7 Theories you must know to survive the modern age
Image: Vivek Prakash / Reuters
1. I am right, you are wrong: Confirmation Bias
People use information to justify their point of view. For example, Sachin Tendulkar’s Test average over the last two years is lower than Rahul Dravid’s and VVS Laxman’s, both now retired. So, he too should retire. But his supporters compare him with Sehwag and Gambhir. The former has a marginally higher average, the latter a lower one. Therefore, Sachin is the best we’ve got, and he should not retire! One way to avoid this bias is to talk to someone you respect and who can express a dissenting opinion.
2. Order in disorder: Central Limit Theorem
You walk into a party and find people talking in a variety of languages. What are the chances that about 66 percent would be using a particular language? Or, that about 60 percent of customers in a store picked a white or a blue pinstriped shirt? The chances are very high for both. The Central Limit Theorem says, roughly, that even seemingly random phenomena when observed long enough will tend to group itself into a bell curve-shaped pattern.
3. As simple as a ball: Poincare Conjecture
Henri Poincare claimed in 1904 that a loop on a 3D sphere can be contracted to a single point and that makes a sphere simply connected. It’s easy to understand the Poincare Conjecture if you are a cricket lover: The seam on a cricket ball can be slid off and shrunk to a full stop. For more than 100 years, nobody could prove it. The Clay Institute offered a $1 million reward for proving the conjecture. Then, in 2006, it was finally validated that Grigori Perelman, a Russian mathematician, had proved it. Do you need to know this to survive the modern age? No. However, this you do: Perelman turned down the prize, saying, “I am not interested in money or fame.”
4. What makes us compassionate: The Polyvagal theory
We all know about the ‘fight or flight’ part of the nervous system. But not many know about the enteric nervous system, which passes off as ‘gut feeling’. This is effectively our ‘second brain’, the one that stabilises us and makes us capable of expressing compassion and empathy. The key to this mind-body connection is the vagus nerve, which connects the brain and the abdomen. Along the way it touches the voice box, heart, liver and pancreas.
5. Barrier that can’t be breached: Speed of Light
Very few theories have withstood as many assaults as the theory that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. No, not even thought can travel faster. (Thought is a mixture of chemical reactions and electrical process, all of which proceed at a speed slower than that of light.) A team of researchers set the world on fire in 2011 when they said they had found particles that could indeed go faster. That opened a door to the fantasy world of time travel. Alas, in June 2012 CERN said the earlier experiment had faulty equipment and that the particles indeed obeyed the light-speed limit. So, the theory stands and for a good reason because at the speed of light an object becomes infinitely heavier and time slows down to a standstill! You really want time travel? Curl up with a good science fiction book!
6. What you owe has to be repaid—by someone: Debt
For a long time, the world economy grew because of a steroid called debt. In the last decade, banks lent money in an order of magnitude higher than ever before. Normally, banks leverage themselves 13 times their share capital. Many US institutions like Lehman Brothers were leveraging themselves up to 30 times. They all forgot that economic growth can slow down. They also forgot the theory of debt: All debts must be repaid. If the shareholders aren’t capable of repaying it, then the taxpayers have to do so. Already, the US Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the UK’s Bank of England have unveiled a plan to protect taxpayers. This proposal says the “shareholders should expect to be wiped out and unsecured bondholders can expect that their claims would be written down to reflect any losses that shareholders cannot cover”.
It has happened to the best of us. Four days into a diet and finally the temptation to bite into a chocolate becomes too much and we give in. This breakdown of willpower, which was once considered a character flaw, can now be better understood as ego depletion. It is this depletion that lies at the heart of a mad shopping spree, a crazy affair on the side or a sudden meltdown at the workplace. The most likely culprit? Depleted sugar reserves. You see, making decisions requires calories, so when you are short on calories the brain simply concentrates on short-term gratification and puts the long-term rewards (or consequences) on the backburner. So, before you set foot in that jewellery store, make sure you are on a full stomach; and ask for a raise after your boss has had a hearty breakfast.