What is Beauty? And why I’m unable to appreciate modern art.

(Beauty is a difficult concept and I’m not trying to get into the nitty gritty of form and colour. For example, why our eyes are drawn to certain points according to the law of thirds. What this article seeks to do, however, is explain general attractions)

I just went to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan and it sent me on a whole journey of defining beauty. There’s certain things I consider beautiful: my hometown of Vancouver, the movie Gravity, my niece Kylie and my girlfriend Brenda. When I thought about all these items and my attraction towards them, my mind began to wander and I realized there’s a lot of concepts involved in describing attraction. Being that guy who loves the theory of natural selection, I eventually boiled everything down to increased evolutionary advantage.

So no,I don’t think the perception of beauty is cultural. I think everything we deem to be beautiful started around a million years ago.

If we observe some different animals, we can see that there are indeed genetic benefits to seeking “beauty”. In the case of animals, everyone wants a healthier mate. For example, female cardinals prefer the reddest partners. Redness signifies an ability to acquire food, as cardinals get redder by eating protein and red carotenoid pigments. Another example is the male peacock. The more eyespots on their feathers, the more attractive they are, because the healthiest peacocks have the most time and energy to be growing luxurious feathers.

For humans, a lot of our preferences are also evolutionary in nature. For example, symmetry in a partner’s face underlies a resistance to environmental factors and better overall genes. Height in men signify strength and protection. High cheekbones, long full hair, and red lips in women represent good genes, health, and good blood flow, respectively.

Certain scenery, such as one with large green trees and a body of water, will evoke a primitive, positive response, because it represents an abundance of oxygen and water, and these savannas were the very same living quarters our ancestors preferred. We find natural beauty in things which offer a wealth of resources. In fact, I recently read a paper about how humans across cultures prefer an area with low grass, high trees, preferably those that fork close to the ground, as an escape path from predators, varied vegetation, existence of fauna, a riverbank, and a path that leads down the horizon. Even cultures such as the Inuit find this scene to be beautiful.

So what is it in the human genome that dictates I find works by Dali so amazing? And why do I think Picasso (I’m really uncultured) isn’t that great? Dali does not paint beautiful landscapes our ancestors preferred, nor does he paint optimally proportional women. So what is it about his paintings I like so much?

The practice of art originated in an attempt, consciously or subconsciously, to woo females. The earliest form of art were hand axes, and there is evidence that suggests humans eventually started making these for decorative purposes, as opposed to hunting purposes. These axes were too large to swing, barely dented, and were made with high quality materials and are extremely symmetrical. Back then, toolmaking required certain abilities, such as planning, fine motor control, and overall intelligence. As a result, skilled humans gained an evolutionary advantage in finding mates over their less capable peers (side note: that’s really kinda sad, because it leads me to believe all technology, art and philosophy stems from trying to impress women).

After the rise of language, art began taking different forms. People started to revel in storytelling and writing to express emotions and events, real and fictional. And I think the bottom line with all forms of art is that humans are attracted to finesse, skill, and precision. People like poetry because they do the most with as few words as possible. You can appreciate a beautiful movie because the writers took time in the script, the designers scrutinized over costumes and make-up, and the cinematographer made sure every scene was detailed and specific.

The things we immediately find beautiful are the things we observe to be labour-intensive or inherently difficult. I could never do the sculpture of David or paint the Sistine Chapel, and those works of art are remarkable. I think the reason why I couldn’t appreciate the MoMA was because they exhibited paintings with literally a white blank canvas. I’m sure I’d appreciate it more if I watched the artistic process or if I took post-modern classes.

beauty evolutionary psychology

Thor is Now a Woman?

Some things I just gotta comment on. Obviously, Facebook isn’t an appropriate medium for me to rant about how unhappy I am so I gotta do it here.

Thor has been around for over 50 years. 50 years! That’s older than most of my friends’ parents. How many generations of children have grown up idolizing this guy? It’s super fucked up that Marvel can make this executive decision to change Thor’s sex. Thor is so much bigger than just comics, or Marvel. He’s transcended the literary and illustrative barrier and crossed into the hearts of many. Each person has a different definition and perception of him: brave, selfless, loyal, strong. Thor holds a lot of meaning for many people.

I’m not saying women can’t be brave, selfless, loyal, or strong. I’m saying that it’s fucked up Marvel thinks they can tinker with our minds and just completely change the identity of a major character. Imagine if they all of a sudden decided to change Oracle into a man. Or Black Widow. The females of the world who grew up reading about these characters would probably revolt because such a distinctive, relatable trait about their favourite character has been changed. The trait being a strong, independent woman who holds equal status with her fellow superheroes.

Having said this, I’m sure major companies have overwritten important features before. DC Comics recently developed the new post-Flashpoint line where Superman falls in love with Wonder Woman instead of Lois Lane. Blasphemy. The comic book companies are probably trying to usher in a new age of comics, and suppose any major changes will just be accepted by the new generation, and the older readers will just have to deal with it. Call me a angry traditionalist, I still think it’s mad disrespectful to the loyal readers of Thor.

comics Thor gender change Marvel Comics

My Third Step to Happiness: When I Realized the Purpose of Instincts, Fear & Pain and Why I Chose to Ignore Them

Just a reminder, my philosophy is to live life with maximum happiness. I want to learn about the human mind and how and why it reacts to different circumstances. Because instincts are not intelligent; they cannot choose when to turn on or off. Your brain may tell you to avoid any situation with uncertainty, and this is not ideal for personal growth. Having said this, I want to be the one in control of my instincts. Once I realize why my body reacts to certain situations, I’ll be able to consciously take over and decide how I want to act or feel. 

Moving on, the human brain is incredibly complex but we must not forget it was developed to aid our survival. Everything we think, do, and act on originates from the adaptive traits of our ancestors and the learning we do throughout our lives.

In the case of emotions, they originate in the limbic system. This is a basic structure of the brain and practically all mammals have this. It lets animals differentiate between pleasant and unpleasant states. Humans, however, have a larger prefrontal cortex. This allows us to reason about things, communicate with language, and simulate possible experiences. Happiness is an emotion and, like all positive emotions, exists as a reinforcer to repeat the actions which preceded. Negative emotions work similarly and they punish people for their actions, leading to a gradual extinction of the said actions.

So when we make decisions, we will always chase that “high”. This gets in the way of our spiritual development in two ways: first, we may spend too much time and energy dwelling on past mistakes, and second, we may avoid situations we perceive as dangerous altogether.

I can’t really come up with great examples, so I guess you can imagine them yourselves. You may beat yourself up for trusting someone in the past who has betrayed you. Now you’re scared to open yourself up to others. You might wasted years focusing on the wrong things in life, and now you mope about what could’ve been, instead of actively working towards what should be. Now you’re scared of trying, because you’re scared of failure. There’s plenty more examples out there.

Even though it’s natural for a person to avoid unpleasant situations or mope about past poor decisions, it comes to a point where people must regain control of their lives. Do not be afraid of decisions, despite what your brain is telling you. Do not dwell on mistakes of the past, because it is human nature telling you to avoid future pain. This survival mechanism has worked for millennia when we did not have conscious thought, but now we need to take the time to make sure our existence is as fulfilling as it is fruitful. So let me leave you with something to never forget:

Always be happy with your choices. 

Last weekend, a friend asked me if I have any regrets. I didn’t really need to think about it because my answer will always be, “no”. Every single mistake has made me who I am today. They force me to reflect and discover what I did wrong. I value those who are close to me, myself and my happiness all the more closely because of my past errors. With all this growth to be had, the last thing I would want to do is stunt myself by being unhappy with a decision.



emotions evolutionary psychology instincts fear pain Steps Towards Happiness

Damn, I remember hearing this when I was a kid.

I think wisdom from others is a lot like photos, they don’t mean much when you take them, but when you come back to them decades later, they mean everything. Therefore, it is important to share how you feel and absorb with an open heart.

(Source: marketwarriors, via thestreetphilosopher)

Mr. Rogers

Leadership: How to Inspire Action in Others

Simon Sinek gives a great perspective on how to inspiring action.

He presents a model of the human brain. Our most basic and strongest instinct is to trust, to perceive, and ask why we want something. Our evolved cognitive ability is to ask what we want. So to really be motivated and make others motivated, you must give a reason and not a result.

To keep yourself inspired, you cannot ask what to do, but ask why you act. Working in medicine or law because of prestige or wealth will eventually become stale. You must first understand what you want out of life and what will drive you. You may find passion in helping the unhealthy or overcoming social injustices, and this in turn will cause you to become a doctor or lawyer. And maybe what you really want is to please your parents, so you pursue something they want. If that’s really want you out of life, that’s okay. By identifying your goals and beliefs, you will find huge passion. This passion will translate to formulating a plan, holding interest in your work, and inspiring others to help your cause.

To delve even deeper, when calling others to action, give them a message, not a method. Recently, I graduated from college not knowing where my life was headed. My parents told me, aim for a Master’s degree and go into research. Otherwise, suffer from low prestige and income. My brother-in-law asked me what I wanted out of life. Did I want to touch the lives of others, such as my possible family? In what way did I want to give back to society? This introspection led me to think yes I do want a family. Maybe I shouldn’t pursue medicine. Then I thought I want to enrich the lives of others by broadening their perspectives. I thought maybe I’ll become a teacher. Ultimately, my brother-in-law’s advice was much more influential than my that of my parents.

This concept of asking why instead of what also has huge applications in my fraternity. This year, the younger brothers were not following the older brothers and this confused me heavily. Now, I realize it was because older bros were focused on results: attendance at parties, a glowing record of philanthropy and mass income from fundraising. The younger ones weren’t buying it. They grew detached and unmotivated. My reaction was, older bros, we need to show passion by hanging out with each other more and creating an environment of love. Then, the younger brothers will invest themselves in the fraternity.

The older bros were wrong for ordering the younger ones around. They told the young ones what, not why. I was also wrong for telling the older bros to get to know the younger bros and invoke passion. I should have asked them to find the meaning behind their membership to the brotherhood. Something like, “we’ve all been affected by the brothers who came before us. They showed us a standard of caring for each other. Do we want to do the same and give other people quality experiences?” A “yes” would have pushed older bros to lead by example and this passion would have driven the younger ones.

This “golden circle” concept by Simon Sinek is a simple and effective idea, but it is not easy to execute.

golden circle simon sinek ted talks inspiration leadership

My Second Step to Happiness: When I Decided to Be Nicer

In my previous article, twelve-year-old me discovered that comfort and convenience were the reasons for life. “Hey, I’m gonna die anyway so I might as well make the most of it” was the dominant mindset. My next step towards happiness was realizing that humans can’t do everything themselves and need the support of others.

In high school, I didn’t have many friends so I was acutely interested in reciprocation and why people did nice things. I used to look at people through an expected utility formula, and I think my parents played a part in that. They just couldn’t stand dependants. If someone ever did them a favour, like treat them to dinner, they would immediately schedule another outing to repay the debt. This was eventually how I began to see the world; if a person has nothing to offer you, they can be overlooked.

So I wondered why there were so many types of people on the moral spectrum. There were people who engaged only in prosocial behaviour, such as Mother Theresa, and there were people who seemingly engaged only in selfish behaviour, such as Pope John XII. Which personality holds the advantage? Who can acquire more resources and how do their levels of happiness differ?

While studying biology, I found Darwin’s theory of natural selection to be a strong tool in my exploration. It suggests that most of an organism’s traits have been trimmed over time by evolutionary pressures to shape a species. For example, a population of black and white moths live in a black forest. Birds will come eat the white moths, leaving only the black moths to procreate. The result is an eventual population of uniformly black moths.

I then applied this to humans and supposed that prosocial people are the black moths of our species. Back in the stone age, there were a ton of feral animals and limited food. Living in groups increased food production, protection from predators, and access to sexual partners. If a human lived alone, he or she risked starving, being eaten, or just not being able to mate.

So if a person ever exhibited vulgar behaviour, such as stealing the food of others, his peers would deem him more harmful than helpful and ostracize him. Over time, those who were offensive were pushed out of the tribes and left to fend for themselves, while those who were socially acceptable stayed to pass on their cooperative traits.

I think morality was the cognitive result of this mindset. Morality’s a higher level mechanism we have, and it gives us a feeling of accomplishment when we do “good” and guilt when we do “bad”. Humanists see morality as the distinction between right and wrong, or good and evil. For me, it’s the ability to distinguish between actions that curry favour from others or piss them off so they don’t associate with you.

Having considered all this, I concluded the general trend of evolution was for more prosociality. As people worked together to get things done, without taking away the rights of others, civilization would be more successful and peers would thrive together. So where did these selfish villains come from? I believe that as the earth gets more and more populated, there will be deviations. And because there are so many more groups now than there were in the Stone Age, modern humans can take on a selfish personality, absorb the resources of one group and jump on to the next like a parasite. This person would need to be charismatic, hold on to a facade of normalcy, and strike at the right times without feeling remorse.

I think currently, in our densely overpopulated world, both tactics work. Finding a group of strong supporters who are willing to reciprocate will get you places. It’s consistent, unconditional love. Using people as tools to further your goals can also work. Knowing exactly who to suck up to at work, keeping yourself away from people who need your help, and stepping on people’s backs to get that extra leverage may even be more efficient than prosociality. But it’s very, very lonely. I think people who are self-centered and assess objects, people, and relationships based on value, instead of character, are also very willing to throw away those same things once used. And value is constantly fluctuating but character is consistent. If you walk away from something as soon you deem it to be useless, you may end up with nothing at all.

prosociality evolutionary psychology natural selection morality steps towards happiness

List of life regrets:

lack of family time
not understanding the value of money
not enough effort in getting to know certain fraternity brothers
prioritizing my pride in fights with others, instead of the integrity of my relationship with them
pursuing romantic relationships with friends and having to deal with the resulting strain
using girls who liked me to fulfill my own needs
starting cigarettes
not being more proactive at lab research
caring about being judged
being afraid to speak out when I felt the need to
never telling the people I care about how important they are to me