The Science of Mindfulness Meditation and Practice for the Rational Skeptic

Posted on 27th August 2012 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment

Jump to:
The Science Fiction of Meditation
Mindfulness Meditation
Science of Mindfulness Meditation
Experimentally-Observed Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
How to Meditate

The Science Fiction of Meditation

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was a deeply flawed movie on many levels, but there was one moment in the film that I thought was brilliant. The Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn is in the heat of a duel with the Sith lord Darth Maul, when a force field comes in between them, momentarily pausing their battle. Darth Maul impatiently paces back and forth along the shield, staring at his opponent with murderous rage. Qui-Gon, in contrast, drops to his knees and begins meditating.

Qui-Gon Jinn Meditating
Qui-Gon Jinn Meditating
Credit: 20th Century Fox / Lucasfilm

I recently spent a Saturday morning at a meditation workshop hosted by Amma Sri Karunamayi, where I followed a warm-up yoga session taught by my brother (yes, the same one from this epic debate of religion vs science), who was also her devote, with three straight hours of mindfulness meditation interrupted every half hour with my need to change sitting positions in order to restore feeling to my legs. As a skeptic, I had to resist the urge to roll my eyes when they spoke of magical energies stirred by the yogic practice, feeding jade idols butter, and sitting in the presence of a woman who is supposedly the latest incarnation of some Hindu goddess, but also as a skeptic I am open to new experiences and practicing mindfulness meditation for three hours in a group setting where social pressures would help keep me focused was something I strongly desired to try, and I confess I came out of the experience fairly high. I felt like I was floating, calmly detached from the world around me. The feeling carried me through an hour of beltway traffic and I remained non-stressed for the rest of the day.

It was a high very similar to one I would get as a youth from immersing myself in a good book or going deep on a programming task for several hours. Not surprisingly, I was also discovering Star Trek at that time in my life, and was idolizing Mr. Spock for his emotional detachment the cool logic I hoped would help me survive middle school and admired later in life for the idealization of mental discipline. Vulcans are often portrayed in a state of meditation, and Trekkers describe three types of Vulcan meditation:

Mental meditations have the purpose of developing the intellect. One might consider doing a logic puzzle or studying a foreign language a mental meditation, albeit a simple one. Emotional meditations explore the breadth and flavor of our emotions: for one cannot hope to control a thing without first understanding it. Physical meditations consist of various strenuous exercises done in a particularly mindful manner.

I do like the idea of mental and physical meditations, and do practice such disciplines in real life, but the definition here of “emotional meditations” is highly lacking. It doesn’t make sense that one would “explore the breadth and flavor” of something one wants mastery over, but is it possible to cognitively master one’s emotional states and calm the mind of all its chatter?

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Welcome to Life, A Guide for New Members of Species Homo Sapiens

Posted on 30th July 2012 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment

Download a PDF Version Here (9MB)

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I was walking through the local forest trail a few months ago, and it was getting dark. As the sky shifted from blue to black, the full moon rose up through the trees creating a stunning scene. I realized my ancient ancestors were just as awe-inspired by that glowing orb in the sky, but my present-day awe was much deeper for knowing the moon as an object in space several hundred thousand kilometers away, circling the Earth for the same reason things fall to the ground, much of its mass once belonging to the Earth, lit up by the Sun, and causing the oceans to rise and fall as they follow its orbit.

At once I realized how crucial it was that this cherished knowledge of my place in the Cosmos was something I needed to give my son, Sagan.

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Top 10 Books Exploring Otherness

Posted on 1st July 2012 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

Top 10 Books Exploring Otherness

I hate doing top 10 lists because I am going to make some huge embarrassing oversite and I really don’t have any objective way to order what makes the list. That being said, this list consist of my own personal favorites from the world of literature as someone who grew up in a western society with all the cultural baggage that comes with it. These are books where the aliens are alien, and their otherness gives us a new perspective on our own identity and culture.

10. War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds

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Naming is Not Understanding

Posted on 28th May 2012 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment
Evil Eye Galaxy, Messier 64 (M64)
Evil Eye Galaxy, Messier 64 (M64)
Credit: NASA

Before becoming a parent, I was well-acquainted with the word “colic.” According to my mother, I suffered from severe colic as a baby, keeping her up all night for weeks with my crying. I’ve also heard parents toss the term about when talking about their baby-raising trials and tribulations. After having our son Sagan, I got to hear the term from one of our pediatricians concerning him having a crying episode one night as a possible explanation for the outburst.

Curious about this seemingly common medical condition, I decided to look up the definition myself:

The strict medical definition of colic is a condition of a healthy baby in which it shows periods of intense, unexplained fussing/crying lasting more than 3 hours a day, more than 3 days a week for more than 3 weeks. [Bold Mine]

There’s that word there, unexplained. For years I thought this word “colic” described a phenomenon that was understood and therefore natural. The etymology of the word, pertaining to “disease characterized by severe abdominal pain” in the early 15th century suggests the infant’s crying is explainable, but in reality the term colic is just a fancy way for your pediatrician to say, “I don’t know why your baby is chronically crying.”

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Adventures in Personal Genomics

Posted on 16th April 2012 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out

Jump To:
Closed-Source Genetics
Open-Source Genetics
Going Public With My Genome
Better Living Through Personal Genomics
DIY Genomic Sequencing for Programmers
My Personal Genomic Results
Further Reading

Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP)

Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP)


It’s been over a year since I signed up with 23andMe and several months now since I downloaded my raw genomic data from them and started seeing what I could learn from it on my own. Although very few services out there will fully sequence your personal genome, by focusing on sequencing an individual’s Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs), pronounced “Snips” for short, which are the variables between human genomes, we can focus on what’s of interest in our personal genomic data and get this data relatively cheaply. By comparing the differences in our genes, our genotypes, my wife and I could learn about how they differently express themselves in our lives, our phenotypes, to gain insights about our health risks as well as interesting traits about ourselves that may explain our behaviors and experiences throughout life.

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Being Labeled for What I Don’t Believe Versus What I Do

Posted on 26th March 2012 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior,Ionian Enchantment
The Reason Rally
The Reason Rally

I remember unexpectedly having that conversation with my mother in law while riding in the car recently:

“What do you mean Sagan isn’t going to be raised Christian?” she asked when we accidentally let slip that he wouldn’t be going to a Christian church.

“There’s lots of possible belief systems out there,” Vicky answered, “and we’re going to let him decide for himself.”

“When he’s old enough, he can read the Bible if he wants,” I said.

“Old enough?” Grandma asked.

“Ummm,” I hesitated and decided to just let it out, “Yeah. When he’s old enough to read stories about daughters getting their father drunk to have sex with him, a husband giving his wife to be raped by a mob and then chopping her up into pieces to mail to his allies, a prophet summoning bears to devour children for teasing him about his male-pattern baldness, fathers sacrificing their virgin daughters to god as thanks for victory in war, mothers entering contracts to eat one another’s’ sons, … You know, when he’s old enough to be exposed to those kinds of stories.”

“Ha. Ha,” Grandma chuckled. “Yeah. I see what you mean.”

It’s so strange that in a world where humans can see to the edge of the Universe, live to a century through modern medicine, access unimaginable volumes of information online, and fly all over the world that I am still put in the awkward position from time to time of having to explain to someone that I don’t believe in any of the mythical invisible entities known as “gods.” It’s also awkward because I don’t walk around all day thinking about the fact that I don’t think about such deities. I don’t identify as a non-theist any more than I identify as a non-Mr. Snuffleupagusist. I identify as a Scientist a person who focuses on our shared empirical understanding of the natural world revealed through experimentation and inductive reasoning.

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The Scientific Joy of Being Wrong

Posted on 19th March 2012 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior

Esther Dyson Patch

Esther Dyson Patch
Always Make New Mistakes
Credit: Gisela Giardino

From time to time I find myself deeply fascinated with the Golden Ratio and its relation to the Fibbonacci set. I even bought a cross-section of a nautilus shell to proudly display in my cabinet of curiosities because they grow along the golden ratio. Then this article clearly illustrated that nautilus shells grow in a logarithmic spiral. Now I’m even prouder of my nautilus cross-section because it tells a story of just how wrong I was about a beautiful hypothesis.

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Star Trek Online and Avoiding the Grind

Posted on 27th February 2012 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out

Time you enjoyed wasting was not wasted.” ~ John Lennon

Time is the fire in which we burn.” ~ Tolian Soran, Star Trek Generations

The Dilemma

We have a finite amount of time in this life, and we should be mindful of how we spend it. I’ve recently become highly cognizant of the fact that the majority of games are simply Skinner Boxes, tricking players into pushing buttons in return for meaningless rewards. Truly challenging games like Portal and SpaceChem keep you playing because the gameplay is its own reward, while Skinner Box games keep you performing repetitive tasks with virtual rewards. Other games, like Skyrim or Final Fantasy VII, keep you playing because the story and graphics are simply that engaging.

The Original Earth Starbase Was Just Okay
The Original Earth Starbase Was Just Okay
The Redesigned Earth Starbase Looks More Familiar
The Redesigned Earth Starbase Looks More Familiar

For the past two years I have played Star Trek Online (STO) casually, probably investing maybe a hundred hours in the game, two weeks of my life out of 104. So the question arises: Is STO time wasted? The game was never challenging, but was it at least entertaining? I think this is a question we should be mindful of with any game in which we choose to invest our time to make sure we aren’t burning it.

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101 Reasons Why Evolution is True

Posted on 12th February 2012 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment

Jump To:
Age of the Earth and Its Fossils
Comparative Anatomy
Transitional Fossils
Convergent Evolution
Vestigial Traits
Artificial Selection
Evolution in Action
Sexual Selection
And The List Goes On…

    These reasons will work from the general to the specific. I’ve used links to articles in Wikipedia as much as possible because Wiki articles are refined over time with our understanding of the subjectmatter and are less subject to link-rot. This post is licensed Creative Commons and all photos listed here are available under some form of free-to-use licensing. Please feel free to refine this list and repost it, just please preserve the photo credits and links to photographers. Also, suggestions for improvement on any items is welcome as this is a lot of material over a wide range of scientific fields, so I have certainly bungled some things here.

    Over time, new evidence will certainly find some of these examples in error, and that’s a good thing because science is about refining our understanding of the truth. The Theory of Evolution is strong enough that nearly half these examples could be disproved and the evidence would still be fairly overwhelming. There is so much in this world that only makes sense in the light of Evolutionary Theory.

    Age of the Earth and Its Fossils

    We live on a very old Earth.

  1. Lithologic Stratigraphy
  2. Looking at Millions and Millions of Years
    Looking at Millions and Millions of Years
    Credit: cobalt123

    The Earth’s crust has layers. Some of these layers are from the decomposition of sediment, others come from chemical precipitation, others from decaying organic matter, and others from volcanic lava. The reason we can see the layers is because they were formed in different ways.

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Evolve Culturally or Die

Posted on 16th January 2012 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment
Cavefish and Zebrafish Embryos
Cavefish and Zebrafish Embryos
Credit: wellcome images

An important rule of evolution is that species lose adaptations they aren’t using. Cave fish have eyes that do not work because they live in an environment without light. Crocodile icefish blood has lost its hemogloblin because they live in oxygen-rich water where they don’t need the protein to transport oxygen throughout their bodies. Kiwis, chickens, and ostriches have wings but can’t fly. Humans lack the gene to make Vitamin C, forcing us to get our ascorbic acid from dietary sources.

This happens because when a trait isn’t in use, natural selection does not discriminate against mutations that break the trait. For example, when an individual impala is born with a mutation that gives it bad eyes, it gets eaten by a lion, but when a fish in the total darkness of a cave gets bad eyes, they are just as likely to survive as the fish with working vision; in fact, they have a slight advantage for not having to put resources into building and maintaining eyes that provide no advantage.

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