The Architecture of Life

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Monday, November 30, 2009

Placebo Effect - Ancient Pain Reliever

For decades, scientists have tried to understand the mysterious power of what is called the "placebo effect."

A wide variety of studies have found when patients suffering from a wide variety of mental and physical disorders improve after being given placebos they believe are powerful and effective drugs.

If they truly believe - even when in reality the "drug" they are given is a mere sugar pill - they regularly report a significant reduction in symptoms.

I have suggested in the past that placebo studies prove how powerfully we are influenced - not just emotionally but physiologically - by how we percieve the world around us.

In my design practice - where I employ psychological techniques to help my clients achieve the emotional experience they desire in their homes - I have long noticed that my clients' emotional experience of their home environment is highly related to their views of reality.

Special artifacts and architectural conditions in their homes can have powerful and long-lasting psychological effects.

I have seen such conditions reduce - or stimulate - anxiety many times.
A new study published by Cell Press in the August 27th issue of the journal Neuron, provides fascinating insight into how and why simply expecting a treatment to reduce pain can produce the actual physical effect.

The placebo effect - it seems to me - offers a clue that points to how we might create therapeutic environments.

I have suggested that the placebo effect should be harnessed as a therapy - and pointed to the fact that believers in a wide variety of ancient "faith" systems also claim similar effects - as have modern scientists who study mind/body medicine.

This new study's finding is that the "placebo effect" involves pain control pathways in the human brainstem, the part of the brain that is continuous with the spinal cord.

In other words, it impacts an ancient part of our brain which we share with many other species.

So it may turn out that "having a positive attitude" proved to be adaptive long before human beings evolved.

"Placebo analgesia" if a phrase that refers to an individual's relief from pain following administration of a chemically inert substance (often a sugar pill) and is due to a person's belief that a potent pain medication was administered instead.

It is a direct test of the power of belief to impact what have previously been seen as chemical and physiological disorders. If those conditions are as "physical" as they appear - why are disorders as extreme as schizophrenia and chronic pain impacted by the mere perception of the patient?

Endogenous opioids, which are naturally produced by the brain in small amounts and play a key role in the relief of pain and anxiety, have been implicated in placebo analgesia.

"It has been hypothesized that placebo analgesia also recruits the opioidergic descending pain control system, which inhibits pain processing in the spinal cord and, therefore, subsequently reduces pain-related responses in the brain, leading to a decreased pain experience," explains lead study author Falk Eippert from the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany.

Eippert and colleagues observed that, under placebo, cortical areas interacted with brain stem structures implicated in pain control and that these interactions were dependent on endogenous opioids and were related to the strength of experienced placebo effects.

So there you have it. Another powerful example that the percieve hard boundaries we assume exist between our bodies, our minds and our environment are much "fuzzier" than we might think.

So not just your home is in your head - so is your pain - and sometimes all we have to do to powerfully impact those experiences is to actually believe we can.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Republican'ts and Health Care

In a brilliantly crafted speech, President Barack Obama put our country's health care crisis center stage last night before a joint session of Congress.

It was a landmark speech filled with straight talk and good ideas. For those who missed it, it can be viewed online with an attached transcript here.

Obama presented a balanced plan built from ideas of both parties - and once again displayed a clear determination to face our nation's out-of-control health care system. With clarity and rhetorical brilliance, he placed the entire circumstance in perspective so American citizens could easily understand the situation we face. He called for action.

As he said it, "The time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action. Now is when we much bring the best ideas of both parties together, and show the American people that we can do what we were sent here to do."

He fought back against the organized campaign by the Republican't party, conservative activists and talk show hosts to use lies and misinformation to avoid the critical issue we all face, calling them "cynical and irresponsible".

As an independent not aligned with either party, and a small business man paying over almost $1,200 a month for health care for my wife and myself, I would like to add my small voice to his.

I am sick to death of the politics of deception. I am well past the point of being offended by the condescending and patently deceptive tactics of the far right.

I believe lying to the American people about important issues facing the nation is not just deceptive - but flat out unpatriotic and unAmerican. It smells of McCarthyism - and its underbelly is filled with a tint of racism.

I am sick to death of those who create problems where they do not exist - and stoke the anxiety of the ignorant in order to stir anger and uproar that keeps progress from being made on issues that are damaging the lives of American citizens every day.

These are plenty of Republicans who are legitimately concerned for our nation and doing their best to have a fair debate about how to accomplish reform in a vast and broken system.

But there is another group on the right that does not have our nation's interest at heart. There is another dogmatic and cynical group willing to sell our country down the river by any means necessary.

I would like to address these demagogues of the right and give them a new name.

There are Republicans - and there are Republican'ts.

Republicans have a can do spirit. Republican'ts have a "can't do" cynicism.

Republicans have our country's best interests at heart. Republican'ts don't care about our country. They only care about the minority that share their views - which very often includes racists, the ignorant and powerful economic interests who are exploiting our citizens. Republican'ts disguise economic self interest and fear mongering as patriotism and faith.

Here is what I would like to say to the Republican'ts.

Quit talking to Americans as though we are fools.

Stop trying to frighten us with lies.

Try to put the interests of our nation above your own negative view of reality. Your fear of people different than you is not a platform for public policy that will sweep the nation. It is simply sad and horrifically unworkable.

"No we can't" is not a useful counter balance to "Yes we can."

And to fair minded, patriotic Republicans who fail to call out the Republican'ts who are dividing us and blocking our nation's progress - I say get a spine.

Keeping your seat is not as important as keeping your integrity and the integrity of your party. Your grand old party will pay the consequences if you continue to cater to an ignorant and unreasonable fringe group.

Our President has called down members of his own party on the far left - even those who share his own views of policy - when they use similar tactics to those of the Republican'ts.

Please do the same. Stop the lying. Stop the deception. Focus on the real issues and get the job done for America.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sustainably Sufficient - Verse Three

Sustainably Sufficient begins here.

Declaring Yourself Sufficient

So what can must we do in the face of these seemingly overwhelming problems? What is the first step towards creating a new balance, a new world that works for everyone?

I suggest the gateway is simply declaring our selves sufficient to the task.

If I am sufficient, I can solve my own problems. If you are sufficient, I have a partner. If our lives are sufficient, we won’t need more than we can use.

If nations declare themselves sufficient, they can work together effectively for the benefit of their citizens and the world at large.

Scarcity and need - like learning to fly - are real problems to be solved. But those problems are completely distinct from the “view” of insufficiency most of us accept as true.

The two are only related in our minds – and echoed in our words.

Scarcity as a “view of reality” is a myth – not unlike the myth Columbus exposed when he discovered the Americas. To Europeans of that time, he didn’t simply discover the New World. He essentially created it, because it did not exist in the reality that existed for them before his voyage.

Today, we have the opportunity to create another “new world,” simply by understanding what becomes possible when human beings cooperate in a profound way.

The only thing holding us back is that we are live in an old pretense – one that our comparative wealth and power have allowed us to maintain well past the time it was useful.

Mindless consumption does not create happiness. Resources are not endless. Domination and control are not the secret to political stability. Those are tired ideas from the past and leading us - if not to destruction – then at least to a much sadder and less livable world for our children.

But there is also great hope that the threat we face will spur us to action. Our genius for innovation and cooperation appear again and again when our survival is threatened.

Almost always - in the end - we overcome the most daunting of challenges.

We have proven we can triumph over our past. Now, we know the world is not flat, that gravity can be overcome, that our inability to breathe under water does not have to limit our exploration of the oceans. But there was a time when all were universally seen as impossible.

The possibility of flight had to become real in the minds of man before the reality could follow. The same is true about the myth of scarcity. Until we can see that it is possible for the things we view as scarce to be abundant – we cannot address the real problems that exist.

So how does one create that new possibility?

It starts with a personal declaration. You don’t need to know how to generate something new to make it happen. You don’t even have to believe it is true.

You simply commit yourself to a world in which that possibility can emerge – open your mouth and begin to speak.

All the social movements of our time began as conversations. The civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the environmental movement; all arose because a small group of people raised their voices to create the possibility of a better life and a better world.

Every religion, political movement or enlightenment began the same way – when people experiencing an imbalance in their lives began to seek a more equitable and inspiring way to view reality.

I invite you to stand for the possibility that you are sufficient and whole just as you are. I encourage you to commit yourself to a world where food and money and love and cooperation and leadership and innovation are abundant – a world where there is enough of everything for everyone.

The first step in becoming sustainably sufficient is to step beyond your past and create a new balance in your own life, a new possibility, a new world you are creating with your words.

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

For more on the subject of creating sufficiency, join us at the Global Sufficiency Network.

Sustainably Sufficient - Verse Two

Scarcity, Natural Selection and Entropy

Scarcity - like gravity - is a real problem faced by all living things, not just a bad attitude. Our bodies have a limited ability to store energy. If we don’t find enough food or water, we die.

If we don’t escape predators, we die. If we use more energy than we gain in those efforts, we fail to survive. This is true for individuals, families, societies and ecosystems – regardless of species.

Every living thing passionately seeks to survive and reproduce. As a result of that relentless quest, our nervous systems have evolved a genius for assessing risk.

Even a virus can balance the value of seeking nutrients in its environment against the risk of using too much energy in that pursuit. It weighs its need to escape toxins and predators that might harm it against the cost of the energy it takes to avoid them.

After all, the world is a very dangerous place. Without exception, organisms that can’t master that skill go extinct – so every species that survives on our planet today is born with that ability.

This eons old dynamic lives at the intersection of two interdependent natural processes well known to science. The first is known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or entropy.

Many scientists consider entropy the most universal law of nature. The Second Law states that all energy and mass in the universe is running down – or said more accurately – seeking a lower and more stable state of activity.

Living things are what is called “negentropic”. Life is the only known phenomena in the universe that actively works against entropy.

Time has turned mountains to sand and oceans to deserts. Nothing of the physical world we see today existed when life began, yet living things survive.

The second universal process is natural selection. Through consumption and reproduction, organisms push copies of themselves – sometimes with variation - into the future.

You and I consume plants and other animals in order to get the energy we need to survive, converting their bodies into a more “stable” form we call sewage. We are born and inevitably die, but if we survive long enough to pass our DNA on to the next generation, the essence of our form survives.

What this means is that living things have a natural genius for weighing the benefits of an action against its risks. Human beings intuitively know when a relationship, or our internal wellbeing, or an environment is out of balance.

Though we may not be consciously aware of the interdependent nature of our lives – we sense it naturally. We feel uneasy and anxious when we sense things lack equilibrium.

We have evolved this “sixth sense” because over the millions of years during which our kind evolved we have survived the collapse of that balance many times.

When nature at all levels reaches a certain level of instability, it suffers a catastrophic collapse until it finds a new, more stable state.

We know when too many predators die in an eco-system; food species overpopulate, consume the available resources, then suffer a catastrophic die off. We know when we plant the same crop over and over we deplete the soils and our yields decline.

We know when a marriage or partnership loses its balance, peace and love are lost. We know when nations fail to find stability, war erupts.

We know it from simple every day experiences. We know every time we boil water, every time the minor irritations of life burst into anger, every time a flirty smile on a pretty face inspires a fit of passion.

Right now our world is dangerously close to precipitous collapse in a variety of realms. More and more of us feel an uneasy sense of impending danger.

We know we are overpopulating the planet at an alarming rate. We know we are consuming our available resources faster than we can replace them.

We know our fossil fuel based existence is not sustainable. We are in a race to develop antibiotics to kill disease micro-organisms faster than they can evolve into new and potentially more virulent strains.

Our built environment is expanding in the face of that population pressure to the point that we are altering the temperature of the planet, polluting our oceans, depleting our water supply, destroying the diverse web of species that maintain the balance of natural systems.

We know this and it haunts us.

We know that the forces that separate us – nationalism, tribalism, racial and religious differences, and economic inequities – are at war with new and emerging social movements that can bring us together.

We know this. We feel powerless and afraid.

We feel insufficient

Continue to Sustainably Sufficient - Verse Three

Sustainably Sufficient - Verse One

Exposing the Myth of Scarcity

Before we can create a sustainable, green and just global economy – we must first overcome an entrenched view of reality that persists in each of us.

True change is not prescribed by political leaders. It emerges from a grassroots awakening among individuals.

It is not enough to change policies and pass new laws. Every historical shift that has ever occurred in human society began first with a small group of people who were able to see the possibility of a deeper and more powerful view of life.

Human beings like to make sense of the world. It helps us feel in control of an overwhelmingly complex and uncertain existence to have strong opinions about what is real. We take these views of reality – real and imagined - for granted in our day to day lives.

Our beliefs originate from all kinds of sources - our cultural background, our upbringing, opinions we hear on TV or in our social group and to be frank, from entirely irrational sources in own personal psychological makeup.

The most reliable way we have to verity those views is by using the scientific method to understand nature. In that pursuit – scientists have uncovered general laws that determine what is possible for us.

Many of these laws are easy to understand. We know we can’t fly like the birds because our bodies aren’t built to defy the laws of gravity. We know can’t breathe underwater because we don’t have gills like fish.

We accept these facts because for most of human history, everyone who tried to fly or breathe water fell to their deaths or drowned. But “common sense” is not always a reliable measure of reality.

Through science, we can distinguish fact from fiction. But even science is a child of change. Time after time, the prevailing views of the scientific community have turned out to be utterly false.

And to be frank, most people don’t verify their “views of reality” through the filter of current science. Not only are new discoveries always revising the views of scientists – but we inherit all kinds of strange notions from our social environment that have great power in our minds.

All sorts of false views – untrue as a matter of fact - persist all over the planet. Some could be seen as beneficial. Others are dangerous to our wellbeing and limit our ability to create more workable and fulfilling lives.

Consider how damaging the views of racism, tribalism, sexism, predatory capitalism and out of control consumerism are to our planet and the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

Similarly, most of us live as though “insufficiency” is an undeniable natural law. If you listen to the news, your neighbors or your internal dialogue, you can hear it everywhere.

There’s not enough money, not enough food, not enough peace, not enough freedom, not enough leadership, not enough vision, not enough integrity, compassion or forgiveness.

That is what the outside world looks like to most of us. We see the most valuable things in life as scarce and hard to find.

Scarcity as a point of view is also integral to how we see ourselves.

We aren’t rich enough, powerful enough, kind enough, attractive enough, effective enough or happy enough.

We are driven more by what we lack than what we have. We see the glass half empty. We focus more on what we are not than what we are.

Commonly held views become the accepted reality of a time. Enough people see a flat horizon in their own neighborhoods and soon the whole planet becomes flat. The “world is flat” view is passed down through the generations and becomes an unquestioned dogma in our shared reality.

Then, a miracle occurs. Some curious soul comes along and questions that prevailing view. New facts of nature are discovered that prove the old belief was a myth. The majority notions slowly fall by the wayside, often with a lot of “sound and fury.”

The old order is disrupted. A new balance is eventually restored. In a nutshell, that’s the history of all humanity and our accumulated knowledge.

Progress is directly related to our ability to distinguish fact from fiction in our communal views of reality.

Nothing has really changed in that process down through history – but almost everything has changed in the daily lives of people.

We found ways to fly to the moon and explore the darkest chasms of the oceans. Over and over, we have overcome false “realities” previously considered indisputable.

We have done that not by denying nature, but by learning more about it and creating new possibilities in the space of those discoveries. Despite our many frailties, human beings are very practiced at turning the impossible into the possible.

Go to Sustainably Sufficient - Verse Two

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Furniture World

Furniture World Magazine published an article last August covering Sam Gosling and his book - Snoop, What Your Stuff Says About You - which also referred to Truehome and my architecture firm.

Here's what they had to say:

Dr. Gosling emphasizes, 'What we can learn from how people shake hands or how they decorate their desks serves as a working hypothesis into the customer’s psyche.'"

"One person who has taken looking into his customer’s psyche seriously is Chris Travis.

"Mr. Travis runs Sentient Architecture, a firm that conducts in depth interviews that try to get to the heart of how his clients perceive the space they want him to design.

"His system matches psychological needs to physical spaces and the feelings they evoke.

"His architectural plans don’t have labels such as bedroom, dining room or living room. His labels denote the psychological space…the feeling each room evokes.

"This might be a great idea for your next presentation! “'We define 'home' as an ontological state – a state of being,’ says Travis on his blog - Architecture of Life. 'Being at home is the experience of living in a physical and psychological place that inspires and empowers a sustainable and fulfilling experience of life.”

Our thanks to Furniture World for spreading the word!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Information Wasteland

Is anyone out there as fed up as I am with the state of what is laughingly called "news" in broadcast media these days?

Is the public really so stupid that the majority of us really want to digest this biased, commercialized, over sensationalized pablum?

It's an information wasteland - and it seems to me people ought to be in rebellion.

My view is that economic incentives need to exist to stimulate deeper and more thoughtful coverage.

There's a market for it. PBS - though a bit fuddy duddy in it presentation - actually presents news in a deeper context and gets an audience. But where is a "hip" version of that outside of a few weekend news and analysis shows.

There is nothing for an intelligent audience on the 24 hour news channels - only cranks, partisans and feel good nonsense

The scary thing is that traditional sources for quality reporting and commentary about real issues like policy, culture and geopolitics are newspapers - and that industry is in disarray and failing.

The Internet and other media are disrupting the print business model and that is likely to continue. Though blogs and other new models certainly have their place - most don't have the resources and expertise of professional journalists.

There is no lack of people who can do a good job of providing information - just the unemployed professional journalists these days would be sufficient to the task.

The problem is in the marketplace and the lowest common denominator ethic that dominates the programming of the major networks. Money drives the bias and trivial coverage.

Broadcast news is about stimulating anxiety, promoting shallow positional thinking - the kind of news that ends up in National Inquirer.

It works as a business model...maybe because it's mind-numbing? Is that the secret? Is that why people watch TV with the automaticity of rats whose brains are wired to be overstimulated?

My guess is that many of the people who own and run broadcast media are up to exactly that. And even when they aren't, they're forced to play the same game because they will be unable to compete if they don't. Ethical news organizations lose market share and advertisers - so they adapt and we all lose.

Most of us are so overwhelmed by the insane amount of information out there we don't really care about what is going on - only about the status of our own dogmatic positions in the marketplace of ideas.

Stoking anxiety has become an art form both in the media and in politics - and it works. Hell, it is the better part of the Republican't political strategy. Republican political operatives aren't stupid. In fact, they always seem to put the Democrats back on their heels with the technique.

Note the disinformation spread about the curent health care debate. Whose winning? I would say the disinformation is likely to come out on top with the mob - if not with the intelligensia.

Bill Maher just got crucified by saying publicly "this is such a stupid country." Tough words, but show me the behavior that makes it a false statement.

The level of education of the average American is no where near the top of the world anymore. We really are less informed and less educated that people in many other countries and the trend is increasing not decreasing.

That fact is not the result of a poor system of education. American universities are still the best in the world. It is because the media are now an omnipresent source of sound bite style information without context - and every day it is training us all to think such information has value.

We are being systemically trained to react - not the think. So new business models need to be created around quality information set in an intelligent context - but who has the power or the determination to do it?

We can complain all we want but nothing will change until enough of us get fed up that we come up with a really profitable way to target what has to be a growing market of people who are fed up.

Millions of us can see the doddering old fake behind the curtain of the media Wizards of Oz - but we don't know what to do about it.

I've been on this high horse a long time. But short term - like everyone else - all I can do is complain.

Like most of the coverage on TV - my dream of meaningful broadcast media remains both a pretense and a fantasy.

In the meantime - Rome burns.