Black Pepper – Nature’s Stimulant

Known as the “King of Spices”, and traded like gold in the ancient world, black pepper is now mostly overlooked. It’s an obligatory ingredient in most recipes, added without much thought or question. Everybody has it in their cupboard, usually conveniently situated beside the salt. Nobody raises so much as an eyebrow for pepper. But does anyone know what it actually does? Why do we even have it in our cupboards?

Well, there’s its characteristic “peppery” taste, which many enjoy. Back in the Middle Ages, it was likely coveted, not only for its flavour, but also because it helped to prevent spoilage from bacteria at a time when there was no refrigeration.

In Chinese medicine, black pepper is known as “barbarian pepper”, because it was introduced to the country by traders from the West. It gained popularity there like nowhere else in the world, and now nearly half of all pepper production worldwide goes to China and Chinese restaurants worldwide [1]. (Black pepper beef, anyone?)

Why is this spice so valued in China? Well, it’s hot and acrid nature helps to warm the stomach, making food more readily digested, and Chinese culture has always been very focused on improving and protecting good digestion. In fact, when pepper is added to meals (particularly when combined with turmeric), it increases the bioavailability of nutrients [2] by a whopping 154%, and also reduces absorption time by half. That’s incredible!

In Ayurvedic medicine, pepper is also widely used, as it is considered an anti-kapha medicine, which burns up digestive ama, the sticky, mucus-like build-up of poorly digested food that tends to coat our digestive system over time. Its drying nature means it can help to clear up any kind of cold-damp mucus condition, such as sinus congestion, runny nose, or diarrhea.

It assists the liver in the detoxification of cancerous substances and protects it from damage almost as well as milk thistle does [3]. And its warming nature also stimulates blood circulation, and increases metabolism. I bet you didn’t know it did all that. No wonder it was once valued like gold!

The best way to use pepper, besides just sprinkling it over your meals, is to grind it up and add it to a warm glass of milk, preferably along with some turmeric. Then, add some honey to sweeten it. If you struggle with weak digestion, this will get your system humming in no time.

You can also consider using the Ayurvedic remedy Trikatu, which is a mixture of ground black pepper, ground pippali long pepper (or anise), and ground ginger in equal amounts and then made into a paste with the addition of honey. Add a teaspoon to a cup of hot water or warm milk and drink daily.

As someone who struggles with weak digestion myself, I have come to really value the properties of black pepper. Now is the time of year when people are most drawn to cold beverages and foods, which may help you feel cooler in the moment, but will only weaken your digestion over time. Consider adding pepper to your foods (and perhaps even your drinks) to keep this from happening.

  3. Singh A Rao AR Evaluation of the modulatory influence of black pepper on the hepatic detoxification system. Cancer-Lett. 1993 Aug 16;72(1-2):5-9

The Homunculus Has No Clothes

You could say my husband is a “straight talker” – straight talking meaning bluntness, I suppose. But in my opinion, his “straight talk” goes much deeper than that. He doesn’t just state his opinions bluntly, he has this ability to see things that other people don’t.

By this, I don’t mean he is clairvoyant. He can’t see the future. He also can’t see your aura. I guess I would describe his “vision” more as an ability to see through your rationalizations. He can tell when you’re way off base, when your reasoning doesn’t hold up, and when you’re just bull-shitting yourself – or others.

I’ve relied on this particular ability of his many times in my life. In fact, I have valued it most when he sees through my own bullshit. For example, he will bluntly tell me when I am avoiding something out of fear, and not because it doesn’t make sense. He will call out my paranoia, when I think people are saying or doing things behind my back, reminding me that mostly, they’re not thinking about me at all. He has a big problem with lies, and he is contemptuous of manipulators. Somehow, he is able to detect all these things before I even get a whiff of them.

I have often thought he is the quintessential little boy who sees that the emperor has no clothes. Because he doesn’t just notice these things, he also can’t help saying something about them, no matter the social cost. He’s like Toto in the Wizard of Oz, who won’t stop barking and pulling back the curtain until everyone can see that the person they’re afraid of is really just a small, elderly man frantically fiddling with a bunch of levers.

That tiny man – the homunculus – is the supposedly rational mind that, for decades, we’ve been told is directing all of our thoughts and actions. Except that now, we have access to oodles of brain studies showing that this is complete hogwash. Hardly any of our decisions are rationally considered, and we are easily led astray by simple things like the current ratio of hormones in our bodies, consolidated memories from our past, the amount of trees in our environment, and even if we’ve eaten in the past hour.

I learned all this from the book Behave by Robert Sapolsky. It’s a mammoth book, in which he dissects the entire anatomy of human decision-making, from the smallest of neurotransmitters to entire brain regions, from the narrow effect of hormones to how those relate to our larger social environment. Along the way, he cites so many opposing scientific studies that by the time you’re halfway through the book, you’re confused as hell.

What causes us to do what we do? It’s impossible to tell. Every biological marker depends on something else to activate it. So much of what we do is context- dependant. He takes the concept of epigenetics to an entirely new level. In his quest to discover what makes people do what they do, we find no solid answers. You might as well shrug your shoulders and throw a dart, because that’s as close as you’ll ever get to deciphering their reasoning, or lack of it (at least at this time). This should make us all more hesitant when we decide to mete out punishment.

What we do know for sure is that the homunculus has no clothes. Just like my husband, who is constantly pointing out when I get lost in my own head, we as a species are also lost. We need to stop pretending that we’re not. We’ve bungled a lot over the years, from our decision to burn women at the stake for witchcraft, to our long-time defence of slavery.

We make better decisions as a group, when we are confronted, uncomfortably, with many opposing views and perspectives. It helps us to get out of our own heads for awhile and see things from someone else’s point of view. It stimulates openness and creativity. Just like me, we all need someone around to tell us when we’re full of shit. Because it’s rare to the point of impossibility when we can see it for ourselves.

The Waayyy Behind Book Club – June 2023

Hello, fellow readers! My book choices this month have left me thoughtful and reflective. It will be a deep dive, as we consider the nature of evil, profound hurt, and whether it’s possible to heal. For instance, what makes someone evil? And if we have suffered under its harms, particularly for long periods of time, is it even possible to be happy and whole? Most importantly, can we avoid passing on our hurt to others as we seek to heal ourselves?

Let’s dive in! The first book I read this month is called Eichmann In Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt. Eichmann was a prominent Nazi in Germany during WWII. In particular, it was his job to handle “the Jewish problem”, by removing Jews of their German citizenship (and hence, their rights), forcing them to emigrate, and eventually, managing the trains by which Jews were removed from their homes and taken to concentration camps to be exterminated. This book is the story of his trial after he was abducted by Mossad agents and brought to Jerusalem.

Early on in the trial, it was established that the idea of the killing the Jews – The Final Solution – was not his. He was merely following orders. The trial, and the book, explores Eichmann’s culpability. Is it possible he didn’t understand what he was doing? That he was killing people? Well, it turns out he knew, but didn’t realize it was wrong. How could he not know this was wrong? Well, people far more educated and important than him had assured him that this was the “moral” thing to do. ‘Scientific’ thinking in Germany at the time had declared Jews (and gypsies, and Slovaks, and the disabled and the mentally weak) were genetically inferior. Therefore, for the sake of the human species, and the German Volk in particular, they were better off gone.

But then, he also went along with Hitler’s orders because he didn’t want to face the consequences of disobeying. And it certainly didn’t hurt that his obedience greatly furthered his career – 3 promotions in only 18 months! Eichmann was granted upward mobility and greater social respect by following Hitler’s orders without question. As an uneducated, blue collar worker, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams when he became a part of the Nazi machinery. Who among us could resist that heady mix of power, esteem and respect? Who among us does not wish to belong? In a society where people like Hitler are revered, thoughtlessness and casual cruelty are an asset. So, was Eichmann at fault? Or was it the entire country who validated Hitler’s ideas by electing him in the first place?

Hannah Arendt, the author of this book, is the person who coined the term “the banality of evil”, for in Eichmann, we see a man eerily like ourselves. He wanted to be promoted, so he did his job well. He had no particular antipathy towards the Jews (in fact, some of his good friends were Jews); it was just a job that needed to be done and he happened to be the cog in the wheel that smoothed that path. During the trial, it became clear that he could never have lead, conceived, nor implemented such a complex solution on his own. So how evil was he exactly? And how should he be punished? (Spoiler alert: he was hanged).

We come to the ineluctable conclusion that ‘evil’ can be perpetrated very simply. For, it is nothing more than a lack of thought or consideration. A lack of empathy. How often have any of us hurt someone without thought? I know I have. In the moment, usually under stress, I just didn’t consider how someone else was being impacted because I was more concerned with myself. I didn’t learn of their pain until much later. By then, much harm had been done. Was that evil?

Yes, I know, Eichmann’s life presents us with a much more extreme situation. People weren’t just hurt. They suffered and died. Horribly. I’d like to think that if I had found myself in his exact position, I would have made a different choice. But Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiments from the 1960’s definitely cloud things. The results of these experiments showed that the vast majority of us are disturbingly obedient to authority, even when we know someone is being hurt. (Look them up if you haven’t read about them yet. They’re fascinating – along with Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiments). Arendt’s book leaves you with the thought that empathy is everything. Without it, we’re just animals. The most cruel and heinous actions can be perpetrated, and justified, whenever we fail to show it.

In last week’s blog, I already mentioned my second book this month. It’s called What My Bones Know by Stephanie Foo, and it’s the story of her journey from a scarred, traumatized child, to a healing, more self-aware adult. Her mother abused her as a child, and her father neglected and then later abandoned her. As many Asians do, she succeeded spectacularly despite this harrowing past, but not without hurting many people along the way.

This book is the story of how she tried to heal herself, and resolve generations of family trauma, through conventional talk therapy, EDMR, restorative yoga, meditation, IFS, and the help and support of friends. She tried everything. ‘Hurt people hurt people’ was her mantra. She just wanted to stop all the hurting. I can’t recommend this book highly enough, particularly for those who are also struggling to recover from difficult pasts. Her perseverance and determination to improve herself, despite the odds, is incredibly inspiring.

Finally, I rounded out the month with another tremendously helpful book, Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. Hanson is a psychologist, and I’ve read a couple of his books, and also attended some of his free Wednesday night talks. He never fails to show kindness and compassion through both his words and his writing. The concept of Hardwiring Happiness is pretty simple: as Hanson says, “our brains are velcro for difficult experiences, and Teflon for good ones”, meaning that we tend to hold on to our negative experiences much more tightly than the positive ones, which causes us no end of emotional problems.

From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. We need to know where the dangers are if we want to survive. No doubt, this tendency to place more emphasis on negative experiences than positive ones helped humans to band together, avoid death, and thrive. But in our modern lives, holding on to these negative experiences long after their usefulness has only made us more anxious and depressed.

Hanson reminds us that our brains have plasticity – meaning they can grow and change under the right influences. We aren’t static. We have choice, and we can use that choice to ‘hardwire’ our happiness by remembering our positive experiences, savouring them, and then blending them in with all of our negative experiences to create a more complete picture of our lives. We tend to forget that, mixed in with our faults and failings, each of us also has many good traits, good times, and happy memories. Times when we felt safe, and loved, and connected. We just need to remember them, and emphasize them instead of only remembering the negative ones.

I did all the exercises at the back of the book, and found them really helpful. The concept of Hardwiring Happiness is pretty simple, and the book can get repetitive – the whole idea can be summarized in a paragraph! But the implications of the practice are profound. I really believe that these exercises can help a lot of people who struggle with depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, hopelessness, and feelings of loneliness. You just have to be consistent with it.

So, there you have it! The books I read this month. I hope you didn’t mind the deep dive today. I really enjoy complexity, and books that give me food for thought. Until next month, keep reading. 🙂