KF: I kind of see this book as a users’ guide to the human brain. The brain, the missing manual; that sort of thing. What is the book, in your own words? Maybe we’ll start with Taylor then Bill can chime in.
TE: First of all, I want to acknowledge that Bill is kind of the originator of the book. He had already been working on it for a while and I want to give a little history here, just because I think it speaks to what the book’s about. He came to me about four or five years ago and said, “I’m working on this book. I’m kind of hitting a place where I’m feeling really blocked. Would you be willing to help me co-write it because you’ve done some similar stuff with some of your other writing?” I thought it over and I said, “Yeah, sure.”
It’s been a long road to get this book put together. I mean, it’s turned into three e-books and a workbook which speaks to it. So what do we see it as? I think I see it as a catalog of certainly stuff related to the brain but really behaviors and actions that can come out of being more aware of the brain and how it programs a lot of our behavior. That’s my take on it. Bill, what would you say to that?
BW: Well, I think we’ve tried to produce a taxonomy, a way of categorizing behavioral practices, things that can be described in purely behavioral terms; that actually have a measurable neurological effect on people, physiological effect on people. Things that you can learn to do that could be said to truly impact your skills as far as fundamental human activities; things like concentration, memory, metabolism; things that impact pretty much anything you would want to do in your life.
We’ve tried to abstract that as much as possible from any specific tradition because in many ways, the traditions these things come out of have a tendency to separate out people as much as they bring them in. Someone will say, “Well, psychology is too cold or inhuman for me” or “I don’t do Eastern mysticism” or “That’s too fuzzy and spiritual”, any reason to not try the thing themselves, whereas in behavioral terms, these are things that you can learn to do that will change your level of skill as a human being.
Companies selling ‘probiotic’ foods have long claimed that cultivating the right gut bacteria can benefit mental well-being, but neuroscientists have generally been sceptical. Now there is hard evidence linking conditions such as autism and depression to the gut’s microbial residents, known as the microbiome. And neuroscientists are taking notice — not just of the clinical implications but also of what the link could mean for experimental design. […]
The evidence that probiotics affect human behaviour “is minimal to say the least”, Mazmanian acknowledges. Still, he says, a growing number of researchers are starting to look at some mental illnesses through a microbial lens.
Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, authors of The New Soft War on Women, once again debunk the idea that there are important neurological differences between men and women:
Baron-Cohen based his ideas on a study done in his laboratory of day-old infants, male and female. He claimed that boy babies looked at mobiles longer, while girl babies looked at faces longer. Based on this study, Parents magazine informed its readers, “Girls prefer dolls [to blocks and toys] because girls pay more attention to people while boys are more enthralled with mechanical objects.”
But Baron-Cohen’s study had major problems. It was an “outlier” study. No one else has replicated these findings, including Baron-Cohen himself. It is so flawed as to be almost meaningless.
Julie Norem: It’s a strategy for dealing with anxiety and helping to manage anxiety so that it doesn’t negatively influence performance. If you feel anxious in a situation, it doesn’t really matter if it’s realistic or not, you feel how you feel. It’s hard not to feel that particular way. If you feel anxious, you need to do something about it. Usually people try to run away from whatever situation makes you anxious. But there are other ways of dealing with it. Defensive pessimism is one way.
When people are being defensively pessimistic, they set low expectations, but then they take the next step which is to think through in concrete and vivid ways what exactly might go wrong. What we’ve seen in the research is if they do this in a specific, vivid way, it helps them plan to avoid the disaster. They end up performing better than if they didn’t use the strategy. It helps them direct their anxiety toward productive activity.
I think this probably counts as psychetecture. The New York Times reports:
Three miles south of Giant Rock, across a scrubby expanse, you will find an even more extraordinary sight: a circular, dome-topped building, 38 feet tall and 55 feet in diameter, constructed by Van Tassel over the course of nearly two decades in accordance with the instructions of his extraterrestrial architectural patron. A sign above the gated entrance to the property proclaims the name that Van Tassel gave to his time machine: the Integratron.
“It’s the most amazing structure I’ve ever seen,” says Joanne Karl, who bought the building 14 years ago with her sisters Nancy and Patty. In fact, the Integratron is a sort of time machine, or at least a time capsule. It is an immaculately preserved artifact of midcentury modernist design, and a totem of 1950s U.F.O.-ology culture — the mixture of Cold War paranoia and occult spirituality that drew true believers to remote reaches of the Desert Southwest in search of flying saucers and free-floating enlightenment. Under the ownership of the Karls, it has become a unique tourist destination: perhaps the oddest spot in a very odd corner of the world, a magnet for new generations of spiritual questers and for the just plain curious. “Nobody comes to the Integratron and just shrugs,” says Joanne. “You don’t leave and say, ‘Oh, that was nothing.’ ”
It started as a headache, but soon became much stranger. Simon Baker entered the bathroom to see if a warm shower could ease his pain. “I looked up at the shower head, and it was as if the water droplets had stopped in mid-air”, he says. “They came into hard focus rapidly, over the course of a few seconds”. Where you’d normally perceive the streams as more of a blur of movement, he could see each one hanging in front of him, distorted by the pressure of the air rushing past. The effect, he recalls, was very similar to the way the bullets travelled in the Matrix movies. “It was like a high-speed film, slowed down.” […]
What’s more, Valtteri Arstila at University of Turku, Finland, points out that many of these subjects also report abnormally quick thinking. As one pilot, who’d faced a plane crash in the Vietnam War, put it: “when the nose-wheel strut collapsed I vividly recalled, in a matter of about three seconds, over a dozen actions necessary to successful recovery of flight attitude”. Reviewing the case studies and available scientific research on the matter, Arstila concludes that an automatic mechanism, triggered by stress hormones, might speed up the brain’s internal processing to help it handle the life or death situation. “Our thoughts and initiation of movements become faster – but because we are working faster, the external world appears to slow down,” he says. It is even possible that some athletes have deliberately trained themselves to create a time warp on demand: surfers, for instance, can often adjust their angle in the split second it takes to launch off steep waves, as the water rises overhead.
The New York Times reports on fMRI studies on what exactly goes on in the brain while people write. The first version of the study was conducted with amateur writers. The second was conducted with experienced creative writers. The researchers found that there were differences between the brain regions used while brainstorming and actually writing, and between the amateurs and professionals. But not everyone is impressed with the research:
Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, was skeptical that the experiments could provide a clear picture of creativity. “It’s a messy comparison,” he said.
Dr. Pinker pointed out that the activity that Dr. Lotze saw during creative writing could be common to writing in general — or perhaps to any kind of thinking that requires more focus than copying. A better comparison would have been between writing a fictional story and writing an essay about some factual information.
Wired reports on DIY transcranial direct current stimulation, and why the science behind it might not be all it’s cracked up to be:
It’s a rare thing for a scientist to stand up in front of a roomful of his peers and rip apart a study from his own lab. But that’s exactly what Vincent Walsh did in September at a symposium on brain stimulation at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain. Walsh is a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, and his lab has done some of the studies that first made a splash in the media. One, published in Current Biology in 2010, found that brain stimulation enhanced people’s ability to learn a new number system based on made-up symbols.
Only it didn’t really.
“It doesn’t show what we said it shows; it doesn’t show what people think it shows,” Walsh said before launching into a dissection of his paper’s flaws. They ranged from the technical (guesswork about whether parts of the brain are being excited or inhibited) to the practical (a modest effect with questionable impact on any actual learning outside the lab). When he finished this devastating critique, he tore into two more studies from other high-profile labs. And the problems aren’t limited to these few papers, Walsh said, they’re endemic in this whole subfield of neuroscience.