Thursday, May 21, 2009

The sickness of not knowing

I came across Dan Gilbert's article in the NY Times. It helped me with the title! What I have been pondering for some time now is the more general hypothesis, that un-processed information leads to stress. I'm interested in boiling this down to experimental observables and the task hasn't been easy so far. I thought the biochemistry of stress would be fairly straight forward to come across in a review article or something. Haven't found anything like that yet.

The complication arises because of the way I have been defining the problem. The idea struck me while surfing the net one day in Los Alamos. I was scanning through headlines in Science Daily. Typically that's what I have time for and get to read only one or two full articles. But on that particular day, there were several articles that I needed to read. When scanning headlines, I can guess what's inside and use that to decide how to prioritize my time on the net. I do not always estimate the content correctly but it works for me. But couldn't do that on that day and it bothered me a lot and could recognize clear signs of getting stressed. This is one of the unique advantages of a quiet place like Los Alamos - you can choose to stay so decoupled that perturbations are almost non-existent and then you get to recognize weird things about yourself.
So, I started to consider what was bothering me; my own research was flourishing and was in a state of constant euphoria; started looking at my data and the stress symptoms disappeared. It struck me then that in the few minutes that I spent on that site, trying to rapidly catch up on recent scientific developments, I left a lot of visual information un-processed. I saw and read stuff that I didn't take the time to convert into knowledge.

Every time we read a word, the ionic signal from our eyes must trigger a chemical cycle; this chemical process attains equilibrium when we believe that we have understood something; I would also think that this chemical cascade involves several organs spanning our whole body; but what happens when we leave something before this equilibrium is attained? Not only are we abandoning a chemical reaction halfway through it, we are initiating several other reactions very rapidly, particularly when we are surfing the net; things are different if we were reading a book, I would think. This act of not allowing chemical reactions to attain equilibrium must be chemically toxic; we must have a DNA code to process the end products generated after equilibrium is attained, but the products of incomplete chemical reactions may not be recognized and would therefore be toxic.

This then happens not only for visual signals but for all our senses. Toxicity of sound/noise, I find has been studied experimentally and understood. I found Robert Sapolsky's work (parts that I understood) pretty close to what I want to arrive at. I mean the fact that we suffer from so many stress related diseases is also recognized in this context. But a clear knowledge, perhaps a circular flow-chart (such as seen in the description of biochemical pathways) in terms of molecules has been hard to find. This would be significant because it would unify the pathology of several organs to (un-processed) information.

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