Aug 2011


My lucky number is 27. I don’t know exactly why, but I do distinctly remember deciding, or discovering, that it is an auspicious figure. 25 is not bad either. I’m a grapheme-color synaesthete, which is a fancy way of saying that I see letters and numbers in color. That’s not strictly true, however. I can see that the letters I’m typing now are black. But just like the number 2 is a symbolic representation of two things or has a specific value, it’s also red in my mind: the symbol represents two-ness as much as it represents redness in my mind. So you might think that I chose 27 as a favorite number because I like that combination of colors, or because that was the day on which I was born, or some other obvious reason. But I didn’t. I don’t know why I chose it: but it hasn’t let me down yet.

courtesy of Kristin’s Lucky Tarot

The topic of synaesthesia will likely come up again in this blog, since it affects the way that I see the world, but today I’ve been thinking about signs and symbols, and how readily we assign meaning to abstract things. I’m preparing to fly to New York to sing at a marathon concert commemorating the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and I’ve been remembering what I consider the strongest episode of the show that I co-hosted on the Oprah Winfrey Network called Miracle Detectives. While we were shooting the episode, I was struck by how many people who had lost loved ones on that tragic day found comfort in the notion that their loved ones were communicating with them from beyond the grave by sending messages. These messages took a variety of forms: some were caused by weather forces (such as a breeze), others took the shape of animals (butterflies and birds in particular), some in the appearance of previously-lost jewelry or coins and many included the seemingly inexplicable appearance of abstract symbols such as a loved one’s lucky number.

I remember one story in particular, that a mother who lost her 30-something son when the world trade center towers fell, shared with us. Mrs. C. told us that she’d always been a spiritual person, and by that she meant that she had had ‘out-of-body’ experiences in the past and visions or premonitions of things that seemed to happen just as she had imagined them.

Because of the devastation, it took months to find and confirm the remains of the victims of 9/11. Many, of course, were never found, even with available DNA testing. The absence of remains and the uncertainty that followed the attacks left many victims’ families hoping that their loved ones were only temporarily lost. Closure was impossible to find.

Mrs. C. begged for a sign from her son in the days, weeks and months that followed the tragedy. He was a volunteer firefighter, and from eyewitness reports, she learned that he had run into the burning building three times to save the lives of others. How did she come across these reports? Her son used to carry around a red bandana, to keep the sweat off of his eyes, and the eyewitnesses remembered seeing a young man with that red bandana. When Mrs. C. was attending the birth of her first grandchild, years after 9/11, the first nurse to walk into the birthing room was also wearing a red bandana. She interpreted this as a sign that her son was present at the birth.

Mrs. C.’s son also had a lucky number: 1
9*: it was his lacrosse and ice hockey number, as well as the address of his apartment and the number of his favorite Chanel perfume. When Mrs. C. asked for a sign from her son, she often interpreted the appearance of the number 19 as his response from the other side: she might see it on a receipt, or a road sign, or in any number of ways. Once she saw it, she was comforted by what she perceived as his continued presence in her life and it helped her cope with her immense grief.

This search for signs that Mrs. C. described led me to think about how our brains are
predisposed to find connections and create meaning out of the abstract or the unpredictable. This need is especially great when we are in a highly emotional state, or dealing with a loss as devastating, unexpected and seemingly random as the loss of an innocent loved one in a terrorist attack. Our memories are selective: we don’t remember everything that happened to us because it’s much more useful to have a repository of relevant information rather than an unmanageable database of minutiae. Often, an event that elicited a strong emotional reaction such as fear, anger or grief is an important one to remember, so that it might be avoided in the future. As a result, our amygdala, or the almond-shaped structure that sends messages to our frontal cortex, or the part of our brain that makes decisions and evaluates evidence, modulates what we remember depending on our emotional state.

The old adage that seeing is believing has been turned on its head by psychologists in recent years: yes, experiencing something yourself does make you more likely to believe in it, but your beliefs not only affect what you remember but also what you see and how you see it. Two weeks ago, a friend and colleague of mine,
David Amodio, published a study, in which his lab demonstrated that when people are worried about appearing to be racially-prejudiced, they perceive more racial differences between faces of people of their own race and those of a different race. This perceptual difference occurs very quickly - we can see a trace of it in the brain before the person is conscious of it. The motivation of a person affects his/her perception. If Mrs. C. is motivated to see signs from her beloved son, her brain will be tuned differently than if she did not have that motivation. As a case in point, her husband, who describes himself as ‘not very spiritual’, did not see any signs from his son and felt hurt that he was seemingly ignored. Then one day, in his garage, he sat in his car and begged for a sign: lo and behold, he noticed that a can of paint in front of him had the number 19 on its label. ‘It had been there the whole time,’ he says ‘I just hadn’t noticed it’. He’s absolutely right: with the right motivation, he finally perceived the sign that helped him deal with the loss of his son.

*in case you think that I see numbers as mainly red, here is the full palette: 1
234567890.Note that zero is white, so it’s there, but you probably can’t see it. And these are web-safe colors so they are not entirely accurate. The title of this blog post should read: Numb3rs


Interpretation: the Performer's Art

I spent the majority of this past week in Las Vegas, working as a model for Levi’s at Magic, a large fashion industry trade show. I did it mainly because it paid very well but there were two other reasons that justified this particular use of my time: 1) I wanted to experience the glamour of modeling in a big fashion event and 2) I’d never been to Vegas and seeing the city for the first time through the eyes of a working model was too poetic to resist. It might surprise you that I’ve lived in California for over a decade now and had never been to Sin City. It’s not that I haven’t had the opportunity: I had this romantic notion that my first trip to Vegas should be as an entertainer rather than a spectator, much like my first trip to Paris had to be with a lover rather than by myself. Vegas bills itself as the ‘Entertainment Capital of the World’ and Paris was built for lovers.


Playing the role of a model in Vegas certainly has its perks: I was always greeted with smiles and courtesy, I never had to wait for a table at the fancy restaurants or stand in line to get into the clubs, and the trade show was within stumbling distance of my hotel room, which was equipped with every imaginable amenity. But already on the first day, I became keenly aware that despite the sheen of fool’s gold, Vegas can quickly turn dreams into acid. I was simply a vehicle for the jeans that I was demonstrating, easily replaced by any number of other women. Certainly, there are ways in which models can improve the look of a garment, but in the end, the garment is the focus and the designer is the star.
This shift away from the interpreter and towards the creative team behind the scenes is also occurring in opera and ballet, and many other performance arts. Composers are popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, as the proliferation of self-publishing and recording tools has changed the game. Much as blogging and citizen reporting are enabling individuals with no training in journalism to reach the masses, youtube, itunes and composition software are equipping creatives with the ability to create complex music without ever learning to play a single instrument.
Like the blogosphere, I suspect that in time, quality will cut through quantity in music as well as writing and the true test of a work will be its longevity. But in the meantime, why should a person devote years of his/her life mastering the art of interpretation rather than focusing on composing, or designing? Why work on skills when the sheer amount and frequency of output is what seems to dictate success?
Sometime during my third day in Vegas, I began to notice the acidity in the air: the meanness created by an empire built on losses. In Vegas, you can see, do, taste anything that you can imagine but everything has a cost: the better the quality, the higher the price tag. And the proximity to unaffordable luxury leads to bitterness. I have seen the same cruel disappointment envelop young creatives when the seemingly straight and narrow road to success proves to be deceptively curvy and bumpy. Upon my return from Vegas, I was desperate for a long and focused singing practice session and a workout.
I also re-read Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting to remind myself of how complex and elegant the craft can be and how conscientious training can help the actor generate a more powerful experience for the audience. The same is undoubtedly true for my chosen craft: classically-trained singing. A great performance of a play or opera or other composition gives the audience a therapeutic emotional cleanse in addition to intellectual and sensory stimulation. Aristotle observed that a well-executed play allows the audience to expend pent-up emotions and that catharsis is a rewarding experience.
Several studies of the effect of music on the mind have shown that the brain regions involved in rewarding experiences such as eating, sex and taking pleasure-enhancing drugs are active when we are moved by a piece of music. And recently, in a PLosOne paper, Heather Chapin and co-authors from a university in Florida demonstrated that when a Chopin’s Etude in E Major was performed by an undergraduate piano major on a digital piano, the emotion and reward centers in listeners’ brains responded. When the same piece was played on the digital piano but using a computerized version that was technically accurate but lacked the expressive quality of the human performance, these areas were much less involved. One might argue that this is the first scientific study to demonstrate what audiences have known since the first cave man beat on a drum: the way in which a piece is performed matters just as much, if not more, than the piece itself. The performance matters, and the only way to give a great performance is to rehearse and train. The performance itself might not last forever, but as long as composers compose and designers design, the interpreter will have an important role to play.


The Power of the Puppy

64_brussels_griffon_64This week, some dear friends of mine have entrusted their dog to my care, as they frolick at various county fairs in Iowa. I love dogs, but my career keeps me too busy to have one of my own. And although we share our little plot of land with a cantankerous old cat, my husband and I both yearn for our own furry BFF. So we jumped at the chance to foster Paprika* while our friends savor fried butter and play cornhole. *To protect the privacy of our canine and its owners, names have been changed.

During the course of the week, I’ve watched Paprika carefully to ensure that she’s happy and comfortable, and have devoured a healthy portion of the seemingly inexhaustible supply of information about puppy training and care both on the
internet and from the local SCPA (I take my fostering responsibilities seriously). But Paprika remains a mystery. I understand that she learns by association, that she’s mainly motivated by food, that she will be destructive only if she’s bored or anxious, and that she likes to know where her pack is even if we’re not paying attention to her. But, when she stares at me as though she can see the very depths of my naked soul and read my innermost thoughts, I am unnerved.

Dog-lovers that we are, my husband and I watched a fascinating
documentary on Nova about how humans have bred dogs to pick up on our social signals. Scientist that I am, I looked up the studies that were referenced in Dogs Decoded and learned that whereas non-human primates and domesticated dogs are very good at following a person’s gaze to get information about where a desirable object such as a treat might be, only dogs seem to recognize certain social signals such as pointing to, or tapping on a container on the first try. Non-human primates will get the point eventually, but it often takes them many trials. Domesticated dogs, the authors argue, have been specially-selected to read human social cues, and these skills are in their genes. Even young puppies, who had experienced little human interaction, outperformed their closest ancestors, a pack of wolves who had been reared by humans.

Not only do dogs outperform wolves and great apes, who are much more closely related to us genetically,. but they make the
same mistakes that human infants do; mistakes that more rational wolves easily avoid, a group of scientists in Germany have found. As most parents have discovered, infants up to ten-months old will look for a hidden object in its original hiding place even after they have seen it being moved to a new location. Psychologists call this behavior the perseverative search error and believe that the children are following the cues of the person hiding the object, rather than tracking the information that would lead to the correct answer. Dogs make the same mistake when the person who is doing the hiding visibly communicates with the dog. When the communicator stands passively next to the dog, and the dog sees the object moved from the first location to the second via invisible string, the dog accurately searches for the object in the new location. Wolves don’t care what you do: they will look for the object where it actually is. Dogs believe that pleasing their humans will lead to more rewards in the long run: wolves have much less faith in the good nature of our species.

Questioning just how ingrained these social skills are in dogs, a group of scientists in Florida published
evidence that under the right rearing conditions, wolves can outperform dogs who had limited human contact or were found in animal shelters on tests of picking up on human social cues. Just like humans, nature and nurture interact, ultimately, in the development of complex behavior. Yet another reason why training puppies properly early in life is so critical.

Once trained, do dogs simply follow pointing and commands without regard to the context? Paprika seems to have a mind of her own: all the gesturing in the world won’t get her off the wingback chair I just had re-upholstered unless there’s an awfully good chance that she will be compensated with the duck fat treats. Supporting this observation, the German group just published another
paper this July in which they demonstrate that dogs will only respond to pointing and other cues if they have experienced those gestures in the context of food. If pointing did not lead to food the last time they followed the gesture, they won’t bother the next time. The human’s tone of voice, which accompanies the pointing, matters too.

Admittedly, I feel like a fool when I address Paprika in my high-pitched
Motherese, particularly when I’m rewarding her for pooping promptly and precisely in front of an audience of rough-looking bikers who play trivia at our neighborhood pub. But, as she licks duck fat from my fingers, and looks up at me with those wise old brown eyes, I can see that she understands what I’m trying to say and I feel a little less alone in this vast universe.

Using your brain with the future in mind

I read an interesting post yesterday from the Harvard Business Review blog about how feeling as though you are making progress at work, in a video game, or during any kind of training is a great motivator. I can definitely relate: one of the hardest things about being either a scientist or an artist (or an entrepreneur, for that matter) is that you have to spend many, many hours breaking new ground and very often you feel as though you are running in place. That’s the problem with innovation: you don’t know what’s going to work until you’ve tried a lot of different things. Sometimes you get lucky and hit on a solution fairly quickly; but most days, you have to run down many corridors and backtrack half of the time to reach the end of the maze. I hate treadmills: to stay motivated on a run, I need to see the scenery change.

Then I watched Jane McGonigal’s TED talk.

She’s certainly on to something. There’s an addictive quality to internet-based video games, which psychologists have been trying to understand since the tech boom. There’s even a journal dedicated to the psychology of interactive technologies and social networking. These days, instead of thinking about the brain as a machine, made up of solid, unchanging parts, neuroscientists have shifted towards a view of the brain as dynamic and plastic: dynamic in the sense that brain functions are served by chemical and electrical signals and plastic because cell structures, neural circuits and cell-signalling patterns change with use. So, it’s not surprising that spending a lot of time doing any single activity will lead to long-lasting structural and functional changes in the brain. By spending more time playing video games than engaging in other activities, gamers change the circuitry and functioning of their brains to match the demands of their passion.

But as Jane points out, that might not be a bad thing. Sure, internet games tap into the very same circuitry that goes awry in substance abusers. And some people are more susceptible to becoming addicts than others, with genetics and social interaction playing large roles. And the type of game does matter: violent or aggressive games can lead to violent or aggressive behavior, while prosocial games can improve social interactions, just as playing tennis everyday leads to an improvement in tennis playing and a remapping of the sensory and motor cortices that are involved in manipulating the racket and predicting the trajectory of the ball. London cab drivers, who have to memorize the intricate roads of London, develop larger and more efficient hippocampi, the regions of the brain that are involved in spatial navigation. The activities we choose to spend our time doing, regardless of what they might be, will affect the way that our brains function in the future. The time has come to be just as mindful of what we do with our brains as we are about what we ingest or how we stay fit. Jane might be right: if we invest more time in searching for solutions to the world’s problems, or developing the social and cognitive skills the we need to find the solutions, we just might be capable of doing great things.

The Creativity Instinct

In an interview earlier this week, I was asked to define creativity, a fairly common and entirely reasonable request given that I have made the expression and study of creativity my profession. Lately, I have found that I’m less and less comfortable answering that question with the traditional response; some combination of novelty and utility. That is, creative output must both be novel (a new combination of existing ideas or objects or an entirely new thing) and useful (that is, have some purpose). I won’t go into detail defending this particular definition or knocking it down, for that matter, except to say that as we learn more and more about creative behaviors and the motivation behind creativity, defining it has become as easy as herding cats. And likely just as useful.


I have come to believe that defining creativity in one comprehensive sound byte is at best unnecessary and at worst potentially harmful, if we ever want to truly understand it. What if we applied that same strict criteria to an equally complicated cognitive construct, such as memory? I often use the following definition of memory when asked to provide one, which is both unsatisfactory and strictly true: the change in behavior that comes with experience. I have developed muscle memories for singing after 15+ years of training and my behavior has changed as a result of that experience. I have a long autobiography of vivid events that I can summon at will to affect my current actions. My experience of the visual realm affects the way that I interpret what I see today. Although accurate, the definition glosses over the very aspect of memory that piques the curiosity of most people who want to discuss the topic: the fact that we can search through a vast repository of information that we gathered over a lifetime and use it to our advantage. How it works is much more interesting than what it is.

The very same is true for creativity. Creativity, like memory, is a collection of many processes and behaviors, with many different motivators and mechanisms. Like the study of memory, the study of creativity would also benefit greatly by a shift away from definition and towards understanding how it works under different circumstances. We talk about the differences between memory for events and motor skills or habits. In the same way, we should talk about the differences between creativity in writing and creativity in dance.

Often, when I’m not doing a particularly good job of sharing my enthusiasm for science and instead am caught up in academic jargon or the minutiae of some esoteric argument, I see the eyes of my conversation partner glaze over with boredom. It always surprises me because I’m clearly interested in what I’m talking about. But then I remember that what fascinates me is not what I know, but, rather, what I don’t know. Delving more deeply into a topic as wide-reaching and humanistic as creativity only raises more questions. And that is what drives interest. We flock towards the mysterious, towards things that we can’t seem to explain because curiosity leads to knowledge which leads to better decisions and, dare I say, the reproduction of those genes that underlie curiosity (for a paper on a potential curiosity gene, you can read about great tits, though not the kind you’re thinking of, unfortunately).

We hate boredom: it’s a highly uncomfortable state, as evidenced by our knee-jerk reaction to pick up a smartphone or even look out the window. And we love information: twitter thrives because it promises a never-ending stream of information about our world and its co-inhabitants. The bigger the mystery, the more surprising the cliff-hanger, the more complex the visual scene, the more interested we remain. Provided, of course, that there is some pattern or some hint of a pattern that suggests it’s not completely random. Because randomness is unpredictable and therefore useless information. Creativity, that new interpretation of ourselves and our world, is arguably our most powerful instinct. Only by understanding how it works can we ever hope to understand what it is.