OK, it’s not really all about kissing. There is no how-to advice here, for example. But this article from Science Daily gives the highlights from some recent research at the University at Albany into the emotional and physiological significance of kissing. The article covers differences in female and male attitudes toward kissing and the possible role of kissing in deterring mating between those who are not genetically compatible (a possible evolutionary explanation of that elusive factor known as chemistry).
A recent experiment at the University of British Columbia looked at what happens when you prime people with concepts related to either religion or civic responsibility and then have them take part in a game where they have the power to keep or share some money that they are given. Priming involves presenting subjects with a stimulus–in this case, words–that subconsciously influences the direction of their thoughts. The people who were primed with words having to do with religion or with the responsibilities related to our legal system were more generous than those in a control group who were not similarly primed. The effect of the religious priming was the same for those who said they believed in God and those who did not.
The article about this from EurekAlert seems to be saying that thoughts of religion make people behave more generously, but it’s worth noting that evidently thinking about the legal system has the same effect (the prime words for the “civic responsibility” experiment were civic, jury, court, police, and contract). I can understand the need to test the connection between religion and behavior in a lab setting where you can measure and control the variables, but on the other hand this seems so artificial that it’s hard to know what to make of it. It would be interesting to see if people who were primed with the appropriate words would be more generous in a real-life situation requiring donations of their own money or of time, for example. (Isn’t this sort of priming something that people who are trying to raise money for a good cause often try to do? How well does it work for them?) And I wonder about things like whether people drive any more thoughtfully and cooperatively when they are leaving church than they do when leaving the grocery store or their jobs.
The article also mentions a lack of hard data about the relationship between religious belief and moral behavior. Does anyone know of any studies that look at whether the religiously observant behave any better as measured by crime statistics or other measures? I think there was a rather controversial study in 2005 that looked for relationships between various social indicators and rates of religious observance and concluded that people behave better in more secular parts of the US, but I don’t know anything about the quality of that work, and anyway I think it was a statistical analysis of populations, not of individuals.
I’m about four chapters into Gut feelings by social psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, which describes the basis for our intuitions and snap judgments, and explores when they serve us well and when they lead us astray. The New York Times has interviewed Gigerenzer. The interview gives you an idea of some of the topics covered in the book. Even if it’s better not to over-analyze some individual decisions, I feel better if I understand why that’s the case and what’s going on, so I’m enjoying the book so far. But then I am by nature a stewer and a ponderer, not a snap decision maker. (I just finished Keith Stanovich’s The robot’s rebellion, which emphasizes reflecting on and analyzing our attitudes and actions; Gigerenzer’s book is an interesting contrast.)
This article from the American Scholar is one of the most haunting pieces of autobiographical writing I’ve ever read. Paul West, author of 50+ books and totally immersed in the world of words, had a stroke in 2003 that damaged the two main areas of the brain involved in producing and understanding language, Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. He was left immediately after the stroke with a condition called global aphasia. It’s hard to imagine a more nightmarish fate for one who lives for words. But he was able to recover enough language ability to resume writing; since the stroke, he’s produced a memoir (this article is an excerpt) and a novel. His wife, Diane Ackerman, wrote an introduction to this piece that provides some context; the title of this post comes from her brief essay.
It gives me the heebie-jeebies to think about losing the ability to use language. The very nature of the experience would seem to preclude reading a first-hand report of what it feels like to enter that state, which makes this essay extraordinary. I don’t know specifically the ways in which West’s years of writing shaped his brain and how he was able to somehow regain some of the territory he lost in the stroke, but it strikes me as a very moving example of neuroplasticity, determination, and courage.
People with amusia (popularly known as tone-deafness) have a hard time distinguishing different musical pitches or following a tune, and it’s still not clear exactly what causes this condition, which affects 5% of the population. This brief story from Science Daily covers some recent research into the subject. In people with amusia, the white matter connecting the right frontal lobe and the right temporal lobe is less dense than in people of normal musical ability. The frontal lobes are where much of our more sophisticated processing takes place, and the right temoral lobe is where sound is processed.
Hard to know what the bigger picture is just from this, and the news story is rather brief, but it contains a link to an online test, and I’m a sucker for online tests. This test takes 15-20 mintues to complete; it’s part of a research project looking at musical perception abilities, and you get a score at the end to see how well you did. Note that this doesn’t evaluate whether you can carry a tune: You listen to pairs of brief tunes and have to say whether they’re the same or different. I can’t sing worth a darn, but I scored high on the test. If you’ve got 15 minutes, consider contributing your data points to the research.
Two news stories came out this week about investigations into how a human brain integrates somatosensory and visual data to figure out where its body is (not always correctly).
This press release from EurekAlert describes the first out-of-body experiences (OBE) induced in healthy people in the lab (at University College London, to be specific). No drugs and no physical trauma were involved, just a pair of head-mounted video displays that fed information from two video cameras to the eyes of participants. The cameras were mounted behind the participants, so the displays gave them 3D views of themselves as they would be seen by an observer sitting behind them. Researchers then touched a participant’s chest while also reaching toward the place where the illusory observer’s chest would be.
The participants reported that they felt that they were physically located behind themselves, with the cameras, looking at the back of someone else’s body. Measurements of perspiration on the skin–a response to stress–indicated that a threat to the illusory body was perceived as a real threat to the participants. This sounds like a really cool experience; the article says that it appeared to be weird but not frightening.
Another experiment, this one in Switzerland, followed up on earlier observations that people can, under the right circumstances, identify a fake body part (e.g., a rubber hand) as their own. If the real hand is hidden and the rubber hand is positioned so that it looks like it belongs to the subject, and then both hands are stroked, subjects who are asked to point to their own hands will instead point more toward the fake hand. (Illusions similar to this have been used in treating phantom pain in missing limbs.)
The new research basically extended the rubber hand experiment to the whole body. Virtual reality projections were used to show people an image of either their own body, a dummy body, or some other object; in each case the object appeared to be in front of them. The body in the image and the body of the subject were both stroked, either in sync or out of sync. After being blindfolded and moved backward, the subject had to return to his or her original location. Subjects who had seen either body moved past their own former location and toward the location of the image they had seen. They moved further past their own position if the stroking of the two bodies had been synchronized. It wasn’t like an OBE, because they didn’t consciously identify the image as their own body–they knew it was not theirs–but on some physical level they had placed themselves at the location of the image. This story from EurekAlert has the details.
I’ve run across the idea recently of dual brain systems for processing incoming stimuli and formulating a response: a faster, more automatic system, and a more complex, slower, more cognitively expensive analytic system. Researchers have figured out a way to observe the different brain areas involved in responding to a perceived threat, and found activity indicating a faster more impulsive response when the threat is closer and a slower more measured response if the threat is farther away.
Volunteers played a game where they had to run through a maze pursued by a virtual predator (they were given real but mild shocks when they were caught). Their brain activity was examined using fMRI. It turns out that if the predator was not too close, there was activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex that appear to be important in inhibiting fear and regulating behavior in response to threats. However, if the predator was hot on the heels of the volunteer, other areas became more active, in particular parts of the brain that handle fight-or-flight responses. Sometimes it’s better to think about your situation and come up with a strategy, and sometimes it’s better to run like the wind. This research apparently got a look at how the brain shifts from one approach to the other, depending on how close the threat is. This press release from EurekAlert has the details. The headline mentions free will; the urge to run from a threat is (appropriately) hard to resist, so you give up some control in exchange for the ability to react quickly.
When Daniel Dennett visited Indiana University last year, one of his talks included frequent references to magic. Not the “real magic” that doesn’t really exist (e.g., truly making something materialize out of thin air), he said, but the only kind of magic that really does exist: conjuring tricks that make us believe what isn’t so. His point was that just as a magician doesn’t really have to make objects materialize out of the air, or whatever, but simply to make us think it happened, the human brain doesn’t really have to do anything all that mysterious to create consciousness. My notes say (and I’m guessing this is a paraphrase of what Dennett was saying): “The ‘magic of consciousness’, like stage magic, defies explanation only so long as we take it as face value. Once we appreciate all the non-mysterious ways in which the brain can create benign ‘user illusions’, we can begin to imagine how the brain creates consciousness.” In this view, neuroscience is the effort to reverse-engineer the magic show that is consciousness.
Whether you agree with Dennett or not, you might find this article from the New York Times interesting. It’s about a symposium called The Magic of Consciousness that was held recently in that hub of illusion and home of the ersatz, Las Vegas. The article discusses identity, consciousness, reality, and some of the connections and disjuncts between objective reality and human experience. There are quotes from several noted scholars in the field of consciousness studies, including Dennett. I liked his idea about how we use words to try to fix in memory our otherwise fleeting sensory experiences–that words are “like sheepdogs herding ideas.”