Guts for Brains

The human brain is generally regarded as the organ that makes us stand out from all other forms of life. People have unusually large brains in relation to the size of the body: About 3x larger than that of our closest living relative, the chimpanzee. And since the brain consumes a lot of energy, up to 25% of the basic metabolic rate, largeness comes at a considerable cost.

Despite cognitive benefits the energy required imposes serious constraints on brain size evolution. One possibility is to raise overall metabolic rate and simply add the required calories to the diet but greater energy-needs also create greater dependence and vulnerability and often are simply impossible. In the expensive tissue hypothesis Aiello and Wheeler argue that within a species the brain can become larger if the body reduces the size of other major metabolic organs. As it turns out for a primate of our body size the digestive tract is a lot smaller than is to be expected. Human sacrificed guts for brains. Such sacrifice was possible because people were able to find food sources that are much easier to digest, allowing the gut to operate much less energy intensive and compensate for the metabolic cost of the larger brain. Aiello and Wheeler went on to postulate that a larger brain would allow for more complex foraging behaviour, which would result in a higher quality diet, which would then allow the gut to shrink further, freeing up more energy for the brain, which ultimately led to the invention of cooking, agriculture, the Green Revolution and today’s advances in crop development. And when the gut couldn’t shrink any further those needs have moved well beyond the limitations of the body. This is your brain on fossil fuel.

Height Blind

Greater height in humans is commonly associated with advantages such as leadership skills, wealth, intelligence or social status. Differences between short and tall men are often found for these traits, mainly in favour of tall men. But are height-related effects biologically determined or do they result from socially-driven mechanisms? A recent study of the University of Wroclaw exploring height stature perceptions of congenitally blind individuals, who are unable to perceive other people’s stature through the visual channel, found that none of the traits assigned to the tall man by the sighted people was assigned to this person by the blind individuals.

In the experiment a short story was read to 34 blind as well as 34 seeing participants. The story described a non-existing person called Thomas and included a brief note about the character’s height: in one version, read to the first half of the participants, he was 166 cm tall, in the second version he was 190 cm tall. After hearing the story, the participants were asked to assess to what extent Thomas was intelligent, wealthy, a good leader and how high his social status was. The results indicate that blind people do not associate tallness with a man’s interpersonal abilities, unlike the sighted participants, among whom we observed a pronounced, positive, height-related stereotype. These findings suggest that sight is strongly related to developing the positive stereotype of high male stature. The preference for tall men seems not to be a biological inclination, but rather a learned association.

It reminds us of a fantastic project by Hans Hemmert where all visitors to a party wore makeshift shoes to be the same height. Unnerving to some, liberating to most.

Adaptive Size

Sebastian Errazuriz: Wallgren Arkitekter and BOX Bygg create parametric tool Finch that generates adaptive plans

Architecture studio Wallgren Arkitekter and Swedish construction company BOX Bygg created the design tool Finch which can generate floor plans adapted to the constraints of a site. It allows architects to understand the potential of a specific building site, especially in terms of size and configuration. The Incredible Shrinking Man is interested in the creation of a similar tool that takes into consideration the size of the actual people living in a building. If we can design a tool that allows people to experience how much space they’d lose if they would be taller then being tall is perhaps not so appealing anymore.


The etymology of the word growth may tell us why it is difficult to ignore its direct superficial appeal. In a balanced world both shrinking and growth have their place. Yet while the concept of growth is universally embraced and celebrated, shrinking is regarded mostly negatively. This prejudice is deeply rooted in language and how metaphors of natural growth were embedded in wider culture. 

Long before modern life took the edges of winter’s discomfort, the first signals of spring must have created an intense sense of joy. In fact so much so that the proto-Germanic language had a word for it; Ghru. Ghru was used to express the feeling one gets from the land turning green again, early spring’s first sight of grasses and foliage after the dark and cold of winter. Ghruuuuu! It’s a joy we still share with them. Both the words green and growth find their origin in that moment of joy and in the root-word ghru that expresses it. Ghru-Green-Growth. The positive connotation is confusing once it gets taken out of context. We forget that ghru was never meant to function in isolation but as part of a seasonal cycle. It could only mean what it meant because after summer the green turned yellow and brown again, and shrunk back into the soil. Ghru, growth or green only manifests its essence within this rhythm. Yet society and the economy pursues perpetual spring. No seasons. Growth upon growth, upon growth. In pathology they have a word for that.

The Kampung Lodan Miracle

The Kampung Lodan Miracle was a shrink event that took place on the river banks of the Ciliwung river in Jakarta in the summer of 2017. Two local seamstresses resized a pair of jeans and a shirt of 195cm tall Arne Hendriks into a fitting attire for a 150cm person. The significant amount of surplus fabric was then put on display as a reminder that tall people are wasteful by default.

Kampung Lodan is one of three villages within the Indonesian city of Jakarta that have had to go through a radical resizing of their territory. Due to new government regulations in regards to living on the banks of the Ciliwung river the villagers had recently been forced to give up significant amounts of private space. In return and quite unexpectedly they gained vibrant communal space. A more detailed account can be read HERE and HERE. Ever since, the villages have become a monument for shrink resilience and a testing ground for new ideas about urban living under challenging political and environmental conditions. The Kampung Lodan Miracle was inspired by the idea of gaining something by giving up something, even if it hurts.

The Aesthetics of Upward Arrow

Are arrows going up more beautiful than arrows going down? The upward arrow seems deeply embedded within the psyche of modern man. It inspires a positive emotional response while a downward arrow triggers negative feelings. The Simple Growth Obsession Test shows this default response also occurs when the viewer doesn’t know the context in which the arrow is presented. In graphs the upward arrow signifies an accumulation. Our aesthetic preference for the upward arrow therefor makes a subconscious positive pre-selection towards growth. When confronted with beauty we often feel defenceless against its deeper message, which explains why context may seem irrelevant. But of course it’s not. Perceptions of beauty are sometimes thought to be determined by natural selection; that things, aspects of people and landscapes considered beautiful, are typically found in situations likely to give enhanced survival of the perceiving human’s genes. The upward arrow may over time have become such a signifier. They may be recognised on some deep hidden level by genetic biological programs. Our aesthetic preference could be caused because of its symbolic promise of favourable circumstance. How much of this preference is cultural and how much biological programming? Indeed the arrow was among man’s earliest tools. They empowered him, as did the drawings of arrows early man painted on cave walls. They had magical significance. Paintings of arrows (and wild animals) allowed man a sense of protection and control over his violent environment. One only has to open a financial newspaper to recognise not much has changed since then. The question then is how to break the arrow.

Guangzhou Reversal Room

The Incredible Shrinking Man was invited by the Guangzhou Triennial 2018, curated by Angelique Spaninks, Zhang Ga and Philip Ziegler, to resurrect one of its favourite shrink experiences: the Ames room. An Ames room allows people to visually experience a shift in body size by means of optical distortion. We are generally keenly aware of our height in relation to others and changing the perception of body size can be a powerful reminder of its role in establishing our relationships and behaviour.

Unfortunately height plays a role in the creation of a subconscious hierarchy where greater height is valued over smallness: something The Incredible Shrinking Man regrets and wants to change. The Ames room allows for a momentarily release from this ‘fixed’ position and to redefine our relationship through resizing ourselves in relation to the other. Not surprisingly, earlier try-outs showed that short people want to experience how it feels to be taller, while the tall giggled at the experience of being short. Although the room is not yet able to reverse the overall dominant desire for greater height it does initiate awareness of the subconscious forces in play. Those forces include the default response of most short people to allow tall people to be more present, to take control, to take up more prestigious positions in society, to be paid better, to have more offspring. Greater awareness of these ‘free’ privileges may lead to a more equal playing field as the small modify their behaviour, while the tall come to understand that some of their achievements were not necessarily achieved only by merit but because it is easier for them to succeed. While these are the same arguments that make most people want to be tall, awareness and mutual understanding can increase space for the short to take center stage, and in doing so create greater appreciation of the beauty and power of the small.

Hallmarks of Malignant Growth: Avoiding Immune Destruction

In trying to understand what makes the idea of continuous growth so powerful (despite clear evidence that it is a harmful concept) The Incredible Shrinking Man turned to cancer research to learn where healthy growth turns malignant. Although cancer is a very complex phenomenon the seminal paper “ The hallmarks of cancer” managed to simplify its underlying process to ten common traits that every single cancer shares to facilitate the transformation from a normal cell to a cancer cell. Published by Robert Weinberg and Douglas Hanahan in 2000, with an updated version in 2013, the paper functions as a guide and lens to learn what the underlying principles of growth are. And what to do about it when things go wrong. Like in our growth-obsessed economy perhaps.

The tenth hallmark of cancer is it’s ability to avoid immune destruction. The immune system is intimately involved in the entire process of cancer progression, both in tumor eradication as in tumor immune potentiation. 1. The first escape mechanism is simply continued mutation and selection within the growing tumor.  When the immune system recognises an abnormal cell it moves in to kill the abnormal cell through T cells, natural killer cells (NK) or macrophages. Unfortunately, the same process can also create tumor immune potentiation (immune-editing). If the tumor contains cells that are able to survive the onslaught then these cells will eventually start to proliferate and make the immune system less effective. 2. Cell’s wear their health on their sleeves in the form of antigens. These are pieces of protein that the cell presents on its surface and that display what is going on inside the cell. The immune system check if the antigens are representative of a healthy cell. If not it kills the cell. The second mechanism is the under-expression of  MHC1 so that the cell doesn’t display its abnormal antigens. Recognition of cancerous cells can be difficult since cancer cells are in fact a modified self. Still, both the innate and the adaptive immune system are quite efficient at suppressing most abnormal cell growth, inappropriate metabolism and inappropriate movement. Cancer cells also present pieces of information about its intercellular processes on their membrane (through MHC1) that give the immune system clues that it is abnormal. MHC1 is the display case. However, if MHC1 levels become too low natural killer cells move in and attack the cell. A precise expression of MHC1 that is low enough but not too low, will help certain cancer cells survive. 3. The third evasive strategy is the tumor’s expression of TGF-Beta while at the same time down-regulating TFG-Beta receptors on its surface. TGF-Beta induces apoptosis in surrounding cells (they have the receptors that cancer does not) while encouraging the formation of new blood vessels. In short, by expressing TGF-Beta the tumor creates space for itself by killing competing cells while making sure it gets resources to grow. 4. The fourth strategy is immune suppression through regulatory cells. The immune system needs to be regulated not to attack self cells. Cancer hijacks the principle by expressing regulatory proteins (Treg. MDSC) that suppress the immune system from acting upon the tumor. 5. The fifth strategy is that cancer cells change their metabolism by up-regulating Glycolysis within the hypoxic micro-environment of the tumor. In doing so they take nutrients (glucose) away from the immune cells and lower surrounding pH levels. Lower pH levels stops maturation of T cells and MHC1. So an important part of cancer’s defence against the immune system is to make simple changes in the biochemical and nutritional environment that benefit tumorgenesis.

Implosion Fabrication

It’s not quite the Dehnel phenomenon but implosion fabrication does allow for a different perspective on shape shifting, size and shrinking and may just add a piece to the puzzle of achieving a smaller size for that bloated hydro-species by the name of Homo sapiens.

Researchers at MIT created a technique to shrink 3D printed structures to the nanoscale while attaching various functional particles like gold or DNA to a super absorbent polymer hydrogel  scaffold . By dehydrating the scaffold the printed structures reduced a 10-fold in size in all dimensions (a 1000 fold in mass). Senior researcher Edward Boyden and his students further developed a technique known as expansion microscopy,  which involves embedding tissue into a hydrogel and then expanding it, allowing for high resolution imaging with a regular microscope. By reversing this process, the researchers found that they could create large-scale objects embedded in expanded hydrogels and then shrink them to the nanoscale, an approach that they call “implosion fabrication.” Using two-photon microscopy, which allows for precise targeting of points deep within a structure, the researchers attach fluorescein molecules to specific locations within the gel. The fluorescein molecules act as anchors that can bind to other types of molecules that the researchers add. “It’s a bit like film photography — a latent image is formed by exposing a sensitive material in a gel to light. Then, you can develop that latent image into a real image by attaching another material, silver, afterwards.” Once the desired molecules are attached in the right locations, the researchers shrink the entire structure by adding an acid. Currently, they can create objects that are around 1 cubic millimeter, patterned with a resolution of 50 nanometers.

Hallmarks of Malignant Growth: Deregulating Energy Metabolism

In trying to understand what makes the idea of continuous growth so powerful (despite clear evidence that it is a harmful concept) The Incredible Shrinking Man turned to cancer research to learn where healthy growth turns malignant. Although cancer is a very complex phenomenon the seminal paper “ The hallmarks of cancer” managed to simplify its underlying process to ten common traits that every single cancer shares to facilitate the transformation from a normal cell to a cancer cell. Published by Robert Weinberg and Douglas Hanahan in 2000, with an updated version in 2013, the paper functions as a guide and lens to learn what the underlying principles of growth are. And what to do about it when things go wrong. Like in our growth-obsessed economy perhaps.

The ninth hallmark is cancer’s ability to reprogram the cell’s energy metabolism to cater for its enormous resource needs. Everything a cell does needs energy obtained from breaking down nutrients through respiration, a process of metabolic reactions. This energy is then stored as adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy currency of the cell. Normal cells, under normal conditions, undergo aerobic respiration, a metabolic pathway that requires oxygen. Cells break down glucose into pyruvate (glycolysis), to eventually form ATP, while releasing carbon dioxide as a waste product. When there isn’t enough oxygen, cells switch to anaerobic respiration where cells break down glucose into pyruvate and construct ATP but produce lactic acid instead of carbon dioxide. Aerobic respiration produces far more ATP molecules, 32 per molecule of glucose, than anaerobic respiration, which produces a mere two. Still cancer prefers the latter because of two reasons: 1. Although cancer cells produce far less ATP per molecule of glucose, they produce it almost a hundred times faster than normal cells. Cancer cells also actively produce more glucose transporters on their cell surface membranes, so more glucose is brought inside the cell. The benefits of speedy ATP production outweigh the costs associated with inefficient glucose breakdown. 2. Cancer cells undergoing aerobic glycolysis also produce many intermediate biosynthetic precursors used as building blocks by the rapidly dividing cells. In healthy cells the ability to grow and divide rapidly is useful in the context of wound healing and immune responses. When an immune response is required, immune cells massively increase their glucose uptake, switch from metabolising glucose through normal respiration to aerobic glycolysis, and ramp up the biosynthesis of proteins, lipids and DNA. Therefore, there is a strong evolutionary basis for rapid cell division and faster growth despite the inefficient use of glucose in the process. Cancer cells hijack this metabolic switch in order to fuel their own uncontrolled growth.