Humor

What happens in Vegas...

There’s nothing more romantic than spending Valentine’s day in Las Vegas by yourself. Overdosed on glitz and relentlessly tempted by the ephemeral promises of pleasure, luxury and instant winnings, I seek solace in what is hopefully eternal: true love.

As a well-trained psychologist, I find comfort in defining a concept as slippery as true love in terms of behavior. And as a happily married woman, I gravitate towards monogamy as a hallmark of ever-lasting affection. Humans, as a model species, however, are annoyingly unpredictable and complicated. And while monogamy is the exception rather than the rule in the animal kingdom, there are a few choice species that have provided scientists with a wealth of data and bad jokes.

Take houseflies, for instance. Once the common housefly falls in love and gives up her virginity, she generally doesn’t stray. But this fidelity is not entirely a personal choice: there is something funny in the seminal fluid that males inject during mating that kills her libido. Furthermore, her mate does not share her level of commitment and has no problem seeking out other females. This one-sided romance is not particularly inspiring.

Birds, in contrast, are notoriously monogamous, with 90% of species demonstrating pair-bonding that is mutual and lasts anywhere from one breeding season to a lifetime. But the avian love nest is not without drama: baby birds are not always the direct genetic descendants of both parents. Females are known to ‘dump’ eggs into the nests of other birds, spreading the parenting costs around the neighborhood. And a few more recent genetic studies of bird families have unveiled the promiscuity of one or both parents.

But romantics need not lose heart, for inspiration can be found in the most famous loving mammal: the common prairie vole. Given that only about 3% of mammal species are monogamous, the prairie vole is in a class all by himself. The mating behavior of these cute little buggers has fascinated scientists for decades and has led to the discovery of hormones and genes involved in long-term attachment. Validating ‘love at first sight’, bonding prairie voles activate the brain pathways served by the hormone called oxytocin, which decreases stress and increases positive social behavior, on their first date. Oxytocin helps prairie voles, and humans, for that matter, remember positive social interactions. It’s the same hormone that bonds a baby to its mother. In females, oxytocin rules the day. Males, however, also rely on a second molecule called vasopressin, a close relative of oxytocin, but which is associated with territoriality and aggression. If things go well, the first date ends in a 24-hour marathon of love-making, after which the two voles get the same high from each other as addicts do from cocaine. Give a vole cocaine and dopamine, a powerful and far-reaching neurotransmitter floods the nucleus accumbens. Give a mated vole his girlfriend and dopamine floods the nucleus accumbens.



Prairie voles are not perfect, however. Despite the fact that both members of the pair share in parental duties and show many affectionate behaviors, such as grooming and spooning, they are not always sexually faithful. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, and in the grassy meadows surrounding the strip*. Like their mousy counterparts, human males carry different variants of the gene that expresses vasopressin and differences in this gene can account for some of the variability in pair-bonding behavior.

Of course, we are more than just the products of our genes and Valentine’s day is about romance and promise, not cheating and losing. If nothing else, Vegas has taught me the power of celebrating wins and glossing over losses. Thankfully, a recent fMRI neuroimaging study comes to the rescue. According to Bianca Acevedo, Lucy Brown, Helen Fisher and other colleagues at Rutgers, long-term love can be just as rewarding as the initial romantic hit of a successful first date. But in addition to activating the nucleus accumbens and other dopamine-rich regions, pictures of the object of one’s affection also stimulate those regions involved in long-term attachment, such as the globus pallidus, thalamus, and anterior cingulate cortex. Just like the bright, noisy slot machines that keep the casinos in business, fMRI studies tempt us to draw conclusions that are not supported by the data. But today, surely the romantic notion that a pair bonded for life can keep the passion fresh and strong is worth considering. Eight years and counting, happy Valentine’s day, Adam.


*poetic license: it’s a desert out there.
Comments

Here be Dragons

Despite being an opera singer, I’m not particularly superstitious. Unless, of course, you include the Chinese Zodiac in your definition of the superstitious. You see, I happen to belong to the most auspicious category, represented by the only legendary creature in the list: the almighty Dragon. Surely you don’t blame me, then, for holding onto the belief that my personality is best characterized by a giant, fire-breathing, winged beast*? I mean, really, can anyone argue that the following description doesn’t fit me to a tittle**?

HereBeDragons


Occupying the 5th position in the Chinese Zodiac, the Dragon is the mightiest of the signs. Dragons symbolize such character traits as dominance and ambition. Dragons prefer to live by their own rules and if left on their own, are usually successful. They’re driven, unafraid of challenges, and willing to take risks. They’re passionate in all they do and they do things in grand fashion. Unfortunately, this passion and enthusiasm can leave Dragons feeling exhausted and interestingly, unfulfilled. While Dragons frequently help others, rarely will they ask for help. Others are attracted to Dragons, especially their colorful personalities, but deep down, Dragons prefer to be alone. Perhaps that is because they’re most successful when working alone. Their preference to be alone can come across as arrogance or conceitedness, but these qualities aren’t applicable. Dragons have tempers that can flare fast! excerpted from http://www.chinesezodiac.com/dragon.php


Just reading that description gives my self-esteem a (clearly superfluous) boost. Being a scientist, however, I can’t quite commit to the belief whole-heartedly. And given that we’re about to enter another year of the Dragon on Monday, it’s only fair to look at the evidence. Is there any compelling proof that the Chinese zodiac predictions are worth considering?

First, the caveat. Being a skeptical person by nature, and a psychologist by training, my working hypothesis is that the signs appeal to the vast majority of people, because the traits associated with a given sign include virtues of personality that we all share, or revere, alongside their equally-universal vices. Take the dragon, for example: in general, most people aspire to success and are passionate about, well, something. Most people prefer to live by their own rules and take solace in the notion that because they have to follow someone else’s rules to some extent (either at work, home or play), they are not as successful as they could be. And sure, if you’re ambitious, driven, self-motivated and prefer to be alone, you are likely to be perceived as arrogant and you certainly will feel exhausted at times. Going through the list of personality traits on the Chinese Zodiac page of Wikipedia, I find myself represented to some extent by each one of the signs. That is, of course, if I indulge in my natural tendency towards searching for confirming rather than disconfirming evidence, which psychologists call the confirmation bias. If I assess the extent to which these description fit my character, rather than the extent to which they miss key components of my personality, I can become quite convinced.

But enough speculation. What do the data show? Oddly enough, there aren’t that many studies of the effects of the Chinese Zodiac on pubmed. But those brave scientists who have published such studies have made some pretty fascinating discoveries. Giving the importance and unpredictability of childbirth, it comes as no surprise that the Chinese Zodiac is often used to gage whether a woman will become pregnant in a given year, and what will be the sex of the child. To test whether the zodiac does indeed correlate with its own predictions, Jungmin Lee and Myungho Park investigated the sex preferences and fertility in South Korea in the Year of the Horse and published their results in 2006. The horse is associated with masculinity and, in South Korea at least, the year is considered inauspicious for girls, as they are thought to suffer unhappiness and misfortune. Certainly, these predictions have as much to do with the society in which these girls are born as they have to do with the moon: as the authors point out, ‘in patriachal and Confusionist societies, women are expected to be subservient to men’. (Pardon me while I expel some smoke via my nostrils). Is there any evidence that the year of the Horse correlates with a higher birth rate of boys? Is it such a strong force that women might avoid getting pregnant and show a decrease in fertility? The authors seem to think so.
Horse_fertility
I must admit that those years don’t strike me as significant outliers. But what about the year of the dragon? In many Asian cultures, the dragon is considered (ahem) the best sign (though not so much for the ladies). In Hong Kong, birth rates peaked in the 1980s and then started to decline, even though the numbers of married women of child-bearing age continued to increase. Every 12 years, however, a blip in births was observed, coinciding with the year of the Dragon. In 2002, Yip, Lee and Cheung published a study of birthrates in Hong Kong in the journal Social Science and Medicine. These data seem more convincing to me, especially because Taiwan and Singapore both saw large increased in birth rates in the two previous dragon years.

dragon_HK

But how can we assess whether these effects are mainly driven by human behavior or by the orbit of the moon? Luckily, another study was recently published, which assessed the accuracy of predictions by the Chinese Lunar Calendar on 2.8 million Swedish births between 1973 and 2006. Such a huge database is pretty compelling and I’ll let the authors speak for themselves: ‘We conclude that the CLC method is no better at predicting the sex of a baby than tossing a coin and advise against painting the nursery based on this method's result.’ There you have it. Once again, you’ll see it if you believe it. That is, belief in the zodiac will alter your behavior, such that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Off I go then, to follow my ambitions and take risks. Happy Chinese New Year and best of luck in 2012!


*Some of you might (accurately but pedantically) point out that only the European version has wings: his Asian counterpart is more snake-like. Well, it’s my superstition so I get to imagine it just the way I please, thankyouverymuch.

**not Snoop Dogg speak. Actual derivation of the term ‘to a T’.

Comments

The Best Invention of 2011

It’s been a while since my last blog post and I must confess that with each passing day, my standards for the quality of the next post have grown higher and higher. Worried that these standards were reaching insurmountable levels, I began to panic today. As the universe registered my anguish, my silent prayers were answered with a bang by the unlikeliest of sources: Time magazine.

I was on a break from a job when I picked up a copy of the magazine, left open by a colleague. Touting the best inventions of 2011, the magazine brought to my attention what must, indeed, be among the best inventions ever. Let me present to you, The Necomimi.



Admittedly, I’m way behind the curve, since this video has already had over 2 million views. But let me highlight some of the great features of this extraordinary device. It is produced by the Japanese company Neurowear whose website alone provides a significant amount of entertainment. They have developed a business model which aims to make literal wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve. The term “Necomimi” was constructed by joining the Japanese words for cat and ear. Via a sensor placed on the forehead, the ears react to electrical signals that purportedly come from the brain. Simply by concentrating or relaxing, the wearer can manipulate the ears, mimicking gestures that cat lovers recognize as demonstrating alertness or comfort, respectively. But don’t listen to me, let the company speak for itself:

We created new human's organs that use brain wave sensor.「necomimi」is the new communication tool that augments human's body and ability.This cat's ear shaped machine utilizes brain waves and express your condition before you start talking.

2011 was, clearly, a banner year for technology. But lest you think that 2012 will never be able to top the Necomimi, allow me to reveal the Best Invention of 2012 So Far:The Baby Formula Banana Smoothie. This one was invented by my ever-resourceful husband. Have some leftover baby formula from visiting infants over the holidays? Just completed a 10K run across the Golden Gate Bridge? In a blender, start with some ripe bananas, add the leftover orange juice from the New Years Day Mimosa brunch, mix in yogurt and honey and top it all off with a healthy serving of baby formula powder. It’s almost as good as the Necomimi.

Now that I’ve broken the dry period, I promise to return to my regular blogging style, commenting on topics at the intersection of art and science next week. Until then, I hope that your creative juices have gotten a boost, and that you will find yourself thinking about other fashionable ways in which bodily functions might be harnessed,


Comments

Testing the Water in Lake Wobegon

We all believe that we are special. At least here in the US, we are trained to think that we can do anything we set our minds to; that we have a supreme talent at something and the trick is simply to find out what that might be. A short survey of the world’s population and a basic understanding of statistics lead to a very different conclusion. Nevertheless, folk wisdom and even some recent psychological studies contend that believing in your potential and doggedly pursuing your passion will eventually lead to something good.



These days, even corporations have a hard time admitting that they are probably just average in terms of their global standing. Evidence of this reluctance to face the truth has hit the headlines and provoked the ire of a nation as CEO pay has continued to rise despite dismal company performance. The excuse? A company doesn’t want to admit that their CEO is simply average and so boards vote to pay their leaders above the market rate. Even the recent economic bubbles and the resultant crises are in part a function of overconfidence.

Psychologists and many other groups of people have known for decades that we often over-estimate our own capabilities. The ‘Lake Wobegon Effect’ permeates all sorts of skills and domains. In 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning from Cornell University published a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showing that in tasks ranging from humor to logical reasoning, the worst performers over-estimated their own abilities the most. Subjects in their study who actually performed above-average were more accurate in their assessments of their own performance. The authors suggested that the poor performers simply didn’t understand how hard the tasks were: once they were trained such that their skill level improved, they were also more accurate in evaluating their skill level. Justin Kruger then went on to show that when a task is really hard, skilled performers underestimated their own performance, because they did not take into account the comparison group. He concludes that people are just bad at comparing themselves with others.

In 2007, another study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that whether poor or skilled performers are the worst offenders in terms of comparing themselves with others depends largely on how easy or hard a task seems to be. When a task feels easy, poor performers overestimate their competence, and good performers accurately assess themselves as performing above-average. When a task feels difficult, good performers underestimate their performance and poor performers accurately admit that they are below-average.

So what’s the deal? Now that we know this effect exists, why don’t we simply re-calibrate our estimates? Before you plunge into a ‘I’m just an insignificant speck in the universe’ depression, consider this: for some reason, our brains have evolved to make us more likely to remember the good times than the bad times, to pay attention to good news more than bad news, to see ourselves in a more positive light rather than to face the fact that there are many people who are more skilled or more beautiful or more powerful. Eighty-percent of us behave like optimists; and we’re the ones whose genes have survived.
Comments

Five Lessons Opera Singers can learn from Moneyball

My husband is a pretty serious baseball fan: there are 162 games in the regular season that his team plays and he listens to almost all of them. So in the interest of sharing that part of his life, and not simply becoming an off-season wife, I developed an understanding and eventually a love for the game and our team.


It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball. ~ Billy Beane, GM of the Oakland A’s



One of the aspects of baseball that I’ve come to love is the conversation. I love listening to broadcast legends Jon Miller and John Sterling call the games of our two favorites teams. Often, when Adam and I are cooking dinner together, he reads me the latest post from Joe Posnanski’s blog. I love the soap opera, the human drama, the boyish charm and the respect for the past that infuses the game. All of these qualities baseball has in common with opera.

But I was surprised by how much opera singers can learn from the movie Moneyball.

Five Lessons for Opera Singers from the movie Moneyball

1. No scout has a crystal ball. In industries as competitive as baseball and opera, no one can predict who will be a major player and who will spend a career languishing on the sidelines. Anyone who claims to have that knowledge should be avoided. The truth is that what worked in the past might not work in the future and the best thing an aspiring athlete, musician, actor or entrepreneur can do is work hard to hone the necessary skills and be ready when opportunity knocks. But there is also room for analysis: not everyone can be a home-run hitting machine, and a team needs guys who consistently get on base. There are other roles in opera besides the leads and consistently nailing them with grace and precision will lead to more work.

2. Take time to react. The performances by the actors in the movie were spectacular. There were many scenes in which their faces took up the entire shot and their thoughts and feelings were projected onto the screen without the usual help from the musical score. Onstage, it’s often hard to resist the temptation to react to what your fellow actors or singers are going to do, rather than what they have just done, especially in opera, where much of the timing is dictated by the composer. And 5 seconds onstage can feel like an eternity. But the performances in the movie underscore the power of the well-timed reaction. Give the audience time to digest and we’ll be with you the whole way through. There is power in doing nothing but listening.

3. Make every pitch count. If you make the starting pitcher work hard and never swing on the first pitch, chances are your team will be up against relievers sooner rather than later. The same advice applies to how singers should rehearse and perform. Mindlessly breezing through blocking or vocal exercises accomplishes very little but focussed practice leads to exceptional performance. Make every rehearsal count.

4. Don’t bunt. If you’re going to swing, make it a homerun. Don’t cheat the audience of your best performance. If you’re sick, underprepared or in any way unable to do your best, send in your backup. By the same token, don’t just throw together a performance, no matter how little the pay or how small the audience. Swing to send it over the fence. Every time.

5. It’s easy. It’s incredibly hard. The audience wants to think that you’re so talented and skilled that it’s easy for you to do this very difficult thing. No one wants to see your effort. But it’s incredibly hard. Work at it until you can make it look easy, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Always underestimate the effort when speaking to your audience - they don’t need to know about your trials and tribulations - that just ruins the romance.

And there’s no point in playing baseball or singing opera if the romance is missing.
Comments

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.


creativity_fran
(c) www.francartoons.co.uk

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.

Comments

Opera and the Meaning of Life

Why does opera have such a devoted fan-base? Having once been the pinnacle of entertainment, it’s now relegated largely to fringe status among popular entertainment genres, more closely associated with luxury, exclusivity and excess than with great music and drama in the eyes of the general population. Peter Gelb, at the helm of the Metropolitan Opera in New York is working hard to change this perception, by bringing in directors from the film and Broadway worlds and projecting live performances of operas onto the silver screen all around the country. Time will tell whether the Met in HD program successfully widens the audience nationwide or simply cannibalizes opera fans from smaller cities who eschew their local productions in favor of going to the Met in the movie theater.

But there is one thing that is indisputable: you won’t find out whether you love opera if you are unable to access it. And going to the opera is in some ways much more similar to going to the movies than any other form of entertainment. Both genres are all-encompassing: the lights are low, the drama looms large, the music shuttles your emotions from one extreme to the next, and the goal is to sweep you away into a different world. it just so happens that period and foreign pieces are much more common in opera than in Hollywood.

Like many North Americans, I often crave going to the movies precisely because I will be thoroughly entertained. It’s easy to forget work or personal troubles when your senses are bombarded with the powerful images and sounds of a movie. Sure, some movies are more engrossing than others: some are better acted, others better directed, some stories resonate with me more closely, others are too predictable for my taste. But if I go to the movies and a particular film is a dud, I don’t simply conclude that movies aren’t for me. Not so with opera. Many people only give it one shot. Or, worse, decide they don’t like the genre having never been to a single performance.

The most devoted opera fans are a different breed altogether. They will go to every production, multiple times, even if they hate it. They will relish their distaste for a particular singer, or director or concept. And they will elevate to the status of legendary hero the singer/director/composer/conductor of their choice. We see a similar passion in devotees of many other things: cars, movies, comic books, TV shows, indie rock bands, wine, baseball or pickled foods. Of course, like with so many other objects of affection, there is a rampant nostalgia for the past: a lost golden-age that makes the present seem thin and lifeless.

I believe that the vast majority of people want the same thing: to live a long, meaningful life surrounded by the people they love. But I’ve often wondered how ‘meaningful’ translates to different people. Recently, I came across an interesting notion: some psychologists believe that our search for meaning stems from our uniquely human awareness of our own mortality (though the jury is still out as to how unique this knowledge is to our fair species). A paper that just came out in the highly-regarded Journal of Personality and Social Psychology this week suggests that nostalgia helps give our lives a sense of meaning. The authors themselves say it best:

Believing, then, that one is part of something larger and more meaningful than one’s own physical self provides a psychological defense against the threat of inevitable, and absolute, physical annihilation (Becker, 1973).



It makes me tired just to think about that absolute, physical annihilation but I do think they have a point. In a clever series of studies and surveys, the psychologists found that nostalgia adds a sense of meaning to life by making one feel connected to others. Perhaps a feeling of leaving a legacy aids in dampening our fear of death by the same token. They also found that music evoked a sense of nostalgia, that led to the feeling of being loved and to the idea that life is worth living. When the meaning of life was threatened by reading an essay that contained the following comments, the participants engaged in nostalgic thinking as a defense mechanism:

There are approximately 7 billion people living on this planet. So take a moment to ponder the following question: In the grand scheme of things, how significant are you? The Earth is 5 billion years old and the average human life span across the globe is 68 years. These statistics serve to emphasize how our contribution to the world is paltry, pathetic and pointless. What is 68 years of one person’s rat-race compared to 5 billion years of history? We are no more significant than any other form of life in the universe.

When participants who reported a low sense of meaning in life were encouraged to engage in nostalgic reflection, they showed an increase in vitality and an attenuated response to stress.


So perhaps this focus on a golden-era is simply the opera aficionado’s attempt to cope with his/her mortality. Certainly old recordings of operas trigger a strong sense of nostalgia. And attending a live opera performance in general can foster a sense of connectedness not only with the other members of the audience and the musicians, but also with the great works of literature upon which the stories are based, and the historical eras represented onstage. Perhaps this is one more reason why the great operas, like Le Nozze di Figaro, and La Traviata endure for centuries.

Dove_sono_sm


Comments

Being a Scientist is like being a Yankees Fan

The Yankees will eventually win another World Series. Science will also eventually get things right. Read More...
Comments

Not with a bang, but with a whimper

The purpose of this blog is to generate and nurture ideas on topics that represent the wide variety of subjects that irk, interest and impassion me: neuroscience, opera, critical thinking, empathy and all the places where those topics intersect. Read More...
Comments