Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

05 NOVEMBER, 2010

5 Essential Books and Talks on the Psychology of Choice

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The psychology of spaghetti sauce and why too many jams make you lose your appetite.

Why are you reading this? How did you decide to click the link, load the page and stay? How do we decide to do anything at all and, out of the myriad choices we face each day, what makes one option more preferable over another? This is one of the most fundamental questions of the social sciences, from consumer psychology to economic theory to behavioral science.

Today, at the risk of meta-irony, we look at not one but five fantastic books and talks that explore the subject. Take your pick(s) — if you can, that is.

BARRY SCHWARTZ THE PARADOX OF CHOICE

Barry Schwartz studies the relationship between economics and psychology. In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, he debunks one of the great myths of modern civilization: That abundance makes us happier and greater choice equals greater good. Through solid behavioral economics, cognitive psychology and neuroscience, Schwartz makes a compelling case that abundance exhausts the human psyche, sprouts unreasonable expectations and ultimately makes us feel unfulfilled. Alongside the research, he offers simple yet effective strategies for curbing the disappointment consumerism has set us up for and living lives that feel more complete.

MALCOLM GLADWELL BLINK

We may have had our public disagreements with the king of pop psychology, but Malcolm Gladwell does have a penchant for synthesizing diverse research, connecting the dots, and distilling the gist for the laymen of the land. In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, he does just that, translating research on snap judgements into captivating storytelling about our “adaptive unconscious” — the always-on mental system the processes danger and reacts to new information. From assessing a stranger’s trustworthiness to choosing a mate during speed-dating to orchestrating military maneuvers, the book explores the deeper science of what’s commonly known as “first impressions,” kindling a new level of awareness of our own behavior and that of others.

JONAH LEHRER HOW WE DECIDE

Among other things, Jonah Lehrer writes the excellent Frontal Cortex blog for Wired, one of our favorites. He is the Malcolm Gladwell of science writing — only with better hair and more meticulous fact-checking — distilling for the common man the complexities and fascinations of university labs and obscure research papers. In his latest book, How We Decide, Lehrer explores how the unexpected discoveries of neuroscience can help us make better everyday decisions.

Amazon has a nice Q&A with Lehrer on the book page, in which he addresses everything from neuroscience to how he handles the cereal aisle.

DAN ARIELY PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has dedicated his career to expoloring the curious ways in which people make choices through odd, unorthodox and often amusing experiments. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions is a densely insightful yet entertaining read, recounting Ariely’s ingenious experiments in how irrational impulses drive our economic behavior and substantiating them with additional evidence for what we all suspect but don’t want to hear: We’re emotional beings swayed by the winds of irrationality even as we attempt to make the most logical and rational of chocies. Intelligent and accessible, the book will change the way you think of yourself and the world around you.

The book’s sequel, The Upside of Irrationality, is also a fascinating read and highly recommended.

SHEENA IYENGAR THE ART OF CHOOSING

Columbia Business School social psychologist Sheena Iyengar. The Art of Choosing begins with the story of a man who survived stranded in the middle of the ocean for 76 days because he chose to live, just as Iyengar herself has chosen not to let her blindness prevent her from being a fierce researcher and acclaimed academic. This fascinating piece of pop-psychology offers a fascinating journey into the web of consumerism, woven out of our biological need for choice and control, drawing on everything from the pensées of Albert Camus to The Matrix.

In this compelling BigThink interview, Iyengar reveals how she came to study choice and how her own biological limits affect the way she makes choices.

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01 NOVEMBER, 2010

Portraits of the Mind: A Brief History of Visualizing the Brain

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Few projects embody the fertile cross-pollination of art and science more beautifully than Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century (public library) — a book that sources its material in science, roots its aesthetic in art, and reads like a literary anthology, is making us swoon in all kinds of ways. Author Carl Schoonover explores — in breathtaking visual detail — the evolution of humanity’s understanding of the brain, from Medieval sketches to Victorian medical engravings to today’s most sophisticated 3D neuroimaging.

Schoonover curates images that come from data laboratories around the world, many of which are revealed to the world for the first time, contextualized through essays by leading scientists.

Axon Scaffolding Proteins (Photomicrograph, 2008) | The arrangement of proteins forming the inner scaffolding of axons, captured thanks to genetically engineered antibodies that help researchers study the molecular components neurons like specific types of proteins

Image by Michael Hendricks and Suresh Jesuthasan

Phrenological Skull (Drawing on human skull, 19th century) | A quasi-medical artifact of phrenology, the 19th-century pseudo-science positing that bumps on the head reflect the underlying shape and functionality of the brain, dividing the skull into regions that control specific aspects of one's organs and personality

Photograph by Eszter Blahak/Semmelweis Museum

The foreword by Jonah Lehrer, one of our favorite science-distillers, only adds to the tome’s already irresistable allure.

Dog Olfactory Bulb (Drawing on paper, 1875) | A drawing of the first area in the brain that processes smells by physician and scientist Camillo Golgi, who invented a revolutionary technique for staining neurons still in use today

Drawing by Camillo Golgi. Courtesy of Dr. Paolo Mazzarello, University of Pavia

Hippocampus (Photomicrograph, 2005) | Genetically-encoded fluorescent proteins illuminate neurons in different colors in a modern version of the Golgi stain, a simple chemical coloring traditionally done with silver nitrate

Image by Tamily Weissman, Jeff Lichtman, and Joshua Sanes

While the history of brain research seems to be an extended exercise in Socratic the-more-we-learn-the-more-we-learn-how-little-we-know, Portraits of the Mind constructs a thrilling frame for hope in neuroscience by making the scientific understanding of the human brain both exciting and accessible, a digestible deluge of visual and intellectual fascination.

Images via The Atlantic

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07 SEPTEMBER, 2010

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

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Primates, philosophers, and how subjectivity ensures the absolute truth of our existence.

What does it mean to be human? Centuries worth of scientific thought, artistic tradition and spiritual practice have attempted to answer this most fundamental question about our existence. And yet the diversity of views and opinions is so grand it has made that answer remarkably elusive. While we don’t necessarily believe such an “answer” — singular and conclusive by definition — even exists, today we make an effort to understand the wholeness of a human being without compartmentalizing humanity into siloed views of the brain, emotion, morality and so forth. So we look at this complex issue from three separate angles — evolutionary biology, philosophy and neuroscience — hoping weave together a somewhat more holistic understanding of the whole.

THE LEAKEY FOUNDATION ON HUMANNESS

From The Leakey Foundation, which aims to increase scientific knowledge and public understanding of human origins, evolution, behavior, and survival, comes What Makes Us Human? — a multifaceted exploration of who we are as a species and how we came to be that way. Barely 8 minutes long, the film features an astounding all-star cast of scientists — Jane Goodall, Robert Sapolsky, Richard Wrangham, Steven Pinker, Eugenie Scott and more — and tackles a number of complex concepts related to consciousness and the essence of being human.

There is a lot more biology to our behavior than we used to think.” ~ Richard Wrangham

Though the film is essentially an ad for The Leakey Foundation, that’s more than okay given that over the past half-century, the foundation has stepped up to the government’s consistent failure to properly fund scientific research and practically launched the careers of some of the greatest scientists of our time — Dian Fossey, Birute Galdikas, Don Johanson, Richard Wrangham, Daniel Lieberman, and even Jane Goodall herself.

via

DAN DENNETT ON CONSCIOUSNESS

Dan Dennett is one of today’s most prominent and prolific philosophers. In this excellent 2003 TED talk, he exposes the flawed and often downright misleading way in which we (mis)understand our consciousness, perpetuated by the many tricks our brains play on us.

It’s very hard to change people’s minds about something like consciousness, and I finally figured out the reason for that. The reason for that is that everybody’s an expert on consciousness.” ~ Dan Dennett

For more of Dennett’s illuminating insight, take a look at The Crucible of Consciousness: An Integrated Theory of Mind and Brain, which builds on Dennett’s iconic — and must-read — 1992 book, Consciousness Explained.

ANTONIO DAMASIO ON CONSCIOUSNESS

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio is among the world’s leading researchers on the neurobiology of mind and behavior, focusing more specifically on emotion, memory, decision-making, communication and creativity. In this compelling BigThink interview, Damasio gives a basic definition of “consciousness”

Consciousness is the special quality of mind, the special features that exist in your mind, that permit us to know, for example, that we ourselves exist and that things exist around us. And that is something more than just your mind. Mind allows us to portray in different sensory modalities — visual, auditory, olfactory, you name it — what we are like and what the world is like, but this very, very important quality of subjectivity is the quality that allows us to take a distant view and say, ‘I am.'” ~ Antonio Damasio

Damasio’s new book, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, comes out in November but is already available for pre-order — which we highly recommend, since it’s an absolute must-read.

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11 JUNE, 2010

This Is Your Brain on Love

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Why love is not an emotion and how obsessive thinking begets romantic joy.

Love is a complicated beast. And despite the ownership with which centuries of literature and art and music have claimed romance, there’s actually quite a bit of science of in it. Love, in fact, is as much a product of the heart as it is of the brain — a combination of neurochemistry and storytelling, the hormones and neurotransmitters that make us feel certain emotions, and the stories we choose to tell ourselves about those emotions.

Today, we turn to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who studies the evolution of human emotions and the intricacies of the brain in — and on — love. Fisher explores the science of love without losing a sense of romance, shedding light on some of the complex ways in which the brain and the heart diverge.

If you can stomach the geekines, there’s actually a wealth of insight in this talk Dr. Fisher gave at the American Psychiatric Association’s Sex, Sexuality and Serotonin conference in 2004, brilliantly synthesized here, in which she argues — with solid scientific evidence and from a rich interdisciplinary perspective — that antidepressants may jeopardize romantic love.

Why? Love, Fisher points out, is not an emotion — it’s “a motivation system, it’s a drive, it’s part of the reward system of the brain.” It’s typically characterized by high dopamine and norepinephrine, but also by low serotonin, which is responsible for the obsessive thinking attached to romantic love — something Fisher confirmed in her fMRI studies. But serotonin-enhancing antidepressants blunt the emotions, including that precious elation of romance that is necessary to the growth and perseverance of romantic love.

Serotonin-enhancing antidepressants also suppress obsessive thinking, which is a very central component of romantic love.” ~ Helen Fisher

Dr. Fisher offers three key components of love, involving different but connected brain systems:

  • Lust — driven by androgens and estrogens, the craving for sexual gratification
  • Attraction — driven by high dopamine and norepinephrine levels and low serotonin, romantic or passionate love, characterized by euphoria when things are going well, terrible mood swings when they’re not, focused attention, obsessive thinking, and intense craving for the individual
  • Attachment — driven by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, the sense of calm, peace, and stability one feels with a long-term partner

She goes on to point out that serotonin-enhancing antidepressants also inhibit other evolutionary adaptive mechanisms for mate selection, such as orgasm.

With orgasm, one of the main things that happens is that levels of oxytocin and vasopressin go up enormously in the brain. These are feel-good chemicals. They’re associated with social bonding, pair formation, and pair maintenance. So when men and women take serotonin-enhancing medications and fail to achieve orgasm, they can fail to stimulate not only themselves, but their partners as well. This neural mechanism, associated with partner attachment, becomes a failed trigger.” ~ Helen Fisher

Fisher cites a case study of a 35-year-old married woman who had recurrent depression and anxiety disorder. When on serotonin-enhancing medication, she found her libido diminished, which made her unable to orgasm. Incapable to think critically, she made an emotional leap to assume that this meant she no longer loved her husband, deciding to divorce him. When cycled off the medication, the woman slowly regained her normal sex drive and her ability to connect with her husband, leaving behind not him but the idea of the divorce.

Like drugs that blur your vision, serotonin-enhancing medications can potentially blur a woman’s ability to evaluate mating partners, to fall in love, and to sustain an enduring partnership.” ~ Helen Fisher

To be sure, Fisher is careful to point out that she is not discouraging serotonin-enhancing medication for severely depressed patients who are a threat to their own lives. But she does point to a cost-benefit ratio that skews in disfavor of love in all but the most severe of cases — the few cases in which the choice is between love and life itself.

I’m going to say it again: we are not recommending that patients who are seriously psychologically ill refrain from taking serotonin-enhancing antidepressants. What we’re trying to say is that these medications affect the threshold of other biologic mechanisms and at times can jeopardize unconscious evolutionary mechanisms for mate selection, for romantic love, and for attachment.” ~ Helen Fisher

The irony, of course, is that in our quest to manage pain, we often end up denying ourselves joy, medicating away the unsettling and in the process washing away the very aliveness in which love lives. Which begs the question, if love is not really what our brain dictates or our body demands, then what is it?

For more fascinating insight on the subject, we highly recommend two of Fisher’s books: Anatomy of Love and Why We Love.

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15 JANUARY, 2010

Chart Wars: The Steering Power of Data Visualization

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Data-washing, why designers are not to be messed with, and how seeing really is believing.

It’s no secret we’re big proponents of data visualization as an effective and intuitive tool for making sense of the increasing amount of information we’re being bombarded with. But beyond its clarifying, sense-making powers, data viz also has the incredible capacity to frame concepts and package ideas in very controlled ways — which can be a good thing when trying to succinctly communicate overwhelming information about, say, the housing crisis, but it can also be rather questionable when used to manipulate people’s understanding of an issue.

This excellent short talk by TargetPoint’s VP and Director of Research, Alex Lundry, at Ignite DC explains why we naturally gravitate to visual communication channels and what power data viz holds as a vehicle for subjective messaging in political communication.

Vision is our most dominant sense. It takes up 50% of our brain’s resources. And despite the visual nature of text, pictures are actually a superior and more efficient delivery mechanism for information. In neurology, this is called the ‘pictorial superiority effect’ […] If I present information to you orally, you’ll probably only remember about 10% 72 hours after exposure, but if I add a picture, recall soars to 65%. So we are hard-wired to find visualization more compelling than a spreadsheet, a speech of a memo.

So if there’s one takeaway for your day-to-day here, be wary of what we like to call data-washing — the selective and manipulated framing of information aimed at steering your understanding of it in a specific direction. When things are this visual, it’s all the harder to look for the “fine print” — but more often than not, there is one.

For a fantastic related read, see How To Lie With Statistics.

via Information Aesthetics

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