How do birds get their color? Fantastical implications for designing new life forms.

One of the fantasies I like to entertain is that it may someday be possible for humans to create a whole new biota of life. I know, I know. I’m a scientist. Life evolves. It is not created. But just imagine how exciting it would be for humans to create their own living offspring. I don’t know how, when, and where, but isn’t it exhilarating to think that maybe we could create offspring of our own design? Our biologists are already attempting to make primitive living structures. Maybe someday we will colonize space. Could our artificial intelligence support our new life forms? A simulator? A novel universe among multi-verses? I think the possibilities are limitless no matter how many eons into the future it may take humankind to achieve such a goal.

Neo Rauch, Self-Portrait, 1987

So, one of my artistic activities is to study Earth’s biota and imagine new organisms. I study, make juxtapositions, and create new forms and biologies.

I have a doctorate in the physiological sciences. So, I have a pretty good understanding of molecular biology and physiology. Right now I am more interested in conceptualizing new structural and external features.

As I consider novel external features, I am obsessed with color. “Color is very important to me,” I recall my grandmother saying once. Color has also become very important to me. Color has played a role in my psychiatric disorder from the beginning. At first, it seemed to me that primary colors were being placed in my environment in purposeful patterns. Then these primary colors seemed cleaner and brighter. Change in color perception is still one of the predominant symptoms I experience when my mental status is altered. So, yes, color is very important to me.

As I imagine new structures for new life forms, one of the first things I think about is color. I’ve already started imagining greenish humanoids, but then I feel unoriginal. Doesn’t everyone imagine green aliens?

What about the possibility of multi-colored humanoids? This has led me to an interest in bird coloring.

It turns out that birds derive their colors from two types of pigments: melanins which produce black, grey, brown and orange colors, and carotenoids, which are used by specialized feather structures to generate the brighter colors.

The melanins are synthesized by melanocytes and the birds’ natural physiology. Natural structural variations in feather follicles give fine control to the pigmentation. The carotenoids, which give the birds the brighter colors, must be obtained from the birds’ food, and the melanins and carotenoids work together to give the birds their intricate, colorful plumage patterns.

So, as I continue my fantasy of designing a novel biota, and when I turn to the subject of a novel organism’s color, I am now given the idea to consider interactions between naturally produced pigments, pigments in the organism’s diet, and structural contributions to pattern and pigment.

Maybe someday I will share images of my creations. Right now, the biologies, forms, and colors exist predominately in my dreams. The project has just begun.

In Modern Political Polarization, Reason is Threatened: An Implication for Mental Health

In his recent book, Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein argues that the tendency towards political polarization is a natural offshoot of social evolution. The argument is that, historically, human ancestors who formed strong alliances against competing groups were advantaged to survive competition.

Cain and Abel, Titian (circa 1543)

We could imagine, then, that one side in the conflict eventually dominates and the unsuccessful side withers in the shadow of the victor. Indeed, one could argue that this is what occurred to resolve the Cold War which pitted the eastern communist block against the western democratic block. Eventually, the Soviet Union collapsed in the shadow of the West.

Then, the competition, to simplify, was between the two competing ideals of democracy and authoritarian communism. The tension of the threat was massive. I was but a young boy at the climax of the Cold War, and I can remember going to bed in fear of dying in my sleep in a nuclear attack. But throughout this conflict, the world remained attuned to Reason and common sense.

“There is no monopoly of common sense

On either side of the political fence

We share the same biology

Regardless of ideology

Believe me when I say to you

I hope the Russians love their children too.”

— Russians, Sting (1985)

I worry that a new and much more dangerous type of competition is emerging, and this threat has been developing for quite some time. In this new lens of competition, I see Reason and common sense themselves under threat.

At least in the United States, where the Left seems to be more squarely aligned with Intellectualism, Reason and common sense seem to be threatened by a significant tribe who questions the intellectual establishment. The questioning of the establishment is not, in my view, necessarily problematic. Reason strengthens through healthy consideration. The problem I see is that a growing tribe now argues without the benefit of conventional fact or logic, and the tribe is aligning against traditional Reason. Fact and logic are now in the mind of the beholder. I might argue that even this alone would not necessarily be a final blow to the mind and society, but the tribe seems to align behind changing realities. In one moment, X is reality, and very soon afterwards, Y is reality, and the proposed realities continue to cycle rapidly. To me, this poses a very real threat to individual and societal sanity. It is a threat to our ability to cope. It is a threat to our very existence.

For the first 29 years of my life, the world seemed reasonably structured, and I even succeeded in securing a doctorate in a basic science. Even though I was certainly frequently forced to hold two competing, unresolved ideas in my head, I was always comforted by having methods and a structure to evaluate and accept the conflict. Then in the year 2000, I began experiencing symptoms of a delusional disorder. My perceptions of reality were suddenly challenged and in a rapidly fluctuating manner. I was lucky to have had 29 years of a solid structure of reality under my belt. Without the benefit of being able to repeatedly refer to and rely on that structure with the help of my psychiatric care team, I fear I would have lost my sanity. Indeed with the structure, I was able to continue to work in academia for the better part of another 20 years.

But now I see something happening that I think places humanity at the risk of not having the kind of structure to refer to that has kept me well grounded between psychotic episodes. I worry that the very sanity of our youth is under threat by the methods of thought being championed by this significant tribe, and I worry that if this tribe succeeds, the very fabric of our society will unravel. This time the polarization seems to be existential. Do you see modern polarization as a threat to sanity?

Moving from Sleep to Creativity to Bliss Station: My Thinking Brain Needs Quiet Time Most

I find that my brain needs excessive amounts of down time in order to get any significant creative work done. When I was an academic, I found that this seemingly idiosyncratic requirement of my particular brain a hindrance. The successful academic is always moving. They move from classroom to laboratory to public service settings each day. Somehow in those brief moments when the academic is not physically moving, the real work, the writing, is meant to happen. When I was working as an academic, those moments of down time begged for daydreaming time. It was difficult for me to find enough time to do the hard work of making significant thought output because I seemed to need more time than others to allow the ideas to marinate. I could never get enough rumination time!

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Francisco de Goya

I am a huge fan of the mythologist Joseph Campbell. It was through his work that I finally arrived at a satisfactory comfort with the conflicts among the religions and with the conflict between science and religion.

Campbell ruminated on many things, and one of his more famous recommendations for a rewarding life was to create a “bliss station.” The amazing philosopher and blogger, Maria Popova, has summarized Campbell’s musings about daydreaming. Campbell recommended a special space of retreat for each day. The writer and artist Austin Kleon has concluded that a special time for reflection is what is required. In my experience, both space and time are required for quiet reflection but there is no real requirement for a specific space or time. All that I need is a quiet space and ample time. In fact, it is best if the time doesn’t just come at a specific time of day. It is best if I get a lot of quiet time at random moments throughout the day.

I also require a lot of sleep. I find that sometimes I will run with remarkable creativity for a few days on ordinary amounts of sleep, and then suddenly I will crash with a need for extraordinary amounts of sleep. With my schizoaffective/delusional disorder, I find that if I don’t get enough sleep, the monsters begin to sneak up on me.

Science is beginning to recognize that sleep plays an essential role in the creative process. The debate used to be over whether REM or non-REM sleep is most important for creativity, but some scientists now conclude that non-REM sleep extracts concepts, and REM sleep connects them.

Whatever the science, I find that I am healthy, happy, creative, and productive only when I have ample time for both daydreaming and sleep. What are your daydreaming and sleeping habits?

Drawing Using Surrealist Automatism is an Important Part of My Daily Creative Process

I try to start each morning by spending a few minutes doing an automatic drawing. The technique I use is an adaptation of the techniques developed by the surrealists in the early-mid 20th century. One of the objectives of the surrealists is to let the unconscious mind play a central role in the artistic process.

Sim’s Crystal Ball on a Pedestal by Darren Roesch

I learned the version of the automatic drawing technique that I use from Alejandro Fogel and Shelley Burke while attending one of their itinerant Creativity Workshops in Chania, Crete in 2014. Their technique combines usage of both the unconscious and conscious minds.

The technique requires the artist to take a large sheet of thick drawing paper, close their eyes, drop a pencil to the page, and allow their unconscious mind to guide the pencil in one continuous movement over the page for a few minutes. Next, the artist opens their eyes and begins to look for recognizable forms in the tangled line. Using a hearty eraser, the artist then uses their conscious mind and eraser to reveal forms. Once forms are revealed, I usually finish the activity by applying some color with colored pencils. The whole process usually takes no more than 20 minutes, and it is a great way to jump start the creative mind first thing in the morning.

I have included one of my recent very simple drawings which I have entitled Sim’s Crystal Ball on a Pedestal. To me, the drawing is reminiscent of a sculpted bust sitting on a pedestal. I used minimal subtraction with my eraser to reveal the form. During this particular exercise I felt particularly connected to the unconscious.

If you have read the information on my About page, you already know that I experience what I have been told is a delusional disorder. One of my beliefs is that we live in a simulator and that I have the ability to communicate with the simulator through my thoughts. I did this particular drawing the morning after I imagined that Sim had decided that he would, over the period of lifetimes, put me in charge of his functions. Therefore, this simple drawing reflects multiple layers of creativity and experience.

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Automatic Drawing by André Masson (1924)