In 2001, Robin Williams traveled to the headquarters of the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California after taking a personal interest in ape conservation.
While there, he met the famous gorilla Koko, who was taught American sign-language at a young age.
The two were made for each other. Koko quickly took a liking to Williams’ kind heart, and almost immediately he was one of the ape’s closest friends.
When she met Williams, Koko had been going through a bout of depression following the death of another gorilla that had been her good friend.
At the same time, Williams was battling the issues of depression and addiction that plagued him throughout his life.
Williams made Koko laugh for the first time in six months, granting her requests to be tickled and letting her try on his glasses as the two unlikely friends bonded. It was obvious to anyone watching that Williams enjoyed the experience just as much as Koko did.
You can watch some video of the pair becoming friends below:
The meeting changed the lives of both man and ape alike:
“Not only did Robin cheer up Koko, the effect was mutual, and Robin seemed transformed,”
Koko’s caretaker Dr. Penny Patterson said while reflecting on the meeting.
So when staff at the Gorilla Foundation used sign language to tell Koko of Williams’ passing, it was no surprise that she was visibly upset.
She sat hunched over, her bottom lip quivering as she mourned the passing of her friend.
Koko’s bond with Williams and her grief at his passing serve as a powerful reminder that a truly kind heart can transcend all differences. Even the differences between man and animal.
I’m no saint. Just like everyone else, I get frustrated with people from time to time. If you catch me after a particularly maddening encounter, you may hear the words “ignorant”, “bigoted”, “close-minded”, and maybe even “asshole”.
But one word you will never hear me use to describe a person is “dumb”. The increasingly popular idea that the world is full of stupid people is a basic misunderstanding of what it means to be “smart”.
Real intelligence is simply the measure of a person’s curiosity.
As a child, I was deprived of video games and cable television (in hindsight, I’m eternally grateful for it). So, I explored outside, dug things up, made messes, did questionable “experiments” in the kitchen, and burned stuff every chance I got (what little boy isn’t a pyromaniac?).
I also asked a lot of questions. I mean a lot. Why is the sky blue? Why is rain wet? Why does grandma keep an extra set of teeth in a glass in her bathroom?
One day I guess my mom just got tired of trying to answer them all, so she took me on my first trip to the library. I’ll never forget what she said as we entered that temple of learning:
“The answer to every question you could ever have is in here.”
I was immediately hooked. From then on, when I wanted to know how something worked or why something was the way it was, I went to the library and found a book I could read about it.
I wasn’t critiquing the authors’ literary styles, or analyzing their sentence structure, or looking for deeper meanings. I was just enjoying the reading and relishing in my newly found power to find answers to every question.
That’s why today I have a wealth of relatively random facts that I can recall whenever necessary. It’s not because I was any smarter than any other kid my age, it’s just that I had parents who showed me a place where I could ask as many questions as I wanted and actually find the answers on my own.
Calling someone stupid also means you don’t understand how the brain works.
The average brain is made up of about 100 billion brain cells called neurons. Each of these neurons has the potential to connect to any of the others.
If you can remember your combinations and permutations unit in 7th grade math, you’ll know that the total number of possible connections that can be formed between 100 billion neurons is equal to 100 billion factorial:
100,000,000 factorial = 100,000,000,000 x 99,999,999,999 x 99,999,998 etc. all the way down to 1.
So what’s the total number of possible connections? Well, I tried to do 100 billion factorial on five different online scientific calculators and they all gave me the same answer: infinity (the real answer is obviously not actually infinity, but it’s a number with about 25 billion zeroes).
That’s right. There are virtually infinite ways in which our brain’s neurons can potentially connect to one another, and it’s the combination of these neural pathways that allows our brains to function.
When we are born, there are very few connections in our brain. This basically means that our potential is limitless.
As we begin to get older, our brain realizes that certain abilities, like being able distinguish monkey faces as well as we distinguish human faces, aren’t really very useful. Consequently, those pathways erode away-the typical adult only maintains a few trillion pathways throughout their life.
I know the monkey example seemed a bit random, but it’s actually from a real study. In 2005, researchers demonstrated that six-month old infants could distinguish between the faces of different monkeys just as easily as they could between different human faces.
However, by the age of nine months old the toddlers’ brains had realized that the skill wasn’t useful, and most of them lost the ability. Only the babies who continued having to differentiate between the monkeys (ie. for whom the skill was still useful) retained the ability.
There is the potential for some extremely powerful, some would even say magical abilities within our brains. However, the brain’s number one priority is survival, so it limits things like creativity and imaginativeness to ensure that we can function well in society and provide for ourselves.
But sometimes, the part of the brain which holds back that dam of possibilities gets damaged, allowing glimmers of our superhuman potential to shine through.
That is the case with people suffering from savant syndrome. Savant syndrome occurs when a mental disability like autism damages the part of the brain that controls our basic functions.
Although those suffering from the condition usually lack the basic motor skills to tie their own shoes or dress themselves, the condition also liberates other parts of their brain, giving them some mind-blowing abilities:
A man who can read a book two pages at a time (one page with each eye) and remembers every detail about the 12,000+ books he’s read so far:
A man who flawlessly played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 after hearing it once. He was 16, never had any classical training, and had just learned to walk on his own a year earlier:
A man they call the human camera, who can recreate entire cityscapes, down to the number of windows in every building, after viewing it once:
When we are born, we all have the potential to be as smart as Stephen Hawking, or as funny as Richard Pryor, or as musical as Jimi Hendrix. But from that point on, who we become depends on the neural connections that are created by the environment we live in.
And not only does everyone have amazing potential, but everyone has something to teach you. Knowledge can be obtained from books or computers, but wisdom can only be obtained through experience.
Every person in this world has a life experience unlike anyone else’s. We all gain perspective about the world from the lessons we learn throughout our lives, so there’s a nearly infinite amount of wisdom we can obtain from those around us, if we’re willing to look for it.
Our brains are naturally curious, but this curiosity must be protected and fed for it to achieve its potential. Remember, Einstein was dyslexic and mildly autistic as a child, and he ended up becoming arguably the greatest scientific mind of our times.
Calling someone dumb makes them scared to ask questions- it stunts their curiosity, thereby inhibiting their ability to find out the truth on their own.
So, every time you call someone dumb, you are actually the one making society less intelligent.
This incident seems to have really brought the brutality of the group to the forefront, despite the fact that less than a month earlier, Boko Haram shot and burned 59 male students at another Nigerian boarding school, telling the girls to leave and go find husbands (Boko Haram is extremely conservative, believing women should not be educated and should play a traditional domestic role in the family).
Earlier today, the Obama administration announced that it would be increasing its role in the search effort, sending a team of military, intelligence and law enforcement personnel to assist the Nigerian government.
I’m all for doing anything that might increase the chance of returning the kidnapped girls to their families, but please excuse me for being cynical about this latest news. For me, it immediately recalls memories of the botched #Kony2012 campaign.
If you need a refresher, back in 2012, the non-profit group Invisible Children launched a campaign with the goal of raising awareness about Josef Kony, leader of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army), and his practice of kidnapping young boys and turning them into child soldiers.
Following the explosion of the #Kony2012 campaign, both local forces (like the Ugandan army) and specialized foreign units (like the U.S. Special Forces) stepped up their activity in the region, with hopes of capturing Kony and ending his reign of terror once and for all. Two years later, he is still at large (most likely in a remote area of the Central African Republic), with many of his LRA soldiers still with him.
My point is this- when we hear about horrific crimes like Boko Haram’s recent mass-kidnapping, we respond with our most unrefined emotion: anger.
We get pissed off that such backwards and extreme ideologies like those espoused by Boko Haram even still exist in our modern world. We get pissed off that the local governments are either too corrupt, too scared or simply too apathetic to really do anything about the crimes. We get pissed off that some people aren’t as pissed off about the tragedy as we are.
When we get mad, we get vindictive. We hear about the horrific things being done to the girls in begin to equate justice with vengeance, while completely losing track of the real issues here.
Everybody seems to want to send in all our best guns (figure of speech) and shoot Boko Haram out of the jungles where they’re hiding- this is simply unrealistic. The central region of Africa has millions of square miles of virtually uncharted “bushlands” (African use the term “the bush” to describe uninhabited dense areas of forest).
Trying to track down Boko Haram and the kidnapped girls would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack… if that needle was constantly moving locations and was way more familiar with the layout of the haystack than you.
The American government is famous for saying it won’t negotiate with terrorists (even though we’ve done so on many occasions). If Obama were to announce right now that we were negotiating a ransom for the girls, he would likely be blasted in the media as a spineless terrorist-appeaser.
But would that really be so bad? Try to remove your emotions from the decision- nobody likes the thought of rewarding people for committing heinous crimes like this kidnapping, but we’re already three weeks removed from the original crime: what are our chances of recovering even a fraction of the girls (alive) using force? I’d say that chance is almost zero.
Boko Haram promulgates a message that western culture (specifically western education) is evil, and that western powers like the United States are trying to spread evil progressive ideologies and create modern-day forms of colonialism. We cannot give them more ammunition for their propaganda machine.
One thing our foreign policy “experts” haven’t seemed to grasp in recent years is how we constantly create more enemies for ourselves by taking the bait of fringe militant groups. Look at Al-Qaeda for example: how many future insurgents did we create from all of the “collateral damage” (ie. civilian deaths) that resulted from our stubborn obsession with eradicating this group?
One of the biggest reasons why we are disliked by many people in other countries is that we are perceived as a schoolyard bully who is constantly trying to police the whole world. Sending in our special forces to fight a guerilla war in the jungle with an army that has no uniform and is full of young kids is just asking for trouble.
Boko Haram’s leadership would use this move as proof that the U.S. cared less about the girls’ well-being than about their own strategic interests in the region. And they would definitely make sure to publicize all of the graphic images, especially the ones of dead children (even if the kids were child soldiers).
Because of these factors, I think that negotiation is clearly the better option. It has the highest likelihood of recovering the girls safely and the lowest likelihood of becoming another black eye on our foreign policy record. Plus, it would show we cared more about the principles of equality and universal education than we do about maintaining a military presence around the world.
And if it was successful, why couldn’t we just go after Boko Haram afterwards? They would no longer have any leverage in the situation and the fact that we made sure to secure the girls first would probably make it a lot less likely that people would be suspicious of ulterior motives.
Obviously, we can’t ignore the fact that we would be, in effect, helping to fund Boko Haram by paying them a ransom for the girls. But we have to ask ourselves what’s more important to us: the lives of the girls, or revenge against Boko Haram. The latter will always be an available option, but we may be quickly running out of time to accomplish the former.
Rats are misunderstood. Because they happen to prefer the grimier habitations of this world, we have a natural fear of them. However, the average rat is just as intelligent as the average dog! These guys will prove it to you.
By around 18 months, babies can tell when you’re faking an emotion. This discovery came from testing done at Concordia University.
To test this, researchers got two groups of babies: one group of 15-month olds and one group of 18-month olds. The infants observed an actor who would perform some action and then display a facial emotion that either did or did not make sense with the action. For example, hurting a finger and showing pain would make sense, but receiving a favored toy and then showing a sad face would not.
The 15-month olds empathized (judging by their facial reactions) with whatever emotion the actor displayed, regardless of whether it made sense or not.
The 18-month olds, however, immediately recognized the faking, scrutinizing the actors face more closely and even looking to the researcher (who is viewed as a trusted source) for confirmation of their reaction. They also only showed empathy for the actor’s “pain” face when it made sense with the preceding action.