Category Archives: Interviews

You, Me and Our Mistakes Make Three: An Interview with Author Joe Hallinan

joe_hallinanMaking mistakes is as human as breathing.  But if that’s true, why are most of us so unwilling to admit it? Maybe that unwillingness is itself one of our many little quirks, “design” flaws leading us to make decisions that in retrospect seem ridiculous, miss plain-as-day details right before our eyes, and comfortably consider ourselves well above average.

Pulitzer Prize winning author Joe Hallinan wanted to reach the root of our error-prone natures, and to get there he delved into psychology, neuroscience, marketing, sports, geography, finance and economics. That trip led him to discover that we humans are as efficient as we are mistake-ridden; born pattern-finders that routinely stumble over the most obvious details.  He recently took a few minutes to discuss his latest book and a few of his findings with Neuronarrative.


You’ve just had a book published called Why We Make Mistakes. So give us a hint, why do we make mistakes?

Short answer: we’re not wired the way we think we’re wired.  We believe our memory and vision, for instance, are much better than they are, and our judgments are influenced by all sorts of contextual factors, or frames, than most of us are willing to admit.

If there’s one thing cognitive neuroscience has taught us, it’s that the brain is riddled with quirks, errors and biases. What did your research leading up to the book reveal to you about how the brain works (or doesn’t)?

mistakes_200Obviously, there’s a huge amount about the brain that we don’t know; and, if the past is any guide, some of what we do “know” now may turn out later not to be true. That said, it’s clear that humans have variety of predictable biases. We are prone to believe that we’ll act more virtuously in the future, for instance, than we actually end up acting once we get there.

This is why corporations clean up with such products as gift cards or frequent flier miles or rebate coupons: We don’t use these products nearly as much as we think we will when making our initial purchase. Corporations know this about us; but we seem not to know it about ourselves.

One other interesting thing is that we’re not the entirely rational beings we like to think we are. We seem to work on two levels, one cerebral and one more visceral. We toggle between them like a car’s headlights switching from high beam to low; the problem is, we’re often not sure which “beam” we’re on. We’ll think we’ve made a decision (like buying a bottle of wine) on a rational basis, only to find out that our choice was actually influenced by the music in the store.

When we make a mistake, there’s usually less than even odds that we’ll own up to it.  Why do you think we’re so self conscious and defensive about something we’re all absolutely prone to do?

In a lot of circumstances, admitting a mistake can be a career death sentence. To admit you erred is to show your jugular to your enemies. So people don’t do it.

On a more personal basis, owning up to an error may require us to admit some unpleasant truths to ourselves. For instance, if we sign up for a gym membership that we end up not using, it’s easy to come up with excuses for why we didn’t exercise as often as we thought we would: we can blame the kids, or say there was some project at work that came up.

It’s much harder to admit that we really are the undisciplined, lazy person our old ex-boyfriend/girlfriend said we were – because if they were right about that, they might have been right about other things, and that would mean even more years in therapy! I’m joking a bit, but you get the point: admitting the root cause of a mistake can be painful, so most people avoid the pain.

What’s the most important thing you learned while writing the book and why?

Three words: perception is economical. Our various forms of perception give us great bang for the buck, but they’re not foolproof — not by a long shot. Take vision, for instance. We think that when we see things we see all there is to see – that our mind takes a snapshot of the event.

This is why we assign such high credibility to eyewitness testimony. But we know the eye doesn’t work this way; it sees some things but not others. Which helps explain why there is such a high error rate on some forms of eyewitness testimony. Between 1989 and 2007, for instance, 201 prisoners in the U.S. were freed through the use of DNA evidence. Of these, 77% had been mistakenly identified by eyewitnesses.

What does and doesn’t work to reduce mistakes? 

Some simple things are surprisingly effective. Using checklists – like the ones you make when going to the grocery store – can dramatically reduce errors. The New England Journal of Medicine recently featured a study of surgical death rates at eight hospitals around the world. When doctors used basic checklists before operating, surgical death rates fell by nearly half!

What are you working on next?

That’s what my agent wants to know…I’ve got a couple of ideas cooking, but nothing ready to take out of the pot.

Link to Joe Hallinan’s website

Photo credit: Andrew Collings Photography


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Why ‘Many’ Might be the Loneliest Number: An Interview with John Cacioppo

cacioppo_colornormalRight now we enjoy more ways to stay connected with people across the globe than at any time in history. What a remarkable irony, then, that “loneliness” is still a topic finding its way into headlines, perhaps now more than ever. How can oceans of distance no longer be an obstacle to communicating, and yet a third of us report being lonely in recent studies, and the number appears to be increasing?

University of Chicago neuroscientist John Cacioppo has dedicated his career to finding the answers. With co-author William Patrick, Cacioppo wrote the definitive book on the topic: Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, which has set the stage for studying loneliness and its effects in a new light. Dr. Cacioppo recently spent some time discussing his research with David DiSalvo at Neuronarrative.

What originally interested you about loneliness as a field of study?

As a social species, we create emergent organizations beyond the individual – structures that range from dyads, families, and groups to cities, civilizations, and cultures. These emergent structures evolved hand in hand with neural and hormonal mechanisms to support them because the consequent social behaviors helped these organisms survive, reproduce, and care for offspring sufficiently long that they too survived to reproduce. To study the effects of social connection, we compared individuals who were socially connected with those who were socially isolated.

Humans are such meaning making creatures that we quickly determined that perceived social isolation was more critical in most instances than objective social isolation, so we compared people who felt they were socially isolated (i.e., lonely) with those who did not feel isolated (i.e., nonlonely). To be sure the effects we were finding were attributable to loneliness, we also performed experiments in which we randomly assign people to conditions that induce feelings of high or low loneliness, and we performed longitudinal studies to compare the effects on individuals when they felt lonely and when they did not feel lonely. Bill Patrick and I wrote Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connectionbecause the results of this research suggested a very different view of human nature than the rugged, rational individualist we have seen championed for so long.


When most people think of loneliness, they think of someone sitting alone in a room with no one to talk to, leading to a stiff case of the blues. How different is your definition of loneliness from the popular conception?

Loneliness is the feeling of social isolation. Although being isolated from others may increase the likelihood of feeling lonely, being alone is not the same as feeling alone. Writers, for instance, spend a great deal of time alone but they may not feel alone because they have their colleagues, characters, and readers in mind as they work on the story. College freshman who leave family and friends for the first time to attend school, on the other hand, may be around more people at college than at home but they often feel socially isolated because they do not feel well connected to others.


What do we know about the effects of loneliness on the brain?

lonelinessWe now know quite a lot, though the full story is still unfolding. For instance, research suggests that social rejection and social pain are associated with the activation of some of the same regions of the brain that are active in physical pain. Using functional MRI, we recently found that there are at least two neural mechanisms differentiating social perception in lonely and nonlonely young adults. For pleasant depictions, lonely individuals appear to be less rewarded by social stimuli, as evidenced by weaker activation of the ventral striatum to pictures of people than of objects, whereas nonlonely individuals showed stronger activation of the ventral striatum to pictures of people than of objects.

These findings fit nicely with behavioral research showing that lonely individuals find pleasant daily social interactions to be less rewarding than nonlonely individuals. For unpleasant depictions, lonely individuals were characterized by greater activation of the visual cortex to pictures of people than of objects, consistent with their attention being drawn more to the distress of others, but nonlonely individuals showed greater activation of the TPJ, consistent with their reflecting less on their own perspective and more on the perspective of those in distress than lonely individuals. These findings help explain why lonely individuals can act in a more egocentric fashion than nonlonely individuals even though lonely individuals want to connect with others.


You recently presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting on compelling findings about links between loneliness and physiological problems. What were some of the most surprising of these findings?

The health implications of loneliness are really at the core of our recent book. We have found loneliness to be associated with heightened resistance to blood flow throughout the body; elevated blood pressure as one ages; heightened hypothalamic pituitary adrenocortical activity as indexed by higher morning levels of adrenocorticotropic hormone and larger rises in the stress hormone, cortisol, in the morning; less salubrious sleep; a diminished ability to exert self-control and avoid personal temptations; increased depressive symptomatology even when controlling for current depression; poorer health behaviors such diet and exercise; and higher allostatic load -peripheral biological markers of wear and tear on the body.

But the most surprising finding may be that loneliness is associated with altered gene expressions in the nucleus of immune cells, specifically with the under-expression of genes bearing anti-inflammatory glucocorticoid response elements (GREs) and over-expression of genes bearing response elements for pro-inflammatory NF-κB/Rel transcription factors. These effects may be mediated by the effects of loneliness on neuroendocrine activity, which in turn operates on the immune cells.


One revelation about loneliness to me is that it’s subject to genetic variation. How big a role does this play?

Loneliness is about 50% heritable, but this does not mean loneliness is determined by genes. An equal amount is due to situational factors. What appears to be heritable is the intensity of pain felt when one feels socially isolated. Being sensitive or insensitive are each fine, but what is important is to create a social environment that matches one’s predisposition toward feeling social pain. People who are sensitive to possible social disconnection tend to be lonelier more frequently or intensely than people who are relatively insensitive to social disconnection. Whether or not one is socially disconnected depends on the social context and the social world people create for themselves, however. If one is especially sensitive, then it may benefit one’s health and well being to prioritize the development and maintenance of a few high quality relationships.


In the next several years, do you see our society becoming more prone to loneliness or less? If more, is there anything we can do to straighten the course?

People interact with more people now than in the 20th century, and the distances at which people interact are greater than ever before. But loneliness is more strongly related to the quality than number of interactions, as anyone who has rushed by family members en route to a long traffic-congested commute to work can attest. We regard loneliness to be a biological construct, a state that has evolved as a signal to change behavior – very much like hunger, thirst, or physical pain – that serves to help one avoid damage and promote the transmission of genes to the gene pool. In the case of loneliness, the signal is a prompt to renew the connections we need to survive and prosper. Viewed in this way, loneliness – either ours or those of our friends and family – can signal us to re-prioritize how we are spending our time so that we can nurture our connections with those in our lives who are especially meaningful.


What are you working on now?

The dominant metaphor for the scientific study of the human mind during the latter half of the 20th century has been the computer – a solitary device with massive information processing capacities. Our studies of loneliness left us unsatisfied with this metaphor. Computers today are massively interconnected devices with capacities that extend far beyond the resident hardware and software of a solitary computer. It became apparent to us that the telereceptors of the human brain have provided wireless broadband interconnectivity to humans for millennia. Just as computers have capacities and processes that are transduced through but extend far beyond the hardware of a single computer, the human brain has evolved to promote social and cultural capacities and processes that are transduced through but that extend far beyond a solitary brain.

launch_wb_color20sidebarTo understand the full capacity of humans, one needs to appreciate not only the memory and computational power of the brain but its capacity for representing, understanding, and connecting with other individuals. That is, one needs to recognize that we have evolved a powerful, meaning making social brain. This social brain is not always a benevolent brain, however. Our research certainly says humans have the capacity to be driven by ruthless competition and narrow self-interests, but it also shows that we have an additional, wondrous capacity to cooperate, care about others as well as oneself, and compete in fair and mutually beneficial ways. As a society, it may be important to find ways to promote the latter over the former in individuals. We are now seeking to gain a better understanding of the social brain and what sociocultural norms, rules, or sanctions promote collective actions that are appropriate for the problems we are facing in the 21st century.

Cacioppo, J., & Hawkley, L. (2003). Social Isolation and Health, with an Emphasis on Underlying Mechanisms Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 46 (3) DOI: 10.1353/pbm.2003.0049

Hawkley, L., Masi, C., Berry, J., & Cacioppo, J. (2006). Loneliness Is a Unique Predictor of Age-Related Differences in Systolic Blood Pressure. Psychology and Aging, 21 (1), 152-164 DOI: 10.1037/0882-7974.21.1.152

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What is Literary Darwinism? An Interview with Joseph Carroll

oct-2008If you’ve heard the term “Literary Darwinism,” you may have been tempted to lump it in with the list of schools of thought conjoining evolutionary thinking with, well, almost everything. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit I did the same.

But the simple fact that this field has in the last couple of decades attracted a diversity of credible thinkers, from the sciences and literary studies alike, urged me to take a closer look. After all, there aren’t many fields featuring in their ranks both preeminent scientists like E. O. Wilson and renowned authors like novelist Ian McEwen. The closer look led me to the work of the field’s most respected thinkers, among them Joseph Carroll.

Joseph Carroll, professor of English at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, wrote the book on Literary Darwinism, literally. Literary Darwinism (2004), and before it, Evolution and Literary Theory (1995), are considered the foundational texts in the field.  No article is written about Literary Darwinism that doesn’t quote Carroll, and no anthology in the field is complete without his contribution (notably, The Literary Animal (2005).  He recently spent some time with Neuronarrative discussing what Literary Darwinism is all about, addressing a few of the main criticisms levied against it, and envisioning what the future may hold for evolutionary thinking and literary study.       


You’ve been called a “founder of Literary Darwinism.” What is Literary Darwinism?

Literary Darwinists integrate literary concepts with a modern evolutionary understanding of the evolved and adapted characteristics of human nature. They aim not just at being one more “school” or movement in literary theory. They aim at fundamentally transforming the framework for all literary study. They think that all knowledge about human behavior, including the products of the human imagination, can and should be subsumed within the evolutionary perspective.


Over the years, Darwinians have been criticized for over-applying evolutionary explanations to social and cultural phenomena. What makes the effort you are undertaking now different from those of the past?

carroll_bookFrom my perspective, previous evolutionary studies in the human sciences have not erred in extending evolutionary explanations into social and cultural areas. If they have fallen short, it is only in not more fully integrating social and cultural levels of explanation with evolutionary levels. Virtually all evolutionists in the humanities and social sciences explicitly formulate “bio-cultural” ideas. That is, they recognize that humans are cultural animals. For the “cultural constructivists” who still dominate the humanities, “culture” operates autonomously, generating all thought and emotion, all sense of individual and collective identity, constrained by no biological dispositions any more general than, say, physical hunger. (And even hunger, like sexuality, one would be sure to be told, is “constructed.”)

Evolutionists identify a rich array of innate, genetically transmitted dispositions that strongly constrain sex roles, family relationships, social interactions, and the forms of cognition. They also recognize that none of these dispositions articulates itself in a cultural vacuum. Dispositions for transmitting information in non-genetic ways appear in various species-primates, cetaceans, and corvids, for example-but only humans produce symbolic structures that embody ethical norms, depict the world and human experience, and evoke subjective sensations. Only humans configure the elements of their experience in shared symbolic systems. All differences of social and material organization constitute divergent ways of organizing the universal dispositions of human nature, and each specific organization manifests itself in distinct artistic, religious, and philosophical traditions.

carrol_quote2One could “over-apply” evolutionary explanations to any given culture only by falsely reducing the particular organization of that culture to some set of human universals. This would be a failure in degree of “resolution,” like not having enough pixels to get a decent picture on one’s computer screen. Such failures can and should be corrected. The formula is fairly simple: Every specific culture consists in a particular organization of genetically transmitted dispositions shared by all members of the human species. One task for biocultural critics is to describe in fine detail the particular organization of human universals that distinguishes any given culture. Another task is, so far as possible, to explain how that organization arose-to identify its source in specific ecological and social conditions and in the available materials of “imaginative” culture, that is, religious, philosophical, and artistic traditions. And yet another task, especially for humanists, is to interpret the aesthetic and affective character of any given cultural organization. Cultural critics need to know what the universal forms of imagination are, how they vary from culture to culture, how those variations constrain the range of imaginative possibility for any given author, and how each individual work produces some specific imaginative effect.

It is not possible to “over-apply” evolutionary explanations to social and cultural phenomena, though it is easy enough to apply them badly or incompletely. One can apply them badly by not combining a sufficient number of analytic elements from an evolutionary view of human nature and by not considering sufficiently the way the elements of human nature interact with environmental conditions, including cultural conditions.

Many cultural theorists under-apply evolutionary explanations. They neglect or explicitly repudiate the idea that genetically transmitted dispositions fundamentally constrain the organization of all cultures. They identify “culture,” in a circular way, as the sole cause of cultural phenomena, or they give lip-service to the “bio-cultural” idea while tacitly reducing the biological part of the interaction to a negligible “physical” aspect entirely distinct from thought, feeling, motive, and behavior. Such under-applications dominated mainstream cultural theory through the first three quarters of the twentieth century. They still dominate literary study. When critics of a bio-cultural approach charge evolutionists with taking a “reductive” view of human affairs, most of the time what they really mean is that they would like to continue taking a purely culturalist, “constructivist” approach to human affairs, leaving out the biological altogether or reducing it to a negligible minimum.


You’ve said in a recent article that “literacy is a very recent acquisition in human evolutionary history.” Tell us a bit about how we know this to be the case.

Evidence for written languages occurs first in state societies of the ancient Near East. All known hunter-gatherer cultures, on first contact with Europeans or Asians, have lacked written language, though of course they all have spoken language. Childhood development also provides evidence on this topic. All normally developing children spontaneously acquire spoken language. Literacy comes much later in childhood and usually has to be taught, a process extending well into adult life. If it is not actively taught, children often do not acquire the ability to read, even if the larger culture in which they live is widely literate.


You’ve also said that “culture–literature and the other arts–are functionally significant features of human evolution.” Some would argue that this position is too reductionistic–that the arts are too rich and complex to be categorized this way. How do you reply to this argument?

Identifying adaptive functions for the arts need not detract from the richness and complexity of the arts. My own view on the adaptive function of the arts is that they provide an imaginative universe in which we recognize the emotionally and conceptually significant features of our experience. The arts delight us with the satisfactions of understanding-not abstract, detached understanding, as in the sciences, but emotionally responsive, subjectively positioned understanding. They make us feel the weight and value of things. They give us the sense of things, absorbing the qualities of “felt life” but also composing, condensing, arranging them so as to bring out their essential features.

literary_animalWe quite literally live in such imaginative structures, with all their sensory and emotional qualities, and we also stand apart from them, looking at them. That dual perspective, inside an imaginative construct, seeing from within it, and outside it, looking in on it, is a peculiar quality of the “aesthetic.” Specifically aesthetic, imaginative forms of pleasure are as distinct as the pleasures we get from satisfying hunger, fulfilling sexual desire, or meeting with friends.

The old Horatian saw, “dulce et utile,” to give pleasure and instruction, points at the kind of fulfillment art provides. One can of course too easily translate the “utile,” instruction, into didacticism: “The moral of the story is.” That can easily be reductive and boring. But even that reduction has its element of truth. Who has ever been bored by Aesop? Learning lessons like those Aesop teaches is evidently part of our total subjective experience and is thus part of what art encompasses. But then, what does art not encompass? It takes in the whole world and all our experience in the world. It makes up imagined worlds. All that is adaptively functional. It helps us organize our experience and orient ourselves to the world of possibility.

The general function of the arts is to make imaginative sense of the world. As I see it, the challenge for an evolutionary understanding of the arts is to render this general proposition more analytically useful by linking specific works of art with more particular psychological and social functions. For instance, several of the theorists discussing the adaptive function of the arts have emphasized “social cohesion” as one of its functions. Now, there are many instances where social cohesion is evidently at work. Art is integral to social and religious rituals all over the world. Our rites of passage almost always involve music and pageantry (weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs). But then there are also works of art, especially in the modern age, that seem designed to subvert and disrupt normal modes of thinking and traditional values. One has to look at specific cases and see exactly what is being accomplished, what sort of “psychological work” is being performed.

carroll_quote1I’ll give just a couple of examples. For the past five years I’ve been working on a book project with three other researchers, a literary scholar (Jon Gottschall) and two psychologists (John Johnson and Dan Kruger). We put up an on-line questionnaire and listed about 2,000 characters from Victorian novels, asking respondents to score the characters on motives and personality; assign the characters to roles as protagonists, antagonists, or minor characters; and give a numerical rating to their own emotional responses to the characters. We found that antagonists are characterized almost exclusively by dominance behavior-seeking wealth, power, and prestige. They have no affiliative dispositions.

Protagonists, in contrast, are communitarian, keen to take care of kin, make friends, and work cooperatively with others. We argue that this pattern exactly parallels the social dynamic in hunter-gatherer cultures, as delineated by Christopher Boehm in Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Individual people love dominance for themselves but hate it in others. Hunter-gatherers compromise by working collectively to suppress dominance in individuals. No one gets all the dominance he or she wants, but no one has to submit to dominance from other individuals, either. The agonistic structure of the Victorian novel, on average, strongly stigmatizes dominance behavior and valorizes communitarian dispositions. The novels evidently provide a medium through which readers participate in a collective cultural ethos that valorizes communitarian behavior. That communitarian, egalitarian ethos is part of the evolved structure of the human motivational system. The novels provide a medium through which that ethos can be activated on a large cultural scale. In that sense the novels fulfill an adaptive social function-at least one adaptive social function. They might well fulfill other social functions, and they might fulfill psychological functions that could not properly be called social.

Along with the website listing all the characters from many novels, we put up a website dedicated solely to a single novel, Hardy’s The Mayor of Caster Bridge. We solicited respondents from among Hardy specialists. For that novel, we discovered patterns in the “agonistic structure” that are radically different from those in most other novels. The protagonist, Michael Henchard, has antagonistic features; the most typically protagonistic character, Elizabeth-Jane, is a minor character; and readers’ emotional responses register extraordinarily high levels of “indifference” to all the characters. This novel, then, doesn’t fall under the adaptive explanation of the other novels. It doesn’t perform the same kind of psychological work. What it does, we think, is adopt a certain stance toward the world, a stance of reflective, stoic detachment. This is a defensive stance, a coping strategy.

In the broadest sense, in my view, that’s what all novels are. They reflect a point of view, a specific way of organizing the world so that it conforms to the artist’s particular needs, the artist’s characteristic way of organizing his or her perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. When we read novels, we are participating vicariously in the novelist’s point of view–the novelist’s whole vision of the world. We learn that way, not just about what is being depicted, but about the novelist’s way of looking at things. That kind of knowledge is good to have in itself, as social information, but we might also use it in a more practical way, picking up possible strategies for coping with challenges in our own lives.

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Survival of the Kindest: An Interview with Dacher Keltner

dacherdalailama2I have an interview with Dacher Keltner, author of Born to Be Good, in Scientific American Mind Matters today.

Keltner is the director of the UC Berkley Social Interaction Laboratory, leading research efforts focusing on the biological and evolutionary origins of human goodness, with a special concentration on compassion, awe, love, and beauty, as well as the study of power, status and social class, and the nature of moral intuitions. He’s also the founder of the Greater Good Science Center and co-editor of Greater Good Magazine.

Plus, he’s chummy with the Dalai Lama.

It was a pleasure interviewing him.

Link to interview

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Attention Under Siege: An Interview with Author Maggie Jackson

maggiejackson190In his masterwork, Flow, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi tells us that the two major components affecting our ability to control and direct our mental resources are time and attention. 

On the first, time, most of our verdicts are the same: we don’t have enough of it.  In the case of the second, however, the analysis is murkier. While we can all agree that there are a multitude of demands on our attention, it’s not exactly clear whether this is good, bad or neutral. Some would say, for instance, that the attention dividing practice of multitasking is an essential skill for being successful, while others claim that multitasking is a widespread cultural myth; something we aren’t capable of no matter how hard we try.

Maggie Jackson has taken a position in the core of controversy with her book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, in which she argues that our ability to focus attention is facing colossal challenges which we will either manage to meet, or risk falling into a cultural black hole.  She recently spent some time with Neuronarrative discussing the science behind attention, whether we can train ourselves to be more focused, and what she believes we must do to avert an attention deficit “dark age.”


Tell us what your book Distracted is about and what led you to write it?

Distracted focuses on the steep costs of cultivating a split-focused, hyper-mobile and cyber-centric culture, and details how new scientific discoveries related to the nature and workings of attention can be a starting point for sparking a renaissance of attention. I argue that unless we are able to better manage our technologies and strengthen our powers of attention, we will usher in a dark age – a time of high-tech invention but cultural and social losses.

In a sense, I backed into the subject of attention as the key to creating a high-tech yet reflective and deeply connected society. I began seeking clues to how we could better navigate our own digital world by studying how inventions such as the cinema, train, car, camera and telegraph vastly changed people’s experiences of time and space long ago.

From this early research, I had two revelations. First, the roots of our virtual, split-focus, mobile world were seeded in these first high-tech revolutions. We have to look far beyond the Blackberry and iPod to understand our current culture. Second, the vast changes to human experience that have unfolded in the past two or three centuries essentially deal with attention — how and when we focus, our powers of awareness, our ability to plan and judge. Attention is the key to both understanding and shaping our world for the better.


We all have a subjective notion of terms like “attention,” “focus” and “distraction.”  Give us a sense of the scientific basis for discussing these terms more objectively.

distracted-largeYes, we all know what it feels like to concentrate on a problem, or to walk into a garden and become deeply aware of the beauty of the flowers, their scent, the touch of a breeze on our skin, the call of birds around us. But now, scientists are beginning to understand how attention works, how it develops in children, and how deficiencies in its operations can affect us.

And if you ask a neuroscientist about attention, they immediately begin speaking in the plural. Attention is not a single entity. It’s now considered to be an organ system, like circulation or digestion, with its own anatomy, circuitry and cellular structure. There is debate and much more to learn about the workings of attention, but many, if not most, attention scientists consider that this human faculty is made up of three “networks” or types of attention: alerting, i.e. awareness, sensitivity to our surroundings; orienting, i.e. focus, or the “spotlight” of the mind, and executive attention,  a package of higher-order skills related to planning and judgment. The networks often work in conjunction with one another, yet they are independent. At the moment, there is an explosion of research into the workings of attention, in part because of the brilliant pioneering work of Michael Posner.

And intriguingly, a growing body of research is showing that these attentional powers can be trained. The great philosopher William James thought that attention could not be highly trained by “drill or discipline,” but he was wrong. While we do not yet know how long-lasting the gains are, neuroscientists including Amishi Jha are discovering that computer-based exercises, meditation and even behavioral therapies can improve focus, awareness and executive attention. These findings could revolutionize parenting, education and workplace training.


We’re plainly awash in digital technologies, with new ones being unveiled all the time – each vying for scarce pieces of our attention.  Is it possible that the human brain is adapting to manage this onslaught? 

Yes, we are awash in digital technologies that prey on our attention – from ads on screens in public places to the beeping, pinging communications gadgetry that is crucial for today’s work. Let’s look at this as an environmental issue first.

attention-quote2In one sense, we are not adapting well to this new environment, nor is this new environment conducive to the kind of in-depth thought and innovation that we need badly in the “information age.” Attention is our ticket to the world, our key to staying in tune with our environment. We are born to react to the new, the different or dangerous in our surroundings. That’s why we’re interrupt-driven. But there is a tension within attention, for this crucial system also gives us the ability to plan for the long-term, pursue our goals, and understand intangibles like the passage of time. When we’re constantly jumping to answer every beep or ping, we’re off-balance, overly depending on certain attentional skills, but overlooking our human need to plan or to tackle big-picture, messy, complex problems. Today, this is one reason why so many people feel frustrated that they do little more than “put out fires” and try to keep up with email all day at work.

Second, we are superficially adapting to managing the daily onslaught, yet in reality we’re undercutting our deeper abilities to think and relate deeply, and innovate. We seem to be so productive, speedily clicking through emails and ticking items off our never-ending to-do lists. By rampant multitasking and by fragmenting work into smaller and layered chunks, we can busily and efficiently seem to keep up with the tsunamis of communications data and information pummeling us. But consider that a third of workers say they’re often too busy and interrupted to process or reflect on the work they do, according to the Families and Work Institute.

As well, the average worker now switches tasks every three minutes throughout the day, and yet high levels of interruptions are related to stress, frustration, even lowered creativity, studies show. Most multitasking is actually task-switching, which is often linked to higher rates of errors and more shallow learning. Are we adapting to the demands of a so-called knowledge economy, or are we too often just more frenetically busy than ever before?

I worry that if we don’t change our path, we may collectively nurture new forms of ignorance, born not from a dearth of information as in the past, but from an inability or an unwillingness to do the difficult work of forging knowledge from the data flooding our world. In-depth analysis, reflective judgment and critical thinking begin with discomfort, a willingness to doubt, and discipline.

attention-quote-3Finally, I do agree in part with the philosopher Andy Clark, who believes that technologies are truly a part of the power of the human mind. In other words, “thinking” doesn’t stop with what’s inside our skull. And I also believe that we can and will create technologies that become more sensitive to our need for focused, reflective thought and uninterrupted, unmediated human connection. (For more on this, check out my article in BusinessWeek on such research here.)

But I firmly believe that we can’t adapt to a complex, overload, digital world if we become overly dependent on our machinery to manage the info-onslaught for us. And we certainly are mistaken if we believe that a steady diet of multitasking and split-focus will give us the cognitive booster rockets needed to progress in this new age.


Many, including you, have pointed out that every generation throughout history has faced challenges to its status quo modes of thinking by new technology.  What’s different about what’s happening now? Is there something inherent in digital technology that makes this challenge more disruptive?

Technologies from writing to steam engines certainly shake up the status quo. At the dawn of writing, Plato rightfully predicted that this new technology would lead to the demise of memory as the great repository of oral culture. There is much public discomfort when new technologies begin to challenge old habits.

But just because such discomforts naturally and periodically arise, does this mean that we should quickly dismiss them, or denigrate thoughtful questioning of a technology’s purpose and impact? As the historian Carolyn Marvin points out in When Old Technologies Were New, technologists throughout history tend to dominate early public discussions of their inventions. They, of course, are the first to understand the mechanics of these often-mysterious and powerful new tools. Yet they often try to control critical discussions related to the social impact of technologies in part by labeling critics as “luddites” and “naysayers.” Today, I believe this is still true. I believe we urgently need to have more measured, tolerant, thoughtful discussions of technology.

In weighing the impact of technology on our lives, it’s important to ask, what are the challenges that face us today? Were humans in the past any more able to focus, to think critically? That may not matter. What matters is whether or not we have the frameworks and architectures for going deeply into a text or problem. What matters is whether or not we are satisfied with increasingly faceless, virtual, quick and brief means of relating – even to our own kin. What matters is, what future do we want?


What in your opinion can we begin doing now to avert the “dark age” you suggest is coming? 

To avert a dark age, we must take several steps:

Question the values that undermine attention – Helped by influential tools that are seedbeds of societal change, we’ve built a culture over generations that prizes frenetic movement, fragmented work and instant answers. Recently, my morning paper carried a front-page story about efforts “in a new age of impatience” to create a quick-boot computer. Explained one tech executive, “It’s ridiculous to ask people to wait a couple of minutes” to start up their computer. The first hand up in the classroom, the hyper-businessman who can’t sit still, much less listen – these are markers of success in American society. Instead of venerating scattershot focus, rushed detachment, knowledge built on sound bites, we need to value whole focus, full awareness and the difficult work of knowledge creation.

attention-quote-23Rewrite the climate of distraction – We can set the stage for focus by judiciously protecting against interruptions; by dialing down the noisy, cluttered sensory environment that we’ve come to accept as a norm; and by disciplining ourselves to sharpen our powers of attention. To help, some companies are experimenting with “white space” – the creation of physical spaces or times on the calendar for uninterrupted, unwired thinking and connection. IBM’s global practice of “ThinkFridays” began three years ago when software engineers decided to limit email, conference calls and meetings one day a week in order to focus on their creative, patent work. Now, different teams and departments interrupt “ThinkFridays” in varied ways. This pioneering initiative is fluid, flexible and workable – more so than the rigid, top-down policies that ban email one day a week.

Role model attention – If there’s just one action we can take to spark a “renaissance of attention,” it should be to give the gift of our attention to others. Parents and leaders, in particular, need to role model attention. As contemplative scholar Alan Wallace says, “When we give another person our attention, we don’t get it back. We’re giving our attention to what seems worthy of our life from moment to moment. Attention, the cultivation of attention, is absolutely core.”


What’s the next project on your radar screen? 

I’m contemplating writing a book on the fascinating scientific and other work going on now worldwide to understand and strengthen our powers of attention. There are a whole host of exciting stories to be told involving a new field that I’m calling the “applied science of attention.”


Link to Maggie Jackson’s website


Filed under Interviews

Bridging the Empathy Gap: An Interview with J. D. Trout

teal-troutRenowned author and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has said of J. D. Trout’s latest book, The Empathy Gap, that it is “important and engaging,” and on both counts I agree. But I would also add one more word: sensible

The topics Trout addresses–bias, free will, decision making, empathy–are not prepackaged, self-explanatory bits of knowledge, and understanding them in light of larger social and policy issues is an even harder undertaking.  But Trout, with a sensible approach that never wallows in theory too long, nor jumps to practice too quickly, manages to imbue these topics with rare transparency. 

Reading this book is like having a discussion with an accomplished philosopher who is tired of philosophy being viewed as a static, insulated exercise–he sees the applications to our personal and social lives, and he wants you to see them as well. Most importantly, he sees a gap between where we stand as individuals and what the world needs from us all, and he’s writing not just to explain it, but to help us bridge it.

J. D. Trout made time to talk with Neuronarrative about his new book, the psychological biases that afflict us, and how to rebuild the human mind, among other topics.

Tell us what your new book The Empathy Gap is about.

The Empathy Gap describes the ever-expanding emotional distance between people in our 21st century megademocracy, and how we can bridge this gap efficiently and empathically by building science-based policies. When we try to make these policy changes, however, we get ambushed by unconscious cognitive biases, biases of discounting, anchoring, availability, and overconfidence, to name a few. We can’t overcome these biases by acts of the will; they are mostly design features of humans. So we also need strategies to counteract the mental influences of our Pleistocene past, like intuition, gut reaction and folk belief.

empathy-gap-front-2The central problem of The Empathy Gap arises from our country’s greatest strength. The U.S. is home to people of many ethnicities and religions, personal styles, skin tones, and job descriptions. We are a country of different neighborhoods, with different public schools of widely varying resources. There are enclaves of great wealth and pockets of utter destitution. Combined with the seductive American myth that free will gives us the power to overcome all circumstances, these differences make it easier for us to feel that people get what they deserve, and harder to feel our common vulnerability.

In view of these empathic frailties, decent policy-making must place social initiatives beyond the reach of our wavering personal conviction. After all, the important point is that people in need get help, not that we feel good helping them. The Empathy Gap supplies a rich sampling of these policies, from estate tax and parole to health care and traffic laws. And it also advocates for a new organ of government to vet social policy proposals, and to monitor existing policies – a House Committee on Social Science, to balance the physical and natural science responsibilities of the existing House Committee on Science & Technology.

There’s been growing interest in whether we’re genetically hard-wired to be one way or another – inclined toward altruism or selfishness, for example. Some argue that we’re endowed with ‘moral minds’ and others argue quite the opposite. What’s your position on this?  Do we start life with functioning rudiments of empathy, or does it have to be learned the hard way?

The evidence leaves little doubt that we are endowed with powerful capacities of natural sympathy – the ability to empathize with others. Consider the way our sociality is rooted in the neurophysiology of imitation. In the human brain’s anterior cingulate, just behind the frontal lobes, are “pain neurons” that fire when, for example, we are poked with a needle. But these cells have an additional and curious feature: they also fire when we watch someone else getting poked. This happens when people see pictures of other people in uncomfortable positions, and even when we are asked to imagine it. Whether we imagine ourselves or others in painful positions, the same well-travelled neural networks get activated, which include the anterior cingulated cortex, the parietal operculum, and the anterior insula.

This subtle suite of emotional reactions is hard to explain if we had no interest in the suffering of others. While there is now powerful evidence that we use the same circuitry to process our own pain and that of others, these “empathy neurons,” or “Dalai Llama neurons,” as neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran calls them, don’t dissolve the barrier between self and others. (After all, we don’t feel the same kind of discomfort we observe.) Instead, they bridge it.

But that is only half of the story; genuine empathy is oriented toward change. When we see the suffering of others, we don’t just feel it; we have the impulse to correct it. Whether we succeed has a lot to do with how much machinery there is around you to support your empathic actions. So, while humans have an empathic capacity, it is not always exercised in equal measure by all people all of the time. This aspect of empathy is learned. In fact, I think to an impartial observer it would look like the particular brand of capitalist democracy developed in the U.S. had to be crafted to suppress most of those natural sentiments, even though they are abundantly evident in other countries.

text-blurb_31Look at the theoretical models that attempt to justify it. Some political philosophers appeal to life in the state of nature even though there is no evidence of how we would behave as social isolates; we have always lived in communities. Most economists adopt the idealization that humans are optimally rational. They concede that real people fall short but insist that all sciences use idealizations. Behavioral economics has established that in the many areas of consumption there is really nothing to the economists’ assumptions. Their idealizations are too wild to be useful. 

In fact, our cognitive frailties are deep, habitual, predictable, increasingly well-understood, and at least arguably, crucial to good economic theorizing about rationality. There is perhaps no better evidence that the American culture of rugged individualism suppresses the empathic impulse that, when we ask Americans what explains wealth or poverty, the majority says character, but when in capitalist democracies of Europe, the majority of citizens say luck. These are the countries – Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden – whose policies protect the most vulnerable. (Notice, too, that they are culturally much more homogenous than the U.S., perhaps making it easier to empathize.)


I know that you’ve done a lot of work to understand our psychological biases, like the ‘anchoring bias’ that leads us to latch onto false information even if we see proof that it’s false (hence the success of negative campaigning). Tell us about some of the biases you’ve studied and how they affect our thinking.

What’s interesting about anchoring is that whether the information is false is neither here nor there; instead we anchor on information that should be irrelevant to our estimates. Researchers have found the irrational influence of anchoring in such places as real estate pricing and sentencing recommendations. And anchoring has the same influence on experts as it does on novices.

I am most interested in the overconfidence and hindsight biases, because the processes that generate them are at the center of scientific theorizing and yet responsible for crippling errors in the history of science. Roughly put, the overconfidence bias is the tendency to overestimate the probability that you are correct, and the hindsight bias is the tendency to suppose about some fact that you “knew it all along” or that you could have predicted some event.

In the philosophy of science, I have also developed a line of research that traces the psychology of explanation to its cognitive, even physiological, roots. I focus on the sense of understanding that dominates scientific theorizing, and that so many scientists and laypeople require of good explanations. When people decide on whether or not to accept an explanation, they often do so by subjectively assessing the sense of understanding it conveys to us, the feeling of coherence it carries. And people often report anxiety in its absence.

William James described “that peculiar feeling of unease” that gets discharged when you offer a satisfying explanation. The problem is, our sense of understanding isn’t a very reliable cue to genuine understanding, or to good explanation for that matter; it doesn’t track the truth. In fact, just as Descartes claimed that there were no “certain signs” distinguishing waking from dreaming life, there are no certain signs distinguishing reliable and unreliable senses of understanding. Ptolemy, Copernicus, Haldane are just three scientists who expressed great confidence in their belief that they had a sense of understanding that had high fidelity. And overconfidence can cause you to be prematurely dismissive of alternative hypotheses.

ephjcoverThe reliance on subjective, “intuitive” appraisals of the evidence was a centerpiece of traditional epistemology, and may still have a legitimate place in our theories, at least for some isolated corners of our intellectual lives. But the theory of knowledge has really benefited from the expansion of research on cognitive biases. A few years back, Michael Bishop and I published a philosophy book (Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment) on the nature of knowledge, in which we asked how philosophers who knew so little of scientific psychology could presume to make recommendations about how humans ought to reason (psychologists seemed to like this book a lot).

True, epistemologists could respond that we should try to generate true rather than false beliefs, but who would disagree with that? You may as well recommend that we buy low and sell high. The real challenge is to give good advice that is action-guiding. Against a philosophical tradition that lionized our intuitions – some of them the products of discredited heuristics – we argued for a theory of epistemic excellence: Epistemic excellence consists in the efficient allocation of cognitive resources to robustly reliable reasoning strategies, all applied to significant problems.  We had more fun writing the book than authors ever should. But in this case it was fitting, because we wanted to write a book that was fun to read.

textblurb51We proposed that epistemologists take a lesson from the folks who brought us predictive linear models – handy little formulas or forecasting customs that can outperform clinical diagnosticians, college admissions committees, and parole boards, on predictive tasks right in their expert wheelhouses. These models are more accurate (and cheaper) than our existing decision-making methods, but their accuracy doesn’t depend on subjective appraisals of “fit with the evidence”, compatibility with our intuitions, or elaborate theorizing about causal mechanisms. Instead, you just plug in the numbers and go. Sometimes it doesn’t feel right to apply the rule, but that is precisely the point: our intuitions are often unreliable. Sometimes doing right doesn’t feel good.

Some philosophers liked the book, especially a younger breed of philosophers who also had been wondering whether these heavily-worked intuitions were really just artifacts of one’s culture, class, and personality, and not the harbingers of truth. A new movement called Experimental Philosophy was underfoot, and asked some of the same questions about the status of supposedly eternal or immutable intuitions in philosophy. Among other activities, experimental philosophers looked at people from different cultures and social classes to see if they shared the professional, English-speaking philosophers’ view about the nature of knowledge. In a word, they don’t. English-speaking epistemologists, too, form a demographic. So we are left wondering just how general the lessons of traditional epistemology really are.


Since we’re faced with these biases on a daily basis (many times a day for most of us, and the outcomes aren’t always exactly positive), what’s a biased human mind to do?  Can we overcome ourselves? 

That’s exactly how I would put the puzzle. We can overcome our biases, but not in the way you might think. Self-control doesn’t work. Only policies that regulate our behavior from a distance and control our options will do the trick. In The Empathy Gap, I call these Outside Strategies. One psychologist who studies habitual behavior estimates that half of our actions are automatic. Great examples of systematic error come from the field of psychology in which I have worked – speech perception.

text-blurb_3Here is how one Outside Strategy goes. Our language processing is so automatic that our failures are very predictable. We make many more mistakes – mostly confusions – on words that have lots of similar sounding neighbors, and this little piece of psychological knowledge could save thousands of people from disturbing (and sometimes fatal) prescription errors at the pharmacy. Apparently, pharmaceutical companies prefer drug names that begin with the Z sound, which is perceived by the public as pleasingly “science-y”. So that name-space has become very crowded. And naming four drugs Zocor, Zofran, Zoloft, and Zomig is like building a road that dumps out into oncoming traffic. No sooner do you complete the first syllable, and all nodes with the same initial sound get activated. With that amount of competition, you are much more likely to complete the sequence incorrectly. When your pharmacist makes that confusion, you may not shake that migraine, but you’ll reduce your cholesterol. I will leave it to you to check the effects of confusing Ziac and Ziagen.

But there is a solution, and it is an outside strategy. Rather than training pharmacists more, or making them accountable, or reminding them to concentrate, we can simply space the drug names out more – make them more remote linguistic neighbors – and there are now drug naming councils that do just that. Many of the best policy strategies improve behavior not by teaching people, but by improving their options.


If you could redesign the human mind from the ground up, what’s one major improvement you’d be certain to include?

Whenever I imagine redesigning the mind, I am humbled by the problems facing civil engineers when they tried to gain farm and residential land by straightening streams. When you channelize a river, you can also produce upstream flooding and downstream erosion. It is hard to predict the effects of changes in a complex system like the mind.

But as long as you are allowing me a scientific fantasy…  I would make our sensory modalities, and our perception of space and time, far more flexible. If we could change the scale of perception at will – as though we were turning a dial — then we could actually observe social movements even though they are spread out in space and time, casually inspect the slow evolution of learning, and peer into the fast transitions of subatomic magnitudes – without a lot of cumbersome theory. As a result, it would be much easier to isolate the causes of, and so to understand, labor struggles, speciation, demographic shifts, and so much more.


If you could make one significant contribution to the human mind as it stands, what would it be?

I would try to get people to thrill at numbers as much as they do at stories. Stephen J. Gould is widely credited with the statement that humans are the primates who tell stories. But stories are flabby tools for communication, allowing us to weave together contradictory evidence and serve as a repository for all sorts of psychological distortions. Our drive to understand prompts the search for a coherent narrative about our world, and the need for coherence leads to great story-telling abilities. But these stories are more about comfort than truth.

Numbers don’t excite people nearly as much as narratives. But numbers represent dimensions of humanity that could never be accurately comprehended without them. We know what it means to have a hungry child at our dinner table. But how can a story convey the suffering of 400,000 children in the Sudan, the anxiety of fifty million people in the U.S. without health insurance, or the joy of tens of thousands of children in successful kindergarten classes? Numbers promise to make these complex problems cognitively tractable.  But in order to grab and keep an audience, we need methods that tell a story with those numbers. We need to look at a graph and see the heartbeats behind the data points. Tufte’s work on the visual display of quantitative information is brilliant in this respect, but we need to do a lot more work on how to represent quantitative information with dimensions that make its human significance easily accessible.


Last question: who is your favorite influential thinker from any point in history and why?

david-humeIt has to be David Hume. My official philosophical attachments pit me against his empiricist doctrines, but I have always admired the way he combines sophisticated argumentation and expansive humanity. His optimism about the power of thoughtful action is authentic and contagious. Nearly three centuries ago, in the Introduction to his Treatise, he envisioned the power of social experiments: “Where experiments of this kind are judiciously collected and compared, we may hope to establish on them a science which will not be inferior in certainty, and will be much superior in utility to any other of human comprehension.” I believe modern social science is proving Hume correct.

And he seems a gem of a person, with a real sense of proportion about what matters to a good life. In the Conclusion of his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Hume says “How little is requisite to supply the necessities of nature? And in a view to pleasure, what comparison between the unbought satisfaction of conversation, society, study, even health and the common beauties of nature, but above all the peaceful reflection on one’s own conduct: What comparison, I say, between these, and the feverish, empty amusements of luxury and expense? These natural pleasures, indeed, are really without price; both because they are below all price in their attainment, and above it in their enjoyment.”

Yeah, you have to love Hume. The same combination of logical rigor and profound humanity is no doubt at the bottom of my admiration for a number of contemporary scholars – like economists Amartya Sen and Partha Dasgupta, and psychologists Robyn Dawes, Baruch Fischhoff, and Paul Slovic, to name just a few – who apply quantitative methods in the service of human well-being. Taken together, it is enough to make you hold out hope for a new Enlightenment.


Filed under Interviews

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