MANILA, DECEMBER 27, 2007 (STAR) DE RERUM NATURA By Maria Isabel Garcia - A man stands with his arms outstretched on his little sailboat in an open sea with sharks circling him. The caption says, “What Are You Optimistic About?”

At year-end, whether you have courage for it or not, we make some mental inventories in our heads of how the stories of our lives are evolving and we end up with questions that hint on our capability to cope. The arrows of time are always shooting forward and no matter how much you just want to wallow in the thick flow of transient bottled spirits or simply wave a drumstick as you take part in the season’s gastronomic parades, at some alley in the labyrinth inside your skull, a glow-in-the dark sign insistently asks, “Hmmm, now what?”

The image of the man-being-circled-by-sharks is the cover of the book edited by John Brockman with the caption “What Are You Optimistic About?” (Pocket Books NY:2007) as its title. Brockman has generously made it a professional habit to give to us what leading thinkers, most of them in the sciences, have to say about important things in human lives. There were 153 “notes” from thinkers on Brockman’s book. I thought of three main things that speak to what probably most of us wonder about — peace, aging and friendships — when we think of what lies in store in the coming days and nights for us and for the ones we care about. In each of the three things, I will share with you what some good minds are quite optimistic about based on their field of study and the breadth of their mind’s reach.

First, on peace. While many have stopped watching the news or reading the papers because they fear that they may become numb to the deathliness of war and other kinds of violence, it may jolt many to know that violence has been on the decline compared to centuries past. Steven Pinker, a neuroscientist, cites a slew of carefully documented studies saying that there has been a downward trend in violence all over (though he admits that it is more of a downward “zigzag”). He said that the wars that have been waged recently and the ones that still rage now are no less horrific but there are two main differences: One, war is no longer in the regular menu options of human civilization in general; and two, if they occur, they are largely condemned or under intense controversy. I think the fact that humans can travel around the world with a reliable sense that they would be safe, at the pace and magnitude that we do now, echoes with Dr. Pinker’s reason for optimism. But I think we can temper this optimism with the realization that as long as any part of our species engage in a systematically planned violence against others, and justify it and even enjoy it, we ALL slide back to a dark time in the story of being human. I agree with Pinker when he said we should carefully study “peace” and find out what it is made of and concentrate it and then bottle it. Maybe we can even hitch them on to Coca Cola trucks around the world. That would certainly teach the world to sing.

But if you are starting your fourth decade like me or you are older, but you do not have the slightest idea why I referred to Coca Cola with reference to teaching the world to sing, then you have forgotten one of the most popular and poignant commercials ever been shown. It featured people from all nationalities and ages, all holding candles, singing “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.” While I personally do not rave about any soda, I really liked that ad. But if you still cannot remember and are beginning to worry about the prospects of aging as it points to what has been considered the slow inevitable death of memory, the next item gives you reason to lighten up.

Next, on aging. Increasing studies have shown that the quality of life is now generally improving as we age. More and more, we now have people in their 60s or older who have started new careers and, good or bad, even personalities. Dr. Leon Chalupa, a neurobiologist, wrote in Brockman’s book that neuroscience has been offering evidence like the ones in the form of molecules (example, in red grapes) that are increasing lifespans in many organisms with whom humans have a good fraction of their genes in common. Science has also revealed that physical exercise, even something as seemingly benign as walking, increases the strength of your inner shield against the onset of Alzheimer’s. Even more, they recently found evidence that those who have led lives that required a constant dance of their minds did not show any signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s, even when their brains, when autopsied after death, showed signs of those diseases. Studies have also been revealing that while brain cells were once thought of never to regenerate, now there is evidence that they do and that you can even mitigate some damage to your brain from injury if you have worked your mind a lot, building what scientists have termed “cognitive reserves.” Now, Flaubert’s dictum, “we read in order to live” now gets an imperative nudge from what we have discovered so far about even our biology. I now echo what Dr. Chalupa said in the book, “better start thinking what you will do with those extra years.”

And lastly, on friendships. We now have new ways to connect with people whom otherwise we would have never known. Some of my good friends now are those who have sent me e-mail, reacting to the columns. Judith Harris, a contributor in Brockman’s books, reminds us how communication has transformed the lives of those who were “shut in” from the world — those who were sick and could not communicate verbally. Now, they too have the chance of offering their stories, and perhaps their friendships. But I still do not think technology has made for deeper friendships. It is still how people use that technology that provides the strength and character of friendships. But I think we should be optimistic that we now could cast a larger net on humanity with which we can “catch” those with whom parts of our many selves find a home. Some for their ideas, some for their passions, some for their love, some for their familiar genes, some for a combination of some or all of the above. But in all cases, a connection, to something other than what we have caged within our own selves. Enough reason to move on.

I know that you may not share the optimism I offered above but it is alright, these “dreams” are on me, part of this column’s dance to walk the minds of science with you as we punctuate this year’s end. It is like our “Three for the Road” before we hit the next annual journey.

And if you at all have the chance to tell me, may I ask you in turn: What are you optimistic about?

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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