The solace in silver linings

An unwieldy weapon from nature

Our species diverged from our last common ancestors several million years ago and have since transcended other hominins to become the most intelligent lifeform on earth. Our survival through a hostile history wrought by natural selection was predicated on our ability to innovate and adapt. We developed effective strategies to assess and avert existential threats. In such a world with limited recourse, making quick and often drastic decisions drew the line between life and death. An encounter with a lion on the savanna offered mere moments to avert the risk of death. Thus, an indiscriminate reflex was guaranteed to increase chances of survival. However, as isolated survival units congregated into increasingly complex communities, adversarial situations required more complex responses. Contrast the feral encounter with a feud with an adjacent adversarial tribe that is training an army. Both scenarios share a calamitous end, death. However, while a precipitous spear strike would have been the undisputed response to a close encounter with a fleet-footed predator, an adversarial tribe could be bargained with. Moreover, a treaty in the latter scenario could facilitate mutually beneficial cooperation. Assessing an equivalent threat in both cases based on their shared catastrophic endpoint may tilt the response of “the aggressed” towards similar reflexive anguish. Needless to say, conflating an inveterate predator with a human tribe would disregard the nuance of the latter, justifying the use of a blunt weapon in response. Such a critical failure of innate human survival heuristics to secern both the existence and gradations of threat is at the core of catastrophizing behavior. This inappropriate response is a precedent to deep personal and sociological consequences laid out in The Coddling of the American Mind.

Catastrophizing happens when otherwise adaptive instincts fail to correctly discern the imminence and gradations of threat.

Succinctly, to catastrophize is to perceive a situation as worse than it is. Whether by extension of a threat into its worst-case scenario or entirely projecting a different more insidious threat in its place, catastrophizing is irrational. It requires a fundamental dissonance between internal individual convictions and external reality. Diagnosing catastrophizing behavior can be difficult not only because it beckons a confrontation with the flaws in our deepest instincts for self-preservation, but may also be at odds with the ego. For individuals, failure to overcome this tendency can perpetuate feelings of hopelessness, anxiety and depression (if chronic). In interpersonal situations, it may distort our perception of other people’s motives and actions, prompting hostile attribution biases. Once misclassified as existential threats, the subjectively offensive actions of others lose all nuance. Thus, tactless retaliation against these demonized straw men may feel justified sans any real attempt at genuine understanding. On a societal level, catastrophizing widespread phenomena like infectious diseases, economic downturns and contentious speech may be used to justify anarchy and/or infringement of personal freedoms perceived to perpetuate these threats. Regardless, catastrophizing always risks turning the spotlight away from meticulous conflict resolution towards an unjustified offensive.

Opportunities in omens

Personally, I have had to contend with catastrophizing both within and from without. Growing up amid occasional encounters with catastrophe through socioeconomic and political challenges, I have always had ample reasons to catastrophize. Drawing out the worst-case scenarios of the mishaps in my life was not only effortless, but also seemingly well-founded by my circumstances. However, dwelling in the abyss of unrealized catastrophe was not only unremarkable, but also stagnating. As a species that is attuned to negative experiences by evolution, we are all capable of envisioning the “ultimate catastrophe” and focusing on the doom it represents. Conversely, forward thinking requires a healthy balance of optimism, innovation and discipline. In confronting precarious situations, I strive to relegate the ultimate catastrophe to one of multiple unrealized scenarios under consideration, diverting heed to the factors required to steer myself towards better outcomes. When effectively instituted, this forestallment of catastrophizing has granted me the headspace to respond to difficult situations more prudently.

The unrealized catastrophe is simply one of many potential outcomes.

Considering the unpredictability of life, the unrealized ultimate catastrophe is never irrevocably averted. Naively disregarding this worst-case scenario can be a dereliction of a useful evolutionary instinct that may leave one unprepared for debilitating blows. However, the crux of all unrealized catastrophes is their immateriality. Thinking of them as an opportunity for mitigation is not only prudent, but also the only way to limit the collateral damage of disproportionate responses. Certainly, it sets up the stage for better discernment of risk and may be an important safeguard against the unjust repercussions of catastrophizing behaviour.

A compass through complexity

Emotions are a compass that prompts reflexes, which though protective, are prone to collateral damage.
Low resolution, high risk

Ever gravitated to someone you just met that made you feel perfectly understood? Or watched a story on the news that moved you so strongly because of how it connected to your own experiences? Certainly, I have experienced varying degrees of indignation towards the hurtful actions of others at several points in my life. These are a few scenarios that may instigate attraction, sorrow and anger. Such profound feelings are common manifestations of the broad spectrum of human emotion, and are a uniquely human adaptation that generally facilitates learning, fosters social cohesion, and occasionally protects us from harm. They can be a siren that draws our attention to both harmful and beneficial situations that we ought to mitigate or reinforce respectively. In this way, emotions are a compass that drives us through the complexity of existence at a “manageable” resolution, enabling us to spur reflexes when we need to seize the moment. However, everything that confers “low resolution” discernment its merits in reflex action also undermines its utility in long-term decisions. Further, the personal nature of emotions individualizes subsequent responses, diminishing their appropriateness for applications beyond the self. Through its perspectives on emotional reasoning, The Coddling of the American Mind burnished my understanding of the spatial and temporal limitations of emotions.

Injustice vs indifference
Injustice can be collateral to emotional judgement.

Unlike logical thinking, emotional reasoning dwells on how actions make us feel, as opposed to why they make us feel that way or why they truly happen at all. A judgement made about a stranger after a single encounter may unjustly relay them as unidimensional, setting us up for the disappointing realization that they are much more than the parts of them we love or hate. Beyond their vivid passion, even the most relatable stories are susceptible to confirmation bias, and may not be representative of broader contexts. Admittedly, the indignation I have felt whenever I was wronged always encumbered my inclination to fathom “the other side” of the story. Emotional reasoning can be a broad brush that paints over nuanced situations and tilts responses from impersonal to personal, regardless of appropriateness.

Although emotional and logical reasoning are often pitted against each other, the reality is that our daily decisions are usually a combination of both. Therefore, it is more realistic to identify situations where one might be more appropriate than the other, and clarify which thought process has been applied. Failure to make this determination risks injustice on one hand, and harmful indifference on the other. The harms of emotional reasoning can be especially far-reaching when it clashes with the pursuit of truth. Attempts to placate an individuals’ feelings may come at the expense of a proper investigation and impartial understanding of the other side of a complex story. In line with this is the assertion that “feelings are real, but they are not a substitute for truth”. However, it may be difficult to contemplate that our deepest convictions can be myopic, or even dangerously at odds with reality. In these moments when the combination of emotions and ego subdue truth, the value of logical reasoning approaches its zenith.

Personally, emotions have drawn my attention to situations that may need intervention, and also enabled me to appreciate life beyond mere existence. However, in situations whose consequences are temporally or spatially extensive, I aim to complement them with the nuance that logical reasoning confers. Perhaps the real solution lies not in the futile dismissal of emotions, but the diligent follow-up with the ever-important question “why”.

A strategy I can get behind any day

Antifragility is predicated on both survival and adaptation, which constitute a firm foundation for building resilience. Image from pixabay

The first core theme of The Coddling of the American Mind that intrigued me was antifragility. Succinctly put, antifragility refers to a tendency to be strengthened by past adversity. It facilitates the development of effective coping tendencies that limit ramifications of a second encounter with similar adversities. Examples of antifragility are bountiful. In nature, the immune system typically responds more effectively on second encounters with identical infectious agents. In human psychology, surmountable challenges hone resilience. Antifragility is predicated on survival and adaptive learning. The organism must first survive and then mount a response that effectively attenuates the insult. Moreover, successful attenuation is best manifested by both internal and external moderation towards positive outcomes.

Antifragility fascinated me because it describes a lot of strategies that I have  adapted to deal with conflict and adversity. Provocations earlier in life have improved my ability to transcend personal offense and concrete challenges. Growing up in a society relatively unsheltered from interpersonal confrontation, I had to learn to negotiate, reconcile, and in futile cases deflect inessential conflict. Similarly, enduring scarcity armed me with the mental plasticity to maintain hopeful but realistic mentalities about material possessions as well as inequity. Although gruelling, experiences like these have girded me for the similar and less catastrophic conflicts.

In muscle training, exposure to increasing weights increases muscle strength as an antifragile response. Image from pixabay

They have equipped me with techniques to maintain composure and seek solutions that are effective medium to long term. Antifragile adaptations do not construct perfect fortifications for the diversity and magnitude of adversity that a full human life entails, but they confer a fighting chance through tested coping methods.

Despite its tremendous utility, antifragility is not the only solution to adversity. Instead of adapting through difficulty, we can advocate to change the environment altogether to eliminate the need for adaptation. To be executed correctly, advocacy necessitates an abundance of caution and informed deliberation. While appealing, demanding drastic change of systems that are mostly effective can cause unanticipated deleterious outcomes.  Even if these changes are individually or locally beneficial, they can be calamitous to a broader context and/or the future. Moreover, excessive advocacy risks externalizing all responsibility for resolutions, casting the light away from introspection and personal growth. While (good) advocacy targets well-understood threats and demands change from others, antifragility fosters self-improvement and confers coping mechanisms that are adaptable to unprecedented threats.

For me, the solution lies in maintaining a healthy balance between advocacy and adaptation by conducting a genuine assessment of the long-term effects of specific challenges. Antifragility has offered me a firm background for survival, empathy, and conflict resolution. More importantly, it has empowered me to learn from uncomfortable situations. While I continue to strive for the wisdom to correctly discern the things I can positively change, I am certain that resilience and continuous learning are fruits of antifragility that I can get behind any day.

Antifragility is not the only solution to adversity. Image from pixabay

Whispers from the social ether

My second, and perhaps most recent adventure into the world of audiobooks, was The Coddling of the American Mind by Gregg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. In my pursuit of a better understanding of the cogs that turn the wheel of the “western” institutions around me, I have developed a keen interest in reasoned social commentary. In order to develop a deeper understanding of perspectives different from my own, I set out to contrast my personal experiences against divergent attitudes that I have encountered. To this end, I have casted my net into the intellectual and social ether for distillations of contemporary behavior. Any such pursuit is bound to be limited by innate confirmation biases and fallacies. I have kept these intrinsic limitations in mind as a caution for continuous evolution. Personally, this is a process that I hope will improve my understanding of perspectives beyond my own. At the very least, it is a journey that will foster introspection and a resultant deeper understanding of the roots of my personal perspectives.

An introspective journey to understand new perspectives. Image from pixabay.com

Both my introduction to audiobooks and pursuit of broader social understanding converged at The Coddling of the American Mind; a text that traced the evolution of contemporary social phenomena from individual upbringing and attitudes. Because individual upbringing is more likely to explain my divergence of mentality, this book presented a great opportunity for me to explore selected examples of western upbringing and their downstream effects. Moreover, it drew up examples relevant to my own upbringing, conferring me a deeper appreciation of how well-intentioned parental/ societal practices can inadvertently shift broader social attitudes towards maladaptation. I have shared my reflections on concepts that I personally found most insightful: antifragility, emotional reasoning and catastrophizing.

Precious moments between places

Last year, I had the pleasure of listening to my first audiobook. Having completed reading my last book at least 2 years prior, audiobooks gave a new lease on life to my leisure book “consumption” experience. Leisure reading has always been a treat for commutes to work, and occasionally, for longer trips to different towns. Productive reading was always fostered by the convenience of a seat – a requirement that the congested bus rides in Vancouver occasionally fell short of. Bus stops, characterized by a shortage of benches (for smaller streets), offered limited resort.

Broadway –  one of the busiest commute routes in Vancouver.

That’s why my induction into the world of podcasts revolutionized how I spent these precious moments between places. Suddenly, I had a vast and ever more intriguing form of media for my commutes. Perhaps more revolutionary was the versatility of the audio format, rarely bounded by inconveniences of posture or congestion. The next logical step in this evolution was the transference of my old reading tradition into audio – enter audiobooks.

A guided conversation

Audiobooks offered the same benefits of reading, that is, immersion in the mind and craft of another human being. The requirements for concentration, however, could not be anymore different. Further, they promised shorter consumption times often estimated at a few hours; a stark contrast to the many months that reading a book took. An unexpected development with audiobooks is that the content I consumed was more akin to the podcast topics that I listened to than the print books I had previously sought. While my reading list was rife with science fiction and horror, my listening list was grounded in profound non-fiction often punctuated with political and social commentary. Paradoxically, I found my listening topics too pompous and superfluous to read. Yet, my reading topics felt stultifying to listen to, especially at the end of long days. In print, just as in television, I yearned for travel to worlds beyond my own. Yet, in audio, I sought a deeper understanding of the world around me. Something about listening to human voices narrate events, present evidence and share interpretations stripped these narrations of the supercilious haughtiness that I perceived in print. Audiobooks felt like a (often intelligent) conversation where I was asked questions and patiently guided along to the answers. Every audiobook was a lecture that I could sit in on anywhere and digest at a personalized pace. Perhaps my perspective may be changed by time and experience, but the first two audiobooks I have listened to have made for a memorable listening experience on this new (for me) platform.

David Bates Award: Holding the Torch for Air Quality in British Columbia

Insidious adversaries

Prior to starting graduate studies, most of my academic career was focused on curbing salient health challenges that I grew up around. Because of their conspicuous manifestations, infectious diseases naturally flew onto my radar and kindled a personal propensity for medicine and research. They were relatively preventable (although not in the most affected communities in Africa), and are characterized by an identifiable causative infectious agent. At the time, endeavors like developing specific targets for conserved regions of HIV coat proteins were not only appealing, but also specific enough for me. However, considering that strides in HIV (and other infectious diseases’) treatment have been able to assure an almost normal life course for affected populations, my attention was diverted to auxiliary risk factors like antimicrobial resistance and comorbidities. This journey towards more inconspicuous yet crucial health concerns is what eventually drew my attention towards non-communicable diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cardiovascular diseases which are becoming increasingly responsible for worldwide mortality. Behind the increasing salience of these “insidious adversaries” are gradual changes in technology and consumption behaviours which have driven risk factors like air pollution.   

Currently, air pollution is implicated in more than 9 million deaths worldwide. Although natural drivers of air pollution like volcanic activity and forest fires have a role in propagating pollution, anthropogenic sources of air pollutants like transportation, manufacturing and electricity generation have been cited as significant contributors. Particulate matter (PM), which is an active component of most air pollution has been especially implicated. Because diesel exhaust is a primary contributor to traffic-related ultrafine particulate matter, I sought to learn more about its health effects as the focus of my graduate studies. 

Towards provincial recognition.

Delivering the award recipient speech at the B.C Air Quality workshop 2019

The David Bates Award is given annually in recognition of outstanding students in British Columbia who are dedicated to tackling challenges of air quality. My research thesis project that aims to understand how the human body responds to different concentrations of diesel exhaust was perfectly aligned to the objectives of this award. This research has the potential to improve public and occupational health safety guidelines around diesel exhaust exposures, as well as provide mechanistic understanding of the health effects of this prominent pollutant. The award was presented by Elisabeth Caton during the BC lung workshop at the Pinnacle Hotel Harbourfront on February 6th. It was an honor to receive this recognition for my dedication to elucidating interventions against the health effects of air pollution; it went a long way in urging me on as my first award on this exciting journey of research and discovery. Importantly, I get to be featured as one in a long line of esteemed recipients of this award.

David Bates Award bio:
Link: David Bates Award feature – 2019

“Juma is a graduate student in the Experimental Medicine program at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Having grown up in Uganda, he was fortunate to receive the MasterCard Foundation scholarship which enabled him to pursue and complete a BSc. in Microbiology and Immunology at UBC. His broad research interests included the effects of pollutants on gut bacteria, as well as infectious diseases like Kaposi’s Sarcoma and HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. During this time, he developed a keen interest in the extensive contribution of pollution towards the instigation and exacerbation of human diseases. Under the supervision of Dr. Chris Carlsten at the Chan Yeung Center for Occupational and Environmental Respiratory Disease (COERD), Juma investigates the dose-response as a result of controlled human exposure to diesel exhaust. Specifically, he aims to identify a protein signature in the blood, urine and/or nasal lavage that can be validated as a robust biosignature. Additionally, he studies lung function and inflammation, as well as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon metabolites in urine which could elucidate the observed protein response. Identification of a biosignature could provide mechanistic insight into the health effects of diesel exhaust, provide therapeutic targets, and facilitate development of reliable health monitoring tools that can be used to prevent and treat lung diseases caused by diesel exhaust. Juma also has a keen interest in neurogenic inflammation, which he studies as a potential mechanism for the symptoms and effects resulting from diesel exhaust exposure. Collectively, his work is one crucial step towards protecting the health of Canadians, and other populations affected by diesel exhaust exposure.”