I’m rather envious of people who can vividly recall the precise scents and flavors of magnificent meals they once had years ago, or know what their loved ones were wearing on their first date (I have no idea what …
When someone holds a one-sided point of view, we accuse him or her of being prejudiced, or having a bias. Human beings on an individual basis are inclined to interpret situations in biased ways, often based on their cultural norms and beliefs. But there is another kind of bias, called cognitive bias, that all humans share. Cognitive bias is our tendency to make systematic decisions in certain circumstances...
With the first hint of a crisp cool autumn breeze, couples everywhere begin pairing off in a seemingly magical phenomenon known as cuffing season. Cuffing season, as defined by UbranDictionary.com, is a yearly occurrence around the fall and winter months when normally promiscuous singles begin to look for serious relationships (becoming “cuffed” or tied down) due in part to colder weather creating a high propensity for canoodling indoors. Cuffing behavior is likely influenced by the weather and perhaps the dramatic increase in sappy, love-saturated jewelry commercials aired ad nauseam around the holidays. However whimsical cuffing season may seem, true evolutionary and neurobiological causes underpin the many reasons why people enter into monogamous relationships.
Monogamy is not something that comes naturally to mammals. Mammalian males do not often take it upon themselves to stick around during long gestational periods and breast-feeding when they could be out-and-about looking for their next available mate to further propagate their genomic line. This notion of promiscuity is in congruence with Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” evolutionary theory where the more seed you spread, the more likely you will have offspring to carry on your genes. But scientists think that despite the inclination for mammals to engage in casual sexual relationships, the evolutionary foundation of monogamy in human beings is likely based on protection, care, and survival of children.
The pitfall of studying (only) success
Meera Lee ,
Imagine a coin-tossing tournament. The last man standing—the ultimate survivor—will have won every single one of his coin tosses in a row. Should we ask him what his secret was?
Don’t laugh; it’s a good bet that at some point in your life you’ve fallen prey to some version of the survivorship bias, an incredibly pervasive cognitive illusion that makes an appearance whenever failures disappear or become hidden from view. Have you ever marveled at the purring engine of a classic car, run your fingers down the smooth seams of a vintage coat, or tested the steel on your grandfather’s old hunting knife? Maybe you thought, “They just don’t make things like they used to!” It’s a romantic idea—that people in some hazy, nostalgic past really valued workmanship and quality; that old objects have a kind of inherent staying power.
What you probably didn’t think about, in those moments, were all the classic cars that ended up broken down in junkyards. You didn’t consider the coats whose seams had already fallen apart. All you saw were the things that survived to tell their stories. In the context of antique shopping, its effects are fairly innocuous—but David McRaney offers an intuitive example of survivorship bias and a matter of life and death at his blog You Are Not So Smart. During World War II, McRaney explains, military engineers wanted to figure out how to make bomber planes safer for the pilots who risked their lives to fly them. When the engineers looked at returned planes, they saw that bullet damage clustered in three main places: the wings, the body, and the rear gunner. These, then were the places they suggested be reinforced with extra armor.
Even math skills are no proof against the need to fit in
Jessica Graham ,
What did you have to wear in high school in order to fit in: designer jeans or jeans that hang low? Chuck Taylors or jellies? No matter what the garment, or how specific the style was, all of us had to conform to a group in some way. We are social creatures that evolved to put a high value on fitting in to our social group. For our ancient ancestors being an outcast meant facing the elements on our own, and most likely death, which put a high premium on good social standing.
Today the distant echoes of this biological imperative live on: we will still do almost anything to fit in and be accepted. This principle extends far beyond the whims of clothing, into the very logic that rules our decision-making. Belonging feels so important, says a recent study, that mathematics can be ignored if it means hewing to the dogma of your political party. Not only that, but the more math skills you have, the more likely that you will crunch the numbers to prove your beliefs correct, even if that means crunching them wrong.
New research hints at the function of our nightly rest
Michael Taft ,
Some of the deepest mysteries in science have always involved the most mundane phenomenon. Is the earth moving or still? What is the sun? These two have been solved, but a third—Why do we sleep?—remains unsolved. We spend a third of our lives asleep, but science still doesn't know what the function of this rest time actually is. We do know that when people don't sleep for extended periods, or get too little sleep, they develop a host of problems, such as impaired learning and decision making. And the longest any human has been recorded staying awake is about 11 days, a record set by a 17-year-old student at a science fair. Experiments keeping rats awake for more than two weeks always end in death. But why?
Now researchers have found what may be the beginning of an answer. "We show that the brain cleans itself during sleep," says Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, the author of the study, performed at Rochestor Medical Center. The experiment focused on the flow of glymphatic fluids in the spaces between the brain cells of mice. These fluids act something like a sewage system, draining out the waste products of the brain's activity. Nedergaard found that the space between brain cells increased 60 percent in mice that were asleep, versus those who were awake. This allowed the glymphatic fluid to flow much more freely, and remove the waste products from the brain much more effectively during sleep
Children in poverty are at risk for negative effects to the brain
Jessica Graham ,
As a child I didn’t know we were poor. I loved going to the thrift shop. That musty smell triggered excitement in me as I perused the isles, looking for the perfect graphic tee-shirt. Every so often we would get brown paper bags of food from the church, though we didn’t actually belong to a church. These days were like Christmas. The church believed in sugary cereal and Hawaiian Punch, unlike my mom, who did her best to supply healthy food despite our economic situation. The fights my parents had about money were not as much fun as the thrift store toys and sweet cans of fruit cup from the church.
It turns out that my story is not that unusual. Over 16 million children are living in poverty in the United States. According to Researchers at the Washington University School poverty doesn’t only affect a child’s behavior and school performance, it appears to affect the size of the brain as well.
The future is here. Cellphone defenses fall at the recognition of a fingerprint, cheap and easy DNA sequencing diagnoses ailments not yet contracted, and Google has just promised to engineer humanity’s way to digital immortality. With all this in store, what could possibly be next on our technological wish list for the future? Why, the Bionic Man, of course! And thanks to remarkable researchers like renowned neurologist and bestselling literary author David Eagleman, we might just be getting what we wished for a whole lot sooner than the science fiction canon suggests.
Scientists everywhere are straining to enrich our understanding of what may be the final frontier: the human brain. The deeper researchers venture into that grey cerebral mystery, the more they uncover the nature of the human brain as a sensory input decoder. The brain, it appears, not only serves to enhance, manipulate, and restore the signals from the five sense with which we all enter this world. As David Eagleman makes clear, the human brain is actually a universal sensory input decoder. It can, at least in theory, take any coherent stream of information it has access to and make sense of it. This means that Eagleman, among others, is working on the creation of artificial senses. “The long term goal of our work,” explains Eagleman’s lab’s website. “Is to better understand how sensory streams can be re-packaged into atypical sensory channels to restore perception or give new perceptions.”
Laurie Santos researches the evolutionary background of the human brain by studying non-human primates in her Comparative Cognition Lab at Yale. In a series of fascinating experiments, Santos’ team has investigated economic decision making in capuchin monkeys. Researchers created a form of money: tokens that the monkeys could trade for food. They found that the...