The Human Mind: Unfiltered and Infinite

So a few nights ago I was watching TED talks before bed (#nerdlife) and there was a really interesting talk by  Ray Kurzweil who talked about the evolution of the human brain. In his talk he talked about how as Google moves towards more and more intelligent searching and our technologies for imaging the brain become more and more advanced, we will move towards adding these neurotechnologies to our brain so that one day we will truly have an infinite source of knowledge by inserting nanobots into our brain that connect to a cloud service.

Ultimate point – we will put Google in our brain.

And Google will learn to understand what webpages are saying. So when we ask Google it won’t bring up search results, it will have read and can deliver responses to complex questions (it can already tell you the answers to a large number of simple questions, and yet can’t tell me why the chicken crossed the road).

And I thought oh good God.
I mean can we just go back to Google – who already knows far too much about my existence thanks to my laziness with telling it not to track me – being in my brain and possibly searching based on my thoughts.
My mind will be Google’s.
Google already owns my digital data. It’s like the Miranda Rights of the internet. “Anything you search or post can be used to sell things to you. If you do not want us to do this, too bad. Do you understand these rights?”
But Google may one day have access to my subconscious thoughts?! Google will own my consciousness. Which means Google will own me?
Remind me to opt out of this nanobot thing. I would rather be the dumb old lady.

But this all got me thinking about what this means for the human species.

Google was added to the dictionary in 2006. True Story. It replaced a previous definition from 1907 that had something to do with cricket (the sport not the insect)...

Google was added to the dictionary in 2006. True Story. It replaced a previous definition from 1907 that had something to do with cricket (the sport not the insect)…

The big thing for me is that it already kind of bothers me, is that we live in a “Google it” world. And in full disclosure of my hypocrisy, I was overjoyed when they updated Google Now so that Google checked for my responses. (Hallelujah I don’t have to hit send anymore when I tell Google to text people! She ASKS me if I want to send the message and then turns the mike back on.) When my mom asks me what she should wear, I ask Google what the weather is. She commented “I wonder if it’ll be nice in Ottawa this weekend…” and I asked Google. Before I leave the house, Google tells me how long it will take to get to work. Google knows my habits, my appointments, my interests and concerns. And it’s terrifying.

But back to the issues at hand:

  1. To be useful, Google needs to know our needs. Like how Google noticed that I had a recurring appointment every Tuesday and started automatically giving me departure times and directions. So Google needs full access. It needs to know everything about us to know what we would need. If Google is in our brain, how do we clear browser history?
    If Google knows everything about our existence, then the access to our thoughts thing that I feared a few weeks ago when I talked about Mark Zuckerburg’s outrageous claim that one day our thoughts would be uploaded to Facebook, might actually be something we should be concerned about
  2. If we all have access to this vast array of knowledge – what does this mean about experts and intelligence tests? No one likes a know-it-all. And knowing and understanding are two vastly different concepts.

So Issue #1A: By wanting to know it all, are we essentially exposing every fiber of our existence to the world? Are we uploading our private thoughts to the internet in a quest for unlimited knowledge and smooth, hands-free access to the knowledge contained in the internet?

Issue #1B: We’re creepy enough with the internet as is… I think this may allow us to hit creepy level 1000. What happened to getting to know someone the old fashioned way?

Issue #2: Are we going to be smarter? Or dumber with more declarative/factual knowledge?

Potential bonus: If Google indeed monitors our consciousness, perhaps this technology could be used to flag individuals in need of mental health aid – for example, if Google noticed cognitive markers for an eating disorder or noticed that you were suicidal, perhaps Google could connect you to services or at least make recommendations. But this may not be enough – telling someone they have depression won’t make them get help, so at what point does Google become responsible for safeguarding our lives and sanity, and at what point is it reasonable to breach the privacy of the human mind?

But I mean the real question on everyone’s mind I’m sure (no pun intended) is will this be like smart phones and we’ll just use these nanobots to search more pictures of cats. Pictures that can be uploaded directly to our visual cortex?

the truth right there.

the truth right there.


Tattoos and Business Suits

Today my mom and I returned to the tattoo studio for my second and her fourth tattoo. This time we got a shared tattoo, which is incredibly exciting, but the entire process this time around has really drawn my attention to the future. As in the dress-pants, pencil skirts, blouses and tidy pullover cardigans that represents my future.

My mom's tattoo

My mom’s tattoo

This is my tattoo

This is my tattoo

I am planning a “professional career” which means being calm and poised all the time. Which I feel like is a 75/25 thing. It’s hard for me to even imagine me as an adult, but it is a slow transition I suppose.

Getting ready for bed a few nights ago I asked Aaraf if I looked different, if I was different? It seemed prudent to ask someone else, because I know that seeing someone every day can make you miss things that change gradually over time. I know I wear a lot more cardigans than I did first year, last year I bought my first blazer, and I would never dream of sweatpants in class. Or out of the house in general. Except to go to Walmart. I can acknowledge that especially since the GRE, I have shifted to a more refined vocabulary. I take time on a Friday to mow my lawn and rake the leaves, Saturdays are filled with household chores. And I feel a lot more educated and aware of issues and topics. I know how to read a study in the news and judge its potential worth, I know that I need to track down the original source, and I understand how media presentation affects perception and understanding. So I know about all of these changes, I know how my behaviours have changed since first year, but does this all make me look different? Or am I the same person, just with better clothes and vocabulary? Aaraf said of course I’ve changed, but not really that much he doesn’t think.

Still pondering the answer to this question I took to Facebook. My life has been laid out on social media. Keeping an accurate record of at least public Niki. You know – the social me, who appears to have a much more vibrant social life than I really believe, the me that says semi-witty things on a semi-routine basis, and shares semi-serious content on other semi-routine bases. According to social media I am pretty much the exact same person. Minus that brief period where I dyed my hair dark. And the newly inked back and wrist.

So I’m the same person but a totally different person. On a cellular level, most of my cells have probably been replaced multiple times. Theoretically I am in a whole new skin. But still am I the same person? Or am I a more fragmented person? Is fragmented really the right word? I’m not broken or anything, but there are a number of different people I am now, we just share the same body. The same core? What is that core? Am I having an identity crisis over a tattoo?

I have spent a number of years figuring out exactly who I am, and each piece of me adds to the puzzle, but without all the pieces I have no idea who I am, and yet the puzzle can always be expanded. Is that analogy too cheesy? Does it even make sense? Bah. Doesn’t matter just go with it.

Either way, I at least semi-appear to have figured out all the major parts of me. I know what I want to be future parts of me. But how does that fit with who I am now? Do I have to let go of the goofy side of me? Give up my tattoos and enter a world of business suits and high heels? Oh God. I miss my sneakers already.

Curious about the whole affair I decided to do what I do best: Google things until I have come up with a vaguely logical but entirely convincing argument. This isn’t the first time I researched tattoos, nor the first time I have used the university’s vast bibliographic resources to research something entirely unrelated to my education (my tuition is high enough that I think it’s a fair use).

About a year and a half ago just before I got my first tattoo, I researched the psychology of tattoos. I found some cool stuff. And explanations from every branch of psychology. Included in this the evolutionary explanation that since tattoos used to pose a significant health risk, and still hypothetically do, having a tattoo was a sign of higher fitness because they had a strong enough immune system that they could survive the risk. Also on the list? A need for uniqueness prompts people to permanently ink their skin. That it is a part of individual identity, a matter of self-expression. That they are an indication of a socially undesirable personality and behaviours. Or that you are doing it to fit in with your peers or a subculture.

When I returned to Google today in search of an answer on the whole professionals with tattoos debate, what I found, confirmed a lot of what I think about tattoos, which is to say, I came up with no clear opinion.

See I personally believe that the world is becoming more socially accepting of tattoos, no longer are they signs that you are some sort of thug or ne’er do well. At the same time I also believe that the professional world still views visible tattoos as about as acceptable as showing up to work in the nude. And to be clear, when I say professionals I mean the jobs that require a painful amount of education, or that place you in executive positions where people look to you to be the stereotypical upstanding citizen. Think doctors, lawyers, professors, and yes, psychologists. So I think both they’re no big deal and they’re career blocks at the same time.

But guess what?

My generation (the group currently between the ages of 18 and 29 years old) is the most tattooed generation in history with 38% bearing at least one tattoo, 14% bearing two or more1. And yet according to a survey done by in 2011 of 2878 companies, 31% of companies would be less likely to give an individual with a visible tattoo a promotion. On the upside, this is only marginally worse than having messy hair (29%) and apparently having a body piercing (I am presuming other than traditional ear lobe) is actually worse (37% say this would make them less likely to give the promotion).

The funny thing is that with two tattoos already and a third planned within the next two years, you would assume that I am wholly accepting of ink. But I honestly don’t know if I would be comfortable if I went into my doctor’s office and he or she had multiple arm tattoos. I wouldn’t completely write them off as a person or doctor, but I know I would question their… ability to be a doctor?  I don’t know. Well I do but can’t explain it.

This is the first one - each of the petals on the flower represent the people in my life that matter to me, the petals that are flying off represent the things that are no longer in my life - like my brother Troy (the orange one)

This is the first one – each of the petals on the flower represent the people in my life that matter to me, the petals that are flying off represent the things that are no longer in my life – like my brother Troy (the orange one)

Do I regret my decisions to get tattoos? No. I would do it again in a heartbeat. They are not tacky or vulgar images inked forever, they are pure and beautiful representations of who I am and what matters to me. Neither were done on impulse, my policy is I have to have wanted the tattoo for at least a year. Yes, one day they will fade and they probably won’t look as nice when my skin loses its elasticity, but my memory and the meaning will be as clear as the day I cursed the tattoo artist.

Conclusion? Does this tattoo business fit with my psychologist business? Maybe not quite. But psychology is about people helping people. Highly trained people, but still people. And the statistics don’t lie – people get tattoos. I’m not saying that I am going to go get full sleeves, or start getting all sorts of highly conspicuous tattoos, but I am saying that this is a part of me that I am not willing to let go. If I am rich or successful but unhappy is it really worth it? In my opinion no.

So here, hours after I have a newly stinging and itchy arm, I present to you ten at least moderately interesting facts about the history and practice of tattoos:

  1. Tattoos have been around for at least 5200 years. In 1991, between the Austrian and Italian borders, an “iceman” was found with 57 carbon tattoos. Tattoos have also been found on several female Egyptians. Tattoos on the Egyptian females were thought to be a sort of protection during pregnancy judging from the patterns and locations
  2. Tattoos at one point were a good thing. Among the Scythians and Thracians tattoos were a sign of nobility, not having them was clear sign of low birth. Several other ancient civilizations including the Greeks, Britons, and Romans, used them to indicate high status or belonging to a specific group, it wasn’t until Emperor Constantine felt that they “disfigured that made in God’s image” that they were banned.
  3. The modern word for tattoo came after James Cooks’ expeditions to Tahiti in 1769, from the islanders’ term “tatatau” or “tattau.” In these and similar Polynesian and other societies including the Maori of New Zealand, tattoos were a mark of status given to the chiefs, if you refused or could not endure the pain it was a mark of shame.2
  4. In North America, the modern electric tattoo needle was invented in 1891 by Samuel O’Reilly3 who realized that Thomas Edison’s design for “stencil pens” could be modified for tattooing purposes. Twenty days after O’Reilly filed his patent, Thomas Riley patented a single coil electromagnetic machine. The modern two coil machine was invented by Alfred South, or perhaps some other guy, there is a lot of debate in this area as a lot of people were working on a lot of things at this time, but by the early 1900’s we had the modern machine.
  5. In ancient cultures, tattoos were very long and painful processes (think days, or months depending on the size and extent of coverage) involving some sort of set of needles carved from bones or other materials and a mallet2.
  6. The modern system involves oscilating needles that are driven into the skin between 50 and 3000 (some sites said as many as 5000)times per second. These needles may be arranged in a line of 4-14needles(as commonly used for shading) or in a cluster of 3-5 (as used for lines). The frequency of puncture depends on the number of wraps on the copper coils (less wraps=slower) and the weight of the armature bar (heavier=slower). Typically liners are faster than shaders because you are looking for a smooth line.
  7. The first tattoo shop was set up in NYC in 1846 by Martin Hildebrant, who tattooed primarily military servicemen and sailors. King Edward VII sparked the trend in England when he had a tattoo done prior to ascension.
  8. Tattoos were illegal in Massachusetts until 2000, there are still a lot of regulations on age at which you can be tattooed.
  9. The Macy’s logo is actually based on a tattoo the founder had on his arm.
  10. In 2013, New York’s Rapid Realty offered its employees a 15% pay raise if they had the company logo tattooed on their body. Billy Gibby was known as the human billboard – he had more than two dozen corporate logos tattooed on his body, including his face, in order to earn money. So getting tattooed can pay.4


So tell me – What do you think about tattoos in the professional world? Am I dooming myself with this decision? Have you gotten a tattoo and regretted it? Or would you regret more not getting the tattoo you wanted because of your career?





Why People Are Not Adjectives

So I hear there’s this big thing about time flying when you’re having fun? I think this must be a bad Google Translate from some Swedish proverb that actually translates to “Time flies when you’ve got a lot to do.”

I honestly have no idea where on earth September went. I can tell you what I did yesterday, and the day before that. Probably as far back as two weeks ago. Where September went I don’t know. We are now well into the school year, I’ve got my first midterms in about a week and a half, I’ve managed to spew textbooks and notes into every corner of my house, and I haven’t been this tired since last April. And aside from missing reading for pleasure, I’m loving it. Anyone suffering from insomnia pick up any textbook, I guarantee you’ll be out before the third page. It’s not that the material isn’t interesting, it’s just that most of the time the authors manage to bore you with details and otherwise suck the life out of the material. It’s the profs that bring it back to life. Really those folks are miracle workers. Though I have had a few that just beat the dead horse.

A big topic lately that seems to have come up in class and for me personally is labels. Not the helpful kind that, for example, tells you that the door you are approaching is a push door not pull, but the kind that applies to a person. That people use to be miserly and presume to know people without actually knowing them. Or that takes a behaviour and turns it into a trait.


In my classes, we’ve talked a lot about the pros and cons of labeling someone with a mental illness. Theoretically there should be all or mostly pros – the person can get the love and support they need, doctors and therapists know what to do to help you. But there are also a lot of cons – people look at you differently, like a giant post-it note has covered your face. That label can follow you, you may become isolate and ashamed. The cons are mostly a product of our society, and to give it credit we’re working on breaking down the stigma. We’re getting better at opening up, which maybe eventually will break down the stereotypes.

For now, I’m going to stick to my guns. Labels are only useful for inanimate objects. If I admit that labels have a use why do I hate them so much?

labels and understanding

I get it. We as humans seem to have this idea that if we name something we can understand it. We can know exactly what to expect. Like when you get a new prescription and it comes with the possible side-effects bible. While all of the side-effects are extremely unlikely, we know what could happen and what we should panic about.

This theory works great usually, I mean you label a box “cereal” and you can expect there to be cereal in the box. Label a lecture “chemistry” and odds are carbon and oxygen will be mentioned at some point. Does it work with people? Not so much.

Saying two people are a couple tells you next to nothing about their relationship. You can’t even conclude how they necessarily feel about each other. You don’t know what brought them together or what they enjoy doing on Sunday afternoons. All you really can say is that they have apparently made some sort of commitment to one another. But we think we get what their relationship is like.

Saying someone is Anorexic doesn’t mean we know anything of their own personal brand of hell. You don’t know what their trigger foods are, what their safe foods are, if they have either, if they are restrictors or binge/purge subtype, if their vice is exercise, or how they feel about their family. You don’t know how they got there (odds are neither do they really, it’s kind of complex and sneaky). But you know the stereotype, so you assume they’re crazy, they’re just doing it for attention, they could eat but don’t want to, they don’t eat at all.

Calling someone selfish helps us come to terms with the fact that someone didn’t help us and allows us to place the blame on their defective character. Maybe they were behaving selfishly, maybe so were you, but it doesn’t make either of you selfish people. Maybe you were both just standing up for yourselves.

Problem is that once you know the label, you assume you know the person, and interpret everything in light of that. For a slightly humorous example check out the Rosenhan experiment.

labels and self-fulfilling prophecies

I could explain the social psychology behind labelling and what the way we describe ourselves supposedly says about your values, beliefs, and attitudes are. I could also tell you the social psychology of why people will change to fit labels, especially those that they have identified with. We assume that others see us better, so they must be right, and we will change to fit their beliefs. Guess Descartes was right… cogito ergo sum.

If you tell someone they are crazy, they will start to act crazy. Eventually they may actually become crazy. Yes this can also work in a positive light, but it’s much more potent in the negative. Once someone has adapted a negative label, it’s a lot harder to get them to believe the positive. Or that you were wrong. Words can do a lot of things, choose wisely.

For another totally awesome psych example, Google the “Stanford Prison Experiment.”

people are not static

Every year who I am changes. A year ago, I didn’t really drink Starbucks, last week my Gold Card came in.

A year ago I wouldn’t have touched sushi, tonight I am going to sushi lessons.

Two years ago I didn’t even like coffee, now it is part of my daily routine.

Get the point? I have changed. I am always changing. Which is both terrifying and awesome at the same time.

People change. It’s part of our biology. Labels, to me, imply that a person is static and unchanging. People change and grow, just because Jessica from accounting was suffering from Anorexia, doesn’t make her anorexic, and it doesn’t mean she will suffer from anorexia forever. She is still Jessica. Names are the only static label allowed. People act differently in different situations. Behaving selfishly in one situation or context does not make someone a selfish person.

complete descriptions

After many years of clinging to one label or another I had no idea who Niki was. I only knew her in the context of other people, events, and self-destructive behaviours. So I shredded every label, or tried to, for a while there I was just stuck with a wad of sticky notes. And then I started to get to know me again.

Ask anyone to describe themselves and I can almost guarantee they will use multiple words. Be it describing social connections, hobbies, their career, their physical appearance, usually a combination of these things.

I am a runner. This doesn’t mean that that is all I do. I am also a girlfriend, a sister, an aunt, a daughter, a friend, a cousin, a niece. I do not fill any of these roles all the time, familial relations are somewhat more permanent, but being an aunt doesn’t mean I run around chasing everyone on campus threatening to eat them up or attack them with the tickle monster. I am a student, but I still occasionally have a life outside of my classes and textbooks. I am a baker/chef, but I don’t just sit around cooking and eating.

Only by combining all the pieces of the puzzle do you get the whole picture.

labeling yourself

A few days ago I got a nervous flurry of texts from a good friend back home asking if they were a good person? If they were selfish? Dramatic? Stubborn? Did they care about people? (Which how I was supposed to know the answer to the last one I’m not sure). The list went on. And after a quick response: Yes, no (though we can all be at times), occasionally yes, ditto, and I presume yes. I summed it all up with:

“[…] stop doubting yourself, you are a good person, capable of anything. Stop doubting and if anyone’s got a problem, f*** em. Who cares what people think? That’s what life comes down to. I saw a quote once, you could be the juiciest of peaches and there will always be someone who hates peaches.”

This makes me sound so invulnerable. I do care what people think, often times too much. But something I’ve learned in the last few years, is that the harshest labels are the ones we apply ourselves, and the labels that others apply that hurt the most, are the ones applied in the heat of the moment.

You are in charge of you, so if you think they might be right, change it, if you think they’re just being a cranky T-Rex, give em a mental kick in the shins and walk away. People should be judged on their global behaviour – not just the bad moments. Overall, I believe that people are generally good. I think there’s probably a psych principle for that, but it’s true.


Just because someone says you’re selfish. Or your introverted. Or extroverted. Or girly. Or obsessive. Or whatever else someone may tell you you ARE. It doesn’t mean it’s right. You can always reject the label. Or place conditions on it. Whatever floats your boat and makes you happy.

negative labels

Unless we’re talking the crazy psychopaths on Criminal Minds, people are generally good. Focus on the good. Let those be the static traits. And let those be the labels you apply. Rather than worrying about telling the jerk in line that he’s a jerk, tell the guy that held the door he’s a nice guy. Rather than tell yourself you’re a failure because you botched a midterm, realize that you are a smart person and maybe you just didn’t study enough.

The school system has this thing for report cards where they are supposed to list two strengths and an “area for improvement” on the report card. Seems like a fair formula. But remember, at the end of the day you are more than a word from the dictionary.