Friday, 16 July 2010

Faces & Statutes

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, was published in 1872. It was very controversial at the time, and for a long time afterwards for two reasons.

Firstly it implied a continuity between the expression of some sentiments with people and beasts ... as though we are somehow related!

Secondly it implied a hardwiring of our expressions – a biological lingua franca that bridged gender, race, geographical distance, culture and time. You can’t make up your own smile or your own frown any more than you can make up your own fingers. They’re simply there, biological mechanisms which universally fit a purpose across a species.

This issue, of intrinsic facial expressions, was still being argued about through the twentieth century. But repeated work done across cultures including with very isolated peoples finally demonstrated that humans all frown, grin and sneer in the same way for the same reasons.

Pop psychologists and inspirational speakers often remind people of how important the physical component of our presentation is when we communicate. Albert Mehrabian’s 7% spoken words, 38% voice tone and 55% body language is probably the most oft cited, although these figures come with their own caveats which he stated but are not often repeated.

However, whether we can put a consistent percentage value on these things is irrelevant. The fact is that physical presentation matters. It nuances and assists verbal content. Look at how, disembodied through cyberspace, we still use emoticons on digital communications :-D

Evolution simply doesn’t take time and effort to produce highly complex, utterly useless systems.

In fact, seeing a discontinuity between facial expressions and verbal output puts us on alert. Nietzche wrote:

"One can lie with the mouth, but with the accompanying grimace one nevertheless tells the truth"

And watching another’s expressions can help us to empathise. As Edgar Allen Poe had it:

“When I wish to find out how wise or how stupid or how good or how wicked is anyone, or what his thoughts are at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart”

And perhaps we’re not the only species sensitive to the facial expressions of other humans. A team at Lincoln University led by Dr Kun Guo discovered that dogs have left gaze bias when looking at human faces – not other objects or other animals - just humans. The idea is that we may reveal our emotions more authentically on the right side of our faces and gazing left helps the dog to intuit the human state better. Probably more work needed, but it’s an intriguing notion. If we attain simpatico through our facial expressions, why should our longest serving friends not have got in on the act?

The modern master of facial studies is probably Paul Ekman, a professor of psychology at the University of California Medical School. With his colleague Wallace Friesan, he catalogued the 43 distinct muscular movements that the human face can make with its over 50 muscles, calling them action ‘units’. Taking combinations of up to five action units at a time, they catalogued over ten thousand combinations and then noted the three thousand which meant something, the reflection of an authentic human state.

The face is simply the most exquisite piece of biological communication machinery in existence. Can you think of a better one?

In this light, it hard to see how deliberately covering a face can be seen as less than an assault on personality, on individuality. It’s an attenuation of a person’s relationship with the world and the other people in it, a hobbling of the natural medium through which we emote and communicate, even when not speaking.

This week, French MPs voted to pass a law which will forbid the wearing of facial covering in public places. This will, no doubt, be distressing to people who wear motorcycle helmets to restaurants and balaclavas to the theatre. But its real intention is to forbid the wearing of the veil by a minority of muslim women.

Given what we now know about faces, shouldn’t we all regard this is a virtuous law?

I don’t think so.

The Harm Principle' is one of the principles upon western liberal thought is based. As John Stuart Mill wrote:

“… the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

It’s difficult to see how the wearing of a veil harms others.

There are exceptions of course. Minors shouldn’t be able to wear a veil any more than they should be able to get a tattoo. In sensitive security situations such as passport control or entering buildings, people must be required to show their faces. In professional situations such as teaching, there must be no impedance of communication and therefore no veil.

But if a woman chooses to walk down the street completely covered, that surely must remain her own business.

Of course, she may be being coerced by a man. The proposed French law places far lighter penalties upon women than on the men who force them to wear veils.

But considering this situation carefully, how on earth could the law prove coercion without a full disclosure from the coerced? It’s probably unworkable.

At its worst, this law could further restrict the free movement of women who are subject, for economic or social reasons, to the dress codes imposed by husbands and fathers.

It’s hard to see what the French law will achieve but resentment. It’s unlikely to move the willing veil wearer to a secular philosophy, to move the oppressed veil-wearer to liberty or to move marginalised muslims to fuller integration with French society and values.

In my view, as a personal practice, the wearing of the veil is to be deplored, but the French law looks like sanctimonious bullying.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Buns of Steel or Buns of Suet? Laugh Yourself Slim with the Daily Mail

The Daily Mail has an article entitled ‘How to Laugh Yourself Slim’. Laughing burns calories apparently.

Well, I read the tips and they provided the laugh component. I’ll let you know about the weight loss in time.

They’re ‘medically proven’, so that’s OK then.

"Sprinkle cinnamon into a yoghurt each day to burn fat. The spice is a powerful metabolism-raiser. Half a teaspoon a day is enough to burn an extra kilo a month"

This seems a rather alchemic approach. But perhaps gurning and puking burn more calories than I had realised.

"Train with friends and you'll lose a third more weight than if you go on your own. You'll maintain motivation by exercising socially, and benefit from mutual encouragement."

I can’t dismiss this one out of hand, but there is the important variable of who your friend is. What if it’s Johnny Vegas? (Masterful comedian, not an athlete). I’ve spent enough time in gyms watching people who use leg-press machines as armchairs to know that you need to be with someone focused or you’re better off solo.

And this one interested me most:

"Exercising first thing in the morning helps you to burn fat faster. You'll shed a kilo quicker than at any other time, as your body will be forced to tap into your fat reserves for energy."


I’m trying to remember the details of respiration and ATP from years ago. As I remember it, we have several fuel sources available to us and we use them in different combinations at different times.

There’s the glucose in your blood: highly available but there’s only a small quantity.

There’s the glycogen in your muscles and liver: pretty available, more plentiful but there's a limit.

And there’s the fat: very energetically dense, loads available (even in slim people) but a bit less immediate. And you need carbohydrate to burn it, like the priming charge of an explosion.

In an absolute emergency, there’s protein. But nobody wants to go there. It’s a desperate last measure and it hurts.

Anaerobic (energy metabolism without oxygen) exercise uses a lot of carbohydrate (glucose and glycogen) for fuel but produces by-products like lactic acid which soon inhibit performance. This kind of exercise is for emergencies and ‘sprinting’ – sudden, short-lived bouts of great effort like weight training with large weights, sprinting and jumping out of the way of buses.

Aerobic (energy metabolism with oxygen) exercise uses fat and carbohydrate, and gives a smoother performance over time. This type of metabolism is suited to sustained effort like walking or running steadily.

So exercising at a reasonable (not punishing) rate should tip the scales towards the fat-burning end of the continuum, whether you’re working out early or late.

If you run out of glycogen, that’s what cyclists call the ‘bonk’ and runners call the ‘wall’. It hurts. I’ve never done it. Jeff Galloway’s classic book on running describes it thus:

“Glycogen can be processed from fat, and from muscle protein. This is a very uncomfortable process and leaves a lot of waste … When nearby fat stores are used up and the exercising muscle absolutely demands glycogen, exercising muscle itself may be broken down”

So far, using fat for exercise seems to be primarily determined by the type of exercise. Unless of course, you’re so desperately short of glucose and glycogen first thing in the morning that you go straight to the ‘wall’. How carb. depleted are you in the morning then?

I’m shortish and female, so my recommended calorie intake is probably around 1800-2000 per day, I would imagine. (The NHS reckons about 2,000 - this is an average for women irrespective of age and height - and this more detailed BMR calculator reckons 1881)

Let’s call it 75-83 calories per hour to stay alive. That means that if I sleep for 8 hours, that’s a generous 600 to 660ish calories spent digesting, snoring and rolling over on the cat. That’s actually extremely generous, because I’m less active in bed than while awake … perhaps that’s my age ;-) Anyhow …

I run at about 9km per hour and am told by the machine that I’m burning about 650 calories per hour.

Marathon runners hit the wall at around 18-20 miles, 28-32km. At that rate, I’d hit it between 3.1-3.5 hours (Yes - I know I'm not Paula Radcliffe). Call it 2,000 calories. Most of running magazines concur that that’s about the right value.

That probably means that most of the time I have around 2,000 calories' worth of glucose in my blood and glycogen in my muscles and liver. The glucose will vary a bit, from around 4 or 5 mmol/l in the morning to a bit above 7 after a meal (I know this one, because a diabetic friend gouged me savagely with a needle while I was eating a lump of chocolate for pudding, and the blood test came out to 7.2). In any case, the nett glucose in your body is very small; the serious carb. reservoir is the glycogen.

So let’s say I spend about 600 (carb and fat?) calories sleeping and have a reservoir of about 2,000 calories before I hit the wall – then I have at least 1400 carb calories to spend on running when I get up. That’s over two hours of running.

I’m diligent, but not that diligent.

I can’t see how this ‘scientifically proven’ tip can work. I can also assure you that, despite running first thing in the morning without eating, I don’t hit the wall. I’m sure I’m still running with my glycogen reserves, in other words - same as if I was running in the evening after two meals.

If you're an exercise scientist, please tell me if I'm missing something.

I don’t suppose any of this matters in the grand cosmic scheme of things. Except that I worry that people feel they have to do all sorts of exotic things to be fit and healthy. I wonder if ‘scientifically proven’ lists like this actually create impediments to fitness.

In my experience, if you can get to the gym/park – just go. Don’t worry about the time of day.

Stop reading the Daily Mail for health tips.

And for god’s sake, don’t put cinnamon in your yoghurt!