Monthly Archives: January 2009

We Are Connections

brainbowNature online has a fascinating article by science writer Jonah Lehrer about brain biologist Jeff Lichtman, whose ambition it is to map every connection in the human brain.   If this remarkably complex feat could ever be accomplished–and it appears many years in the offing if it can be–it would change the way neuroscientists study the brain, and could eventually help unravel some of the brain’s deepest mysteries.  Lichtman and his team are best known for developing Brainbow, the breakthrough technology that engineers neurons to emit shades of fluorescent light, which allows neuronal connections to be traced.

From the article:

Lichtman likes to think on a different scale. In recent years, he has become a leading proponent of a new field that is working to create a connectome, a complete map of neural wiring in the mammalian brain. Currently, such a map exists only for the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, which has 302 neurons. The adult human brain, in contrast, contains 100 billion neurons and several trillion synaptic connections. “I know the goal sounds daunting,” Lichtman says. He insists that such a wiring diagram is an essential undertaking, because it will allow scientists to see, for the first time, the path that information takes as it is shuttled from cell to cell, and how all these cells and the information they transmit weave together to create a conscious brain.

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John Updike: Conjuring from the Mind’s Eye

This week the world lost one of its greatest writers — the passing of John Updike is a loss to the world of letters that can never be filled. At the same time, his artistic influence–among the most significant of any from the last century–will live on for centuries more. An entire generation of writers followed in paths he tread. I remember reading an interview with him years ago in which he said that his career as an author almost never happened. Early on, he faced a decision to be a copy writer in advertising, or to write what he wanted to write. Thankfully, he chose the latter.  The interview below is from October 2008 with the editor of the New York Times Book Review about the craft of fiction and the art of writing. It’s just under 8 minutes long.

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Monkey See, Monkey Persuaded

codyIt has been called one of the greatest commercials ever made — the 1971 Chief Iron Eyes Cody anti-litter advertisement created by the Marsteller ad agency for Keep America Beautiful.  As the camera pans across a littered landscape, Chief Iron Eyes Cody sheds a famous tear, filled with sadness by humanity’s cruel treatment of nature — indeed, people are littering even as he watches and weeps.   In another version, Iron Eyes canoes through a river of pollution, peering across the water to a factory-cluttered shore, people are still littering, and he’s still crying. (video of one version at the bottom of this post)

Better known as the “Crying Indian” ad, it and the larger litter prevention campaign it was part of was reportedly successful in recruiting an anti-litter workforce across the United States.  According to the campaign’s creators (and that’s important to note), by the end of the 10-year campaign local teams of volunteers had helped to reduce litter by as much as 88%  in 38 states.

That’s all worth talking about (we won’t discuss the fact that Chief Iron Eyes wasn’t really a Native American, he was actually Italian-American; and yes, the tear is fake too) — but what’s even more interesting is the research that the Crying Indian sparked.  I was reminded about this today while reading “Supermarket Trolleys Make Us Behave Badly” in the Times Online, courtesy of The Situationist.   The article summarizes recent research suggesting that disordered, ugly environments inspire disorderly, ugly behavior. 

cialdiniThe study picks up on the work of psychologist Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, and progenitor of what’s often referred to as ‘The Cialdini Effect’  — in short, the behavior you witness others getting away with will influence you to join in.  If you see a parking lot full of shopping carts, you’re more likely to leave yours there too, according to Cialdini’s influential theory. 

Why this made me think of the Crying Indian is that there’s a lesser known side to the story of this famous commercial.  While it’s typically credited as part of a successful anti-litter campaign, there’s also the possibility that it actually encouraged littering.  Counter intuitive as it may sound, the littered landscape that made Chief Iron Eyes cry may have also influenced people to litter. 

In a 1990 study, (summarized in this article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science) Cialdini tested whether the Crying Indian ad contained a conflicting internal dynamic that would compel an opposite effect to the one intended.  Here’s the problem: the ad depicted an already littered environment, and then showed people tossing more litter into the mess. Cialdini wondered whether this might communicate the message that, since other people are littering in what is clearly already a polluted environment, that it’s probably ok to do the same.  From the study:

We had three main predictions. First, we expected that participants would be more likely to litter into an already littered environment than into a clean one. Second, we expected that participants who saw the confederate drop trash into a fully littered environment would be most likely to litter there themselves, because they would have had their attention drawn to evidence of a pro-littering descriptive norm-that is, to the fact that people typically litter in that setting.

Conversely, we anticipated that participants who saw the confederate drop trash into a clean environment would be least likely to litter there, because they would have had their attention drawn to evidence of an anti-littering descriptive norm-that is, to the fact that (except for the confederate) people typically do not litter in that setting. This last expectation distinguished our normative account from explanations based on simple modeling processes in that we were predicting decreased littering after participants witnessed a model litter. 

The results were as predicted: (1) people littered more in an already littered environment versus a clean one, (2) people littered more when they saw someone else litter in an already littered environment, and (3) people littered less when they saw someone litter in a clean environment. 

If Cialdini is correct (and subsequent research has backed him up) it’s reasonable to believe that the Crying Indian ad unintentionally depicted a favorable environment in which to litter. 

The question is, which norm depicted in the ad holds stronger sway over peoples’ behavior: the injunctive norm (perception of behavior that is or is not acceptable – i.e. littering is wrong and makes Chief Cody cry) or the descriptive norm (perception of behaviors that most people do – i.e. people are littering in an already well-littered environment)?  Research shows that both norms influence behavior, but when in conflict, people tend to choose what Cialdini predicts they will — the path of least resistance. 

So let’s rewrite the ad…  Chief Iron Eyes Cody paddles his canoe to the shore and looks out over a pristine landscape–not even the hint of litter as far as the eye can see. Then, just as he’s tempted to smile about this, someone drives by and throws a Big Mac wrapper out of their car window.  The once unscathed greenery is now defaced by a rancid splotch of garbage. The camera pans back to Chief Cody’s face, and — wait for it — he’s crying. 

The injunctive and descriptive norms no longer conflict:  the message is conveyed that (1) littering is wrong and (2) some irresponsible miscreant just did something wrong by desecrating nature, and making an Italian-American actor who looks like a Native American cry. 

(here’s the original ad)

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Searching for Useful Metaphors of the Mind

comic_history_of_rome_p_173_hannibal_crossing_the_alpsIn 1930, Freud was awarded the Goethe Prize for Literature. His masterful use of metaphor, a talent that set him apart from many of this contemporaries, was a major consideration in the awarding of the prize.  Quoting Jonathan Edelson,

Though Freud was a superb writer, as a scientist he was writing not merely to entertain but to inform. Metaphor in Freud’s work is not a mere decorative flourish; it is a necessary part of Freud’s formulation and exposition of his scientific theories.

In light of that esteemed tradition, I occasionally come across mind metaphors that strike me as especially useful — more than just “mere decorative flourish.”  As a self-acknowledged metaphor junkie, I’m always on the lookout for these, though few and far between they may be.  I’ll talk about two below.

The first comes from the book Managing Your Mind, a comprehensive yet readable tour through practical cognitive therapy.  I’d call it a self help book except I think it’s several cuts above that description (no matter how the publisher marketed it).  This metaphor comes from the section of the book on time management:

An old Renault car ran as smooth as cream once it was going, but was a devil to get started, particularly in wet weather.  Most of us are like that car. The first rule of time management is to get to the task at hand. Do not spend time in the limbo of neither getting down to work, nor enjoying your leisure.

What I really like about that metaphor is that everyone has felt the limbo the writer describes – it’s a palpable paralysis.  Take exercise for example. For me, once I can get myself moving on a treadmill or in the weight room, then I’m moving and can keep moving with the routine.  But initially getting up and moving is extremely hard.  Same thing appllies to getting started on a project (at work, home, etc).  Simple metaphor, but effective.

The next one is exponentially more substantial, and the best way to really get the most from it is to go read Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Happiness Hypothesis, where it’s discussed at length.  Here it is:

The mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict. Like a rider on the back of an elephant, the conscious, reasoning part of the mind has only limited control of what the elephant does.   

Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will. The older metaphors about controlling animals work beautifully. The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.

Haidt says early in the book that he began writing thinking that the metaphor would work well for his chapter on “The Divided Self” (where the quote above comes from) but quickly realized that it was central to his entire book.  It’s most applicable to what he calls the fourth division of the self, controlled (rider) vs automatic (elephant) processes of the mind.  I recommend reading the book, but here’s the particular section in Google books if you’d like a preview.

I also like what Haidt has to say about metaphor overall and will close with this quote that sums up the subject well:

Human thinking depends on metaphor. We understand new or complex things in relation to things we already know. For example, it’s hard to think about life in general, but once you apply the metaphor “life is a journey,” the metaphor guides you to some conclusions: You should learn the terrain, pick a direction, find some good traveling companions, and enjoy the trip, because there may be nothing at the end of the road. It’s also hard to think about the mind, but once you pick a metaphor it will guide your thinking.


Filed under About Neuroscience, Books and Ideas

Putting the Memory Back in Memoir

484px-augusten_burroughs_by_david_shankboneThis past weekend CBS Sunday Morning ran a piece on the credibility of memoir, featuring author Augusten Burroughs.  The gist of the report was that the last several years have seen a spike in published memoir sales and a parallel spike in fraudulent memoirs getting past editors’ scrutiny and onto bookshelves. 

By now we’re all familiar with the James Frey-Oprah scandal, in which Frey duped Oprah, and millions of people, into believing his book, A Million Little Pieces, was a factual account of his life as a drug addict.  Turns out it was all a lie, and he was summoned back to Oprah to publicly face her wrath… “Liar!”. 

Burroughs has written a handful of well received memoirs (Running with Scissors is probably the most well known) in which he describes the exceptionally strange and tragic details of his childhood, much of which revolves around his “psychotic and homicidal” father.  It so happens that Burroughs’ older brother, John Elder Robison, is also an author, and has also written about their father, though his recollections are far fonder.  Sitting side-by-side during the CBS interview, the brothers’ difference in perception about their father was striking.  To one, the man was a psychotic, brutal sadist who enjoyed both physically and psychologically torturing his children.  To the other, the man was an unfortunate alcoholic who, when drunk, was destructive to others and himself, but the rest of the time was of moderate temper, even gentle.

200px-running-with-scissorsSo what’s going on here?  How can two people, growing up in the same house with the same parents, arrive at such different conclusions?  Burroughs recounts an episode in which his father chased him through the woods with a butcher knife. Robison recounts throwing around a baseball in his backyard with good old dad. 

A couple of things are worth noting about this. First, and easiest, is the issue of lying.  Frey is a liar.  He consciously wrote a fictional account and passed it off as his life. How he did so with such success (all the way up to Oprah for goodness sakes) is attributable both to his skill as a writer (of fiction), and his skills as a salesman.  He is a fabulist, and it’s beyond debate that what he wrote is a fantastic lie.  The same can be said of many others, like Margaret Selzer (alleged infamous gang drug runner, not) and alleged holocaust survivor Binjamin Wilkomirski.

The second issue is more challenging and gets to the central question regarding authors like Burroughs and his brother — namely, what is a memoir?  The popular misconception of memory as retrieval of facts from a cerebral data-bank is important in this debate, because it overlaps with the popular perception of memoir.  We want to believe that memory approaches near-perfect recollection, as if we are forever running well-structured algorithmic searches in our brains, but it doesn’t.  As science writer Jonah Lehrer has pointed out at The Frontal Cortex  (in several good posts like this one),

We like to think of our memories as being immutable impressions, somehow separate from the act of remembering them. But they aren’t. A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it. The more you remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes.

We also know that memory is tightly interwoven with emotional response.  If this is true, and ample research suggests that it is, then not only will the creation of memoir be fragmented and redacted, but it will also hue closely to the most emotional events in ones life. 

Burroughs has come under criticism for what he’s written in each of his books, and to what extent it’s deserved I don’t know.  But, it seems plausible that in his case, and in the case of anyone writing a memoir not blatantly based on lies (ala Frey), the published product is exactly what we should expect a product of memory to be.  That many people expect perfection in the rendering says more about general misunderstandings of memory than it does about the intentions of the author. 

The choice we’re left with is to either accept the author’s memoir as the truest recollection of events within the mutable and emotive context of their perception, or simply dismiss any pretense of truth and read it as a fiction (or not read it at all).   But the option of expecting perfection, or near perfection–or anything like it–is not a realistic one.  It’s understandable that with so many liars trying to pass off their books as memoirs we should be skeptical, but a healthy skepticism understands the limits of discernment.  When it comes to memory, we’re only going to get so close to ‘truth’ even under the best conditions. 

That is unless you happen to be one of the few people with perfect memory, in which case, living in your own personal infinite loop,  you deserve our sympathy more than our skepticism.


Filed under About Perception

Talking About the Science of Sex and Love: An Interview with Author Jena Pincott

jenapincottHere’s a quick pop quiz: who makes more money, hookers on birth control or off?  During difficult economic conditions, are Playboy Playmates generally older or younger, heavier or thinner?  Why are men attracted to larger breasts?  And do gentlemen really prefer blondes?  (I’ll give you the answer to that last one: yes… sort of.) 

These and many more questions are discussed in Jena Pincott’s candid, evidence-based book, Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?: Bodies, Behavior, and Brains–The Science Behind Sex, Love, and Attraction. If science could ever be considered sexy, this is the book that shows precisely why.  Jena Pincott recently chatted with Neuronarrative about brains in love and lust, the power of dilated pupils, and whether semen has mind control properties, among other topics.


Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes? is a book that answers a slew of questions people have on their minds all the time but aren’t really sure how to ask, or where to ask–or even if they can get away with asking.  What inspired you to write this book?

Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes? is a book about how genes, hormones, and instincts affect our love lives in ways we might not even realize.  I’ve always been fascinated by the things that (mostly) slip under the radar of awareness.  Smell is one of them — at one point, when I was single and dating, I wondered why it is that I like the smell of some men but not others.  This led me to do some research on the relationships between body odor preference and genes (more on this below).  While I was looking into this, many other love-sex-and-attraction-related questions surfaced — and I thought the answers would make a fascinating book.


The evolutionary dynamics underlying mating behavior have been discussed for quite a while, and always with the controversy we’ve come to expect from any subject involving evolutionary explanations for human behavior.  Has your foray into this topic hot zone brought any controversy your way? 

Yes, many of the topics in the book are grounded in evolutionary psychology — and many evolutionary theories just cannot be proven.  Are breasts, long hair, and symmetrical features sexually selected traits?  Darwin thought they were. How about creativity, intelligence, humor, and dance and musical ability?  There’s an argument there, although it’s likely that other evolutionary pressures also influenced these traits.  To the extent that evolutionary psychology is controversial, so is my book.  Then again, as I’ve recently discovered, a disturbing number of people don’t believe in evolution at all!


So let’s get into a few of the areas you cover in the book. You say that “Love changes the brain” and that the brain-in-love even “grows.”  Tell us a little bit about why (and how) this happens. 

I love what Einstein said about this: “How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?”

26611495Well, there are a number of studies in which subjects in love were asked to lie inside a fMRI machine and gaze at a picture of their beloved.  In brief, here’s what researchers found from the brain scans:  the ventral tegmental area (VTA) is activated; this produces the “feel-good” hormone dopamine, which targets the reward areas of the caudate nucleus and nucleus accumbens. It’s a high, and it’s addictive.  Bonding is aided and abetted by such hormones as oxytocin and vasopressin. The obsessive fixation many of us get when we first fall in love — can’t stop thinking about him or her — is due to low serotonin levels.

Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for reasoning, and the amygdala, related to fear, are deactivated — which explains why a lot of us become reckless fools in love.  If a woman in love remembers more details than men do, it’s because there’s more activity in the female hippocampus, the region associated with memory.  And it seems true that when it comes to love men are more visual than women are — guys show more activity in their visual cortex.  

When two people fall in love, they form a neural pattern of associations and rewards that are strengthened over time and with use.  Researchers call this a “love-related” network, and there’s some evidence that people in close relationships, when reminded of their love, perform better on mental tasks.


Are there any specific marks of distinction between the brain-in-love and the brain-in-lust? 

Yes, researchers such as anthropologist Helen Fisher believe that love and lust are separate yet overlapping neural experiences.  That’s why you can love your spouse yet be turned on by a stranger. Love and lust are both highly rewarding and addictive — and affect very similar regions of the brain — but there are some distinct differences. For instance, brain scans of people in loving, long-term relationships show increased activity in the ventral pallidum, a region of the brain rich with oxytocin and vasopressin receptors that meditate pair-bonding and attachment. 


On the topic of attraction, you say that symmetry is the name of the game.  You also talk about the eyes as “the face’s most blatant and bewitching feature” – particularly the pupils.  How is it that humans have come to value qualities such as facial symmetry and pupil size so highly when selecting a mate?  (and what is it about eyes? Why not lips, or ears?)

Facial symmetry is a cue of health and developmental stability.  Interestingly, researchers reviewing medical records found that subjects with the most symmetrical features had fewer infections. As for eyes — whether or not they’re windows to the soul, they do reveal more emotional cues than the ears or nose.  (Although the lips are important — eye contact is most effective when paired with a smile).  Dilated pupils signal emotional and sexual arousal, which is why men in particular are attracted to them. 


Much research lately has focused on the sense of smell in terms of attraction.  Perfumes, cologne and the ever-elusive human pheromones are in the spotlight.  In a nutshell, what do we know about the role smell plays in attraction?  Can someone scent him or herself into a meaningful relationship?

There’s so much to say about smell and sexuality! I think it’s the section of my book that I like the most.   In brief, we know smell certainly does mediate attraction. Androstadienone, a testosterone derivative in men’s sweat, has been found to make women more attentive and lift their moods.  There’s no universal aphrodisiac:  no cologne, perfume, or spray-on pheromone that will necessarily attract a mate. (But they may boost a person’s confidence, and that helps!)

Women are particularly picky about men’s body odor smells.  It turns out that women prefer the smell of men whose immune system genes  (major histocompatibility complex or MHC) are mostly different from their own.  There’s an evolutionary explanation: children whose parents are genetically dissimilar would inherit a more diverse set of immune system genes.  (This was the topic that inspired the book; see question #1 above,)


One of the things in the book I found surprising (I suppose because I’d never heard anyone talk about it before) is that semen is a sort of “feel good” serum, capable of inducing a temporary form of mind control.  What’s the deal with this?

Well, it’s a provocative theory, and it goes as follows:  Semen contains hormones and proteins.  Absorbed through the vaginal walls, these hormones and proteins enter the bloodstream and possibly breach the blood-brain barrier. Whether or not this has any psychological affect on a person is unclear and difficult to prove, although a study has found that women who are regularly exposed to their partner’s semen are less depressed than women who use condoms most of the time (regardless of the strength of the relationship). There’s an evolutionary argument for this: if there’s something in semen that makes women happier, they’ll come back for more. 


Now that you’ve answered some of the questions on all of our minds, what’s next on your radar screen?

What can surpass the science of love, sex, and attraction?  I’m always on the lookout for fascinating new research on this topic, which I report on in my blog at

Credit for photo: Lisa Hancock


Filed under About Sexuality, Interviews

Weekly Noggin Raisers 7

brainJonah Lehrer’s latest book, How We Decide, has hit the shelves.  If you like The Frontal Cortex, this book is a must read.

The joy of learning continues to receive insightful attention at Mind Hacks

Does disbelief in free will increase aggression?  Psyblog investigates the answer.

Want to learn a bit about male sexual sweatNeurocritic has the scoop.

Ars Psychiatrica delves into the ever explosive science and religion discussion with The Missing All.

The New Scientist has an interesting piece on the mathematics learning disorder known as discalculia.

Monkeys are gadget junkies just like us, according to this Wired Science piece

And finally, the latest issue of SEED is out, and there’s too much good stuff in it to specify. It’s all worth reading.

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