the Great Oxygenation Event.

All that oxygen in the atmosphere killed off the anaerobic microbes, and the world changed dramatically.

There was less carbon dioxide in the air. Temperatures dropped. And most of the life that was around was pushed to extinction.

(maybe a microbe with an RIP across it)

Which is sad. Poor little anaerobic bacteria. But, these changes led to an explosion of genetic diversity and set the world on the course to make us. So yeah… Big mistake.

So okay, that’s where oxygen is from but where is it FROM?

Well Oxygen has 8 protons so like anything bigger than hydrogen or helium, it comes from supernova explosions that scatter it out amongst gas clouds that eventually coalesce into planets like big blue here.

And oxygen is the universe’s third most abundant element, after hydrogen and helium.

And oxygen has been around quite a while.

A team of astronomers published a paper in The Astrophysical Journal Letters in 2020 describing how they detected large amounts of oxygen in an ancient star.

The star, which has the catchy name of J0815+4729 is an elementally depleted star located more than 5,000 light years away toward the Lynx constellation.

The astronomers suggest that the star’s primitive composition shows that it was formed “during the first hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang, possibly from the material expelled from the first supernovae of the Milky Way.”

So yeah, the oxygen you’re breathing right now, it’s old, it’s ancient, it’s got… wisdom. Listen to your breath… and you can hear the wisdom of the universe…

Anyway, so we’ve got its origin story, now what makes it so special?

Like, why does it support combustion? Why does fire need it to burn? What makes it so reactive? How does it cause rust?

Concerning combustion… There are three things required to create it:

  • Fuel – something that burns
  • Energy – what starts the reaction
  • Oxidizer – a molecule that accepts electrons

 

Wait, what?

Okay, so this is the best way that I can make sense of it but please keep in mind that this kid (hold up old photo) really struggled in chemistry class.

Those of you who follow space stuff probably know that thermal management is a big part of space travel because in space there’s no air for the heat to conduct into.

That’s why the ISS has heat exchangers and radiators to prevent it from getting too hot.

Well, combustion is basically fuel donating electrons.

And just like heat on the space station, those electrons need someplace to go. And not all molecules have room to accept any electrons.

But oxygen does. And here’s why…

Oxygen in a neutral state has eight protons and eight electrons, with the protons shmooshed together in the nucleus and the electrons configured in shells of two and six, but it wants to have eight electrons in its outer shell.

This makes it electronegative. It wants to steal from atoms that give up their electrons so it can complete its outer shell.

And look, I know I’m being really simplistic with the language here but this guy here was too busy drawing in class so this is the best I can do.

So fire is the visible effect of combustion. A fuel with electrons to spare meets a source of energy, oxygen takes the electrons. The fuel is transformed, and what’s left over is smoke. And ash.

Another visible effect of combustion is rust.

Rust is known as iron oxide because it is iron that has been oxidized.

Rust is an example of corrosion, which is an electrochemical process that involves an anode, a piece of metal that gives up electrons, an electrolyte, and a cathode, a piece of metal that accepts electrons.

As the metal corrodes, the electrolyte offers oxygen to the anode. When oxygen combines with the metal, the electrons are freed.

As they move through the electrolyte to the cathode, the anode’s metal transforms. And what’s left over is rust.

By the way if some of that sounds a lot like how a battery works… Yeah. It’s the same principle that batteries work on.

Basic overview

And, in a similar but different way, this is what’s happening in your body.

When you eat, oxygen oxidizes the food to generate energy by combining itself with sugars.

So what happens is when we digest food in the gastrointestinal tract, those sugar molecules pass into the blood.

The blood moves the molecules to the cells, and mitochondria break up the molecules’ chemical bonds to release energy.

Cells needs oxygen to complete this process.

So at the same time that your guts are breaking down those sugars and passing them through the bloodstream, your lungs are breathing in oxygen..

This oxygen travels through tubes in your lungs called bronchi. These branch off into smaller tubes called bronchioles.

Tiny air sacs called alveoli are at the end of each bronchiole. Tiny blood vessels called capillaries cover the alveoli.

This is where the oxygen gets passed into the blood.

The oxygenated blood travels to the heart, which pumps it out to the cells in the body. Once in the cells, it combines with those sugars in the mitochondria.

And this is called cellular respiration.

Sugars in food are converted into simple sugar glucose, and the energy stored in glucose is transferred to adenosine triphosphate (ATP), an organic compound.

Similar to how fire uses oxygen to burn, the mitochondria use it to convert glucose into ATP, again, by stealing electrons. What’s left over is carbon dioxide and water.

The blood delivers carbon dioxide to the capillaries, the alveoli move it into the lungs, and then you exhale and remove it from your body.

So our bodies rely on one of the most corrosive elements on the periodic table to live. Unsurprisingly, that takes a toll over time.

We breathe an average of 22,000 times per day. Most of the time, the transfer of oxygen to the blood goes smoothly, but things go a bit wonky around two percent of the time.

This is when our metabolism produces free radicals, which are oxygen atoms with an unpaired electron.

Free radicals are unstable and try to pair up with any atom for stability. They may attack lipids, proteins, sugars, and nucleic acids.

And this is what antioxidants are for. They’re compounds that prevent the creation of free radicals. And this is something our bodies make naturally, but but when there is an imbalance between the two, cells experience oxidative stress.

This is one of the major contributors to aging-related diseases like:

  • Cancer
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Diabetes
  • Inflammatory disorders
  • Male infertility
  • Parkinson’s disease

According to the free-radicals theory, superoxide and other free radicals damage a cell’s components.

Constant maintenance is required, but over time the damage becomes too much for the cell to handle and it starts to lose its ability to properly function.

And while studies over the years on how much antioxidants can increase longevity have been inconclusive, one mitochondrion waste product may help delay aging.

Take it deeper – what it all means

So, that’s where oxygen came from, how it took over the world and how it both keeps us alive and is slowly rusting us. It giveth and taketh away.

On this planet anyway. There might be conditions on other planets that would favor some other oxidizer. Fluorine is also electronegative, but violently so, it explodes when exposed to air.

But maybe in a different environment with higher pressures and temperatures and whatnot, maybe it would combust in a more measured way like oxygen does here.

Regardless, when we look for habitable planets, we still look for oxygen because we know at least one form of life that farts it out. But even still, oxygen isn’t proof that there’s life on a planet.

I mentioned earlier that oxygen can be made with photosynthesis but also it can be split off of water vapor molecules by solar radiation.

It is possible if a warm ocean planet is too close to its star, it could get hit with enough UV radiation to create a decent amount of oxygen and hydrogen.

The hydrogen escapes to space and leaves oxygen behind. Over time, a thick oxygen layer builds up and entire oceans disappear. So you could have a lifeless planet with a lot of oxygen in the atmosphere.

Conclusion/Callback

So yeah, in a lot of ways the same forces that produce that campfire that may have shaped humans into what we are today, are working inside of us our entire lives. Maybe that’s why we have such a connection to fire, because we are a kind of fire.

We are basically a very complicated way of making this (hold up food) give its electrons to bacteria farts. Until the bacteria farts kill us.

Bon apetite.

 

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