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.

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**?


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

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.
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.


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’.


Shifting Gears: When your Brain needs to Pump the Clutch

December is the busiest month of the year for classical singers. It’s the peak of audition season so traveling home for the holidays is squeezed in between trips to New York or other cities for auditions. Holiday parties put friends and supporters in a festive mood, while singers juggle gigs and rehearsals and fundraising drives. Like everyone else, we pump up our productivity in this last month to squeeze a few more ounces of achievement out of the dying year. To top it all off, we actively work to avoid the illnesses that result from travel, spending more time indoors with incubating viruses and the stress of the most wonderful time of the year. If we get sick, we can’t sing, and if we can’t sing, we don’t get paid. So forgive us if we seem a little reluctant to hug and kiss each and every person at the office party.

During this month, singers aren’t the only ones mastering the juggling act. Almost everyone finds themselves multi-tasking at work and at home. By New Year’s eve, many of us feel a sense of accomplishment that comes with putting the year to bed; we’ve navigating the holiday parties and dinners, we’ve completed our gift-giving and philanthropy, we’ve finished the projects that had to be done before the turn of the year. The busyness of December pays off with one last burst of productivity.

A cautionary tale.

But there’s ample evidence, now, that multi-tasking leads to less, not more, productivity. In fact, the very idea that we can do two things at once is a myth. What we’re actually doing is switching between tasks, and every time we make a switch we pay a price. What makes multi-tasking hard? I feel the challenge most acutely when I’m trying to write something creative and/or novel and my husband interrupts me with a question or comment. My first reaction is emotional: I feel irritated. Then, I quickly realize that the idea that I was just about to make concrete has returned to its amorphous, mushy state. I refocus my attention to the question he posed, respond and shift my focus back to the last thing that I wrote. Cognitive psychologists have studied this process of ‘task-switching’ for several decades now and the ‘cost’ of switching is real in terms of response times and accuracy: we are often less accurate on switch trials than on repeated trials of the same task. One would think, though, in this age of multi-tasking, that like any other cognitive skill, practice leads to increases in efficiency.

Not so, demonstrates a study from Anthony Wagner’s lab, published in 2009. In this experiment, the Stanford scientists categorized their study participants in terms of how much multi-tasking using various media devices they were in the habit of engaging in. Heavy medial multi-taskers performed worse on a task-switching test because they were more easily distracted by irrelevant information. But as the study authors point out, there remains the question of what comes first: are heavy multi-taskers simply more distractable by nature, and thus less able to focus on one thing at a time? Or does heavy multi-tasking lead to deficits in the ability to filter out irrelevant information? Regardless of the direction of causality, one thing remains clear: multi-tasking is a hard habit to break, but one that is going to become increasingly more prevalent unless we learn to manage the addiction. And it’s worth the effort required to remain focussed.

My dear friend Karin Foerde, who is now a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University, ran a brilliant study while we were grad students together at UCLA demonstrating that multi-tasking interferes with our ability to remember the specifics of what we were doing: instead, multi-tasking favors habit learning, which is less flexible and harder to unlearn. When you focus on one task at a time, your declarative memory system, serviced by the medial temporal lobe, is running the show. When your attention is diverted to a secondary task, the habit-learning system driven by the basal ganglia, takes center stage. Multi-tasking creates short black-outs as you switch from one task to another, inhibiting your ability to consciously remember what it was that you were doing. This year, I will be leaving my iPhone at home when I’m off to the holiday parties. Maybe that way I’ll remember just how good those Christmas cookies tasted, instead of simply wondering how those extra holiday pounds appeared on my bathroom scale.


Money can't buy you Creativity, or can it?

We’ve just passed the half-way point of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo in hipster-speak) and I can definitely relate to this doggie:

Face To Face With The 2nd Step by Richard Stine
Face To Face With The 2nd Step by Richard Stine

I’ve got what I think is a genius idea for a plot, some genuine, interesting characters and just over 12,000 words. Sometimes my writing voice still feels as though it’s coated with phlegm but I am making progress. I’m still way behind on the word count, however: I should be somewhere in the 25,000-30,000 range right about now. NaNoWriMo is designed in part to help writers (professionals and avocationals alike) develop the discipline and find the motivation to churn out a first draft. After all, the myth that creativity only happens during fleeting and involuntary moments of inspiration is among the first to be debunked by prolific creative writers.

I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp. ~ W. Somerset Maughum

If it’s such a struggle, you might ask, then why on earth are you doing it? Well, the paradoxical truth is that I want to. The exhilaration that I feel when I’ve written something that might be good is intoxicating. It’s similar to how I feel onstage, firing on all cylinders. My motivation is intrinsic: that is, it comes from within rather than for some external goal like the pursuit of a degree or an award or financial gain. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly wouldn’t turn down an advance from a publisher and of course there is a part of me that hopes the work will be published and bring accolades and royalties. But I don’t expect to regret the time and energy spent on the project even if it never generates any income. And so I’ve been wondering, in those moments when the temptation to tweet, or check email, or book a weekend in Mexico shatters my concentration, how strong or pure my intrinsic motivation will prove to be and how the NaNoWriMo artificial deadline affects creativity.

The goal of NaNoWriMo participants is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Some writers simply see it as an opportunity to check off an item on their Bucket List, others feel that the community atmosphere will help them stay motivated and complete a project that has been on the back burner for too long. Some hope to publish the work as is, others will refuse to allow anyone else to read a single word. My (only) writing buddy Gord McLeod sees it as an opportunity to build the block of marble from which he will carve his David over the course of the following months. This smorgasbord of motivations and goals reminds me of the work of Teresa Amabile, who studies the effects of motivation on creative output and is on faculty at Harvard Business School. Having studied and thought about the interplay between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and creativity for decades, she will be the first to admit that the relationships are complex.

In a recent review simply titled Creativity, published in the Annual Review of Psychology, Teresa, along with Beth Hennessey at Wellesley College, sums up the latest research findings by suggesting that when people feel controlled by their situation, as is the case in many workplace environments, rewards for creativity undermine intrinsic motivation and paradoxically, suppress creative output. For example, if employees are asked to create posters and are told that the person who comes up with the best one will get a monetary bonus, research suggests that the final products will be less creative than if the bonus comes as a surprise, rather than an expectation. When intrinsic motivation is already strong, however, rewards can further enhance it and lead to more creative output. Specifically, when rewards confirm competence or provide support in the form of a manager’s kind words or extra resources, creativity flourishes.

So the bottom line seems to be that intrinsic motivation is necessary, but not sufficient, for creative output. And extrinsic rewards can be helpful, so long as they don’t destroy the sense that we are being creative just because we want to. Those NaNoWriMo guys are on to something, but as Beverly Sills has said, there are no shortcuts to any place worth going. And that’s enough procrastination for Day 18.

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.

A World Without Meaning

Winning the 2011 Society for Neuroscience Brain Awareness Video Contest this year is a heart-wrenching animated poem told with the voice of a 10-year old boy whose grandfather has suffered a stroke and developed aphasia, a language impairment. It’s called The Treasure Hunt and it does a wonderful job of humanizing and explaining the condition. Language is such a central part of our minds that it’s very difficult for most of us to imagine a world in which our capacity to talk and express ourselves using speech is stripped away.


As the fall settles in, and the holiday season has officially kicked off with Canadian Thanksgiving, opera singers everywhere are performing superstitious rituals with the aim of fending off illnesses. Some rinse their sinuses with saline daily, others add honey to their tea in generous portions; everyone’s hands begin to dry up from the liberal application of sanitizing gels and the first sensation of an itchy throat sends us burrowing under our covers to nap the germs away. For a singer, losing one’s voice means losing work and opportunities to generate future work. Because our productivity and happiness depend on a healthy voice, and getting sick is relatively unpredictable and mysterious, we latch onto home remedies and folk wisdom more readily than the average Joe.

When we do get sick, however, we refrain from talking as much as possible and, for a short while, we glimpse a world in which speech is an inaccessible form of communication. Being theatrical people by nature, we rely more heavily on facial expressions and gestures. Individuals with aphasia are also encouraged to use other forms of communication such as writing, or gesturing or drawing to get their ideas and desires across.

But what if the very meaning of the words is what begins to deteriorate rather than the ability to form them? What does it feel like to lose concepts? If you no longer know that an eagle is an eagle and a mouse is a mouse, does the world seem full of wonder or mystery? The patients that I’ve been studying at UCSF are suffering from semantic dementia, a progressive degenerative brain disease that slowly erases their conceptual knowledge. A baby learns first that a bird is a type of animal, and then that an eagle is a type of bird: patients with semantic dementia first forget that eagles and hawks are different types of birds, and eventually they can’t distinguish a bird from another animal.Their loss follows the development of language in reverse.

Often, these patients choose to engage in activities that involve complex visual images as their disease progresses: they love working on jigsaw puzzles, playing solitaire on the computer, gardening, and some even begin to paint or sculpt works of art. My goal has been to try to understand the changes in the mind that lead to this paradoxical emergence of visual creativity. I’ve approached this question using the rigorous methods of neuroscience: tracking where patients look when they are viewing pictures or art work or searching for a specific target in a large array, comparing the brain volumes of patients with healthy counterparts and patients with other diseases and correlating these volumes with specific behavior, timing how long it takes them to find a target and how accurately they can perform a difficult visual search task. It turns out that they are faster and more accurate than healthy controls in tasks like ‘Where’s Waldo?’, and the brain regions that correlate with performance on those tasks are the same regions involved in grapheme-color synaesthesia, a condition in which people ‘see’ letters and numbers in color.

When a video like The Treasure Hunt puts the experience of aphasia into a simple and elegant poem, I can’t help but wonder what it must be like to experience the world through the lens of semantic dementia: when things lose their meaning, are they less distracting? Does the world become more vivid and alive? Many of their paintings seem to suggest that it does. And the fact that these patients find new ways of communicating underscores the central role that relationships and social interactions play in our lives. The holidays are designed to strengthen the ties that bind us to friends and family, and as the days get shorter and the nights grow colder, it’s as good a time as any to return those personal calls.


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.

When Time Stands Still

This week, I boldly ventured out of the house, knowing I won’t return until after dark, without a scarf and wearing a mini-skirt with, wait for it, NO LEGGINGS. You might chuckle to yourself, thinking that now I look just like all the tourists who visit San Francisco in the summer only to keep the sweatshirt business flourishing in Fisherman’s Wharf. But I will have the last laugh, as the sun sets and I walk home without a single goosebump: San Francisco’s secret September summer is finally here.

As you can probably tell, I feel a certain pride in my fledgling understanding of San Francisco’s seasons. Dressing for the weather is an art in this city, and I’m convinced that the eclectic fashion of our native hipsters is influenced in large part by the extreme fluctuations in temperature in the different neighborhoods of the city and at different times of the day.

Just as my brain has finally sorted out the regularities in our highly irregular climate, I must admit that I have become a bit of a San Francisco cliche. I no longer fear simultaneously donning two different patterns. I prefer to walk or ride a bike than to drive. I’m really picky when it comes to coffee. I get a box of vegetables delivered from a local farm every week. I do what I love, relying on the kindness of strangers to pay me for doing it. I have an entire trunk dedicated to my scarf collection. When I drive, I drive a smart car so that I can park in between meters. I run a lot. I blog. I tweet. And I listen to NPR.

And so it was that I found myself moved to tears (while driving my smart car to a random gig) by Maurice Sendak on Fresh Air. He has just lost two dear friends, one a few months ago, and another just the other day, and he talked about how he doesn’t fear death itself, but he does fear isolation. He misses his friends and all the other loved ones that he’s lost. So he wrote another book, to help him negotiate these feelings and to explore them further.


Bumble-ardy, the latest from author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, is dark and deeply imaginative, much like his classic works Where the Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen. Bumble-ardy is an orphaned pig, who has reached the age of 9 without ever having a birthday party. He tells his Aunt Adeline that he would like to have a party for his ninth birthday, so Aunt Adeline plans a quiet birthday dinner for two. But Bumble-ardy instead decides to throw a large costume party for himself after his aunt leaves for work — and mayhem ensues. When his aunt returns she says, "Okay smarty, you've had your party but never again." Bumble-ardy replies, "I promise, I swear, I won't ever turn 10."

That last line has rattled around my mind all week: a simple rhyme that can be interpreted in so many ways, including as a strong desire to elongate the present moment into eternity and stop the unrelenting march of Time. I have long been fascinated by (and fearful of) the passage of time and the way that our minds track it. Our internal chronometer works in a myriad of ways, each tuned to a different time scale, from milliseconds to years. And just as memory is not an accurate record of the past, our sense of time is distorted by our goals, emotions, past experiences and current environment.

Even if we understand objectively that our memories are reconstructed versions of our experiences, it’s still difficult to reconcile the fact that our experiencing selves are very different from our remembering selves (see Kahneman’s brilliant TED talk here). That separation, however, is obvious to
David Eagleman, a 39-year old neuroscientist in Texas, who launched his human subjects off of a 50-meter high platform to test the notion that time slows down when we fear for our lives (a great New Yorker profile of him can be found here).

As expected, the disheveled subjects reported that their fall seemed to last a long time, and estimated that their own fall was 36% longer than the falls of the other subjects. A portable ‘perceptual chronometer’ was strapped onto the wrists of the subjects, to test whether subjects’ experiencing selves have better temporal resolution during the fall, when they report having experienced the slowing of time. A supersense should have its usefulness, after all, and the military, who funded part of this work, would benefit from harnessing such a skill. Alas, Eagleman and his colleagues found no evidence that our experiencing selves actually perceive time differently during frightening events. It all comes down to how and what we remember.

Happily, however, this finding points Bumble-ardy towards a way to accomplish his desire to stop Time. While we can’t manipulate the passage of time outside of our minds, our memory and imagination are the tools we need to leap forward, jump back and, most importantly, do-over what Time has taken away from us. Crafting rich, varied, and meaningful experiences fills our memory repositories with branches and footholds that trigger and support our reconstruction of Time gone by.


Remembering in Manhattan

This week, I’m in Manhattan preparing for a marathon concert as my way of supporting people who were affected by the attacks on 9/11. I’ve started this blog-post numerous times, and have abandoned it because I, personally, did not lose anyone that I loved. It seems disingenuous to touch on the event as an outsider, when so many people experienced loss firsthand. And yet, the legacy of 9/11 is not loss, but connection.

When we were shooting
the episode of Miracle Detectives that deals with the story of 9/11, I came across this statement by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center:

'The World Trade Center should,' Yamasaki said, 'because of its importance, become a living representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his belief in the cooperation of men, and through this cooperation his ability to find greatness.'

I’m not the first to point out how eerie it is that his vision has become reality as a result of unimaginable horror. My scientific career has been built on the study of autobiographical memory: how we remember our past and how our memories of our experiences shape our identity, our imagination, our decisions and ultimately, our future. But even if I had chosen a different topic, I suspect that I would still have been struck by the central place that remembering occupies in the landscape of the aftermath of the terror attacks.

We interviewed many people while we were preparing for and shooting the episode; survivors, first-responders, grieving family members, health-care practitioners treating victims and their families, writers and artists. Time and time again, I was struck by how important it was to the first responders and survivors in particular, to tell their stories. Even now, on Twitter, the vast majority of the conversation is dominated by reminiscences. Faced with random acts of violence, our notion that life is fair and just was turned on its head. As we try to make sense of what happened, we rearrange our worldview to accommodate this new information.

Faced with evidence that humans can cause such destruction, we swing the pendulum in the opposite direction: we become selfless, generous, kind and creative. In a city notorious for its ruthlessness, the citizens of New York, in particular, outdid one another with random acts of kindness and sacrifice. All over the city, the stories are being told, in pictures, in words and in acts. We are reshaping our memories and creating new ones with the same objective: to connect with those who were lost and with those who remain. Our
experiencing selves panicked, despaired, fought but our remembering selves have the power to console, create and rebuild.

There are countless events today to choose from, but I chose to participate in Music After because my dear friend Danny Felsenfeld, a Brooklyn-based composer, along with his friend Eleonor Sandresky, are emphasizing the creative output triggered by 9/11. Losing so many different people in one day is a blow to the community. And yet, the legacy of 9/11 includes a refocusing on the importance and power of communities and connections between people. This concert, free to anyone who wants to come and listen, is one example.
Meetup, a site that was created by New Yorkers in response to 9/11, and now has 9 million monthly visitors in 45,000 cities, is another. My heart goes out to all those who experienced loss first-hand a decade ago, and my performance today is my humble gift to this great city. May it never sleep.



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.

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.



Why You'll Always Make the Right Decision

As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, I have a couple of big decisions that I need to make in the next few weeks. The outcomes of these decisions are hard to predict, but that’s not what makes them particularly difficult. They are difficult decisions because committing to one thing means closing the door to another and I’ve never been good at closing doors: I’m much better at knocking them down.

When I complain of the angst of decision-making to my friends, eventually, at some point in the conversation, they comfort me with the notion that no matter what I decide, it will have been the right decision. Now, if that were strictly true, then the decision would not be that difficult, and I would find real comfort in being reminded of that fact. But the truth is that choosing one alternative over another will lead to a different set of outcomes and, depending on what I value at the time, some outcomes will most definitely be better than others. So the real task is to predict what outcomes I will value in the future, and to make decisions that will lead to those outcomes and hopefully some form of personal fulfillment or contentment.

Although my well-meaning friends might not be right in that direct interpretation of the adage, they are all sage neuroscientists, in spirit, if not by way of education and career. Because the truth is that no matter what I decide, it’s very likely that my brain will work hard to convince me that it was the right decision.

Making the wrong decision leads to a very uncomfortable state that psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance’: it’s the terrible feeling you get when your view of the world is at odds with how the world actually works. For example, if you believe that LA traffic is predictable and easily navigated so long as you avoid the rush hour(s) and never hit the beach, you might find that the third time you find yourself in standstill traffic in the middle of the day on random Wednesdays, you’ll feel the need to revise your belief system as it pertains to traffic in the city of Angels. Voila! You’ve just experienced the soothing effect of how our minds deal with cognitive dissonance: we simply change our attitudes, beliefs and their resulting actions.

American social psychologist Leon Festinger is credited with developing the first comprehensive theory of cognitive dissonance but the observation that we change our beliefs in order to justify our decisions can be traced all the way back to Aesop, and his fable The Fox and the Grapes: Fox wants grapes but can’t reach them, so he decides the grapes must be sour. It is easy to despise what you cannot get.


Fifty years after Festinger published his seminal book, social psychologists are still working out just how much our minds justify our choices. In a recent study published in Psychological Science, Tali Sharot, Cristina Velazquez and Ray Dolan demonstrated that the very act of making a choice affects our preferences. They asked study participants to rate 80 vacation destinations by imagining themselves taking a holiday there and predicting how happy they might be. Then, they told the participants that they were participating in a test of subliminal decision-making and asked them to pick one of two alternative destinations that they would only perceive ‘subliminally’. In fact, the alternatives weren’t presented at all during the decision-making but only appeared on the screen after a blind choice had been made. Even though the participants hadn’t actually chosen the destination, they still showed a preference for it when asked to rate it at a later time. When a computer made the choice for them, however, they didn’t show that same preference. The act of choosing affects makes us like our choice.

No matter which decision I make, you can bet that my anterior cingulate cortex will be working in overdrive, monitoring all the conflicting feelings and thoughts that will eventually be melded into a new worldview. In the meantime, I will follow the advice of a dear friend, whose excellent decision-making has created a flourishing international career, a loving and rich family life and lots of laughs: 1) first, gather all the information you can get about the possible outcomes, 2) hold off making the decision until the last possible moment, 3) once you’ve made the decision, tell everyone about it so that you can’t back out of it and finally 4) stop thinking about what would have happened if you had picked the other alternative. Oh, and he also said: ‘whatever you decide, I’m sure it will be the right decision’. How true.


The Tao of Cat: the Future as a Function of the Past

The cat that lives in my backyard is his own man. He comes and goes as he pleases. He politely asks for food but when it doesn’t meet his expectation, he complains to the chef. He doesn’t like to be tied down but he’s not above showing his affection when his belly is full and it’s raining outside. He tolerates petting as a courtesy to those who serve him but his eyes belie his disdain for the cooing and snuggling that are sometimes inflicted upon him by his co-tenants.

Street Art: Chicago
Chicago Street Art

His is a pretty sweet life. Recently, I’ve found myself envying his advanced Buddhist practice of living purely in the moment. He does not plan for the future or regret past decisions. He is focussed entirely on the present and his behavior reflects only his most immediate needs. But he does have one major character flaw: when a choice is forced upon him, even if it is a desirable alternative or would have been his preferred action in any case, he cannot tolerate it. For example, it has become his habit, after dinner, to enjoy stretching out on a warm blanket near his chef. But if his exit from the room is blocked by a closed door, he will not settle down for a snooze, but will do everything he can to get out of the room. Once the door is opened, he ignores it and proceeds to sidle up to the chef with his motor in full purr mode.

On one level, I understand his angst: when I am told that I must do something, that action loses a part of its attraction. And I don’t like to feel boxed in or powerless to escape if circumstances change. But, after five years of having my needs met, and never once being hurt or trapped, I have learned to trust the person (and cat) with whom I share my living space. Part of this trust comes from my ability to predict the actions of my co-tenants based on thousands of observations over the years. These observations have been stored, some as vivid episodes, others as extractions of the regularities in my co-tenants’ behaviors, in my malleable brain.

Memory for episodes, in particular, fascinates me for two reasons: the first being that our autobiography, and to a large extent our identity, is made up of our memories of the past, and feels to us like a searchable database of our experience (more here) and the second being the extraordinary observation that patients who lose the ability to retain event memories are also unable to imagine the future (the case of K.C.described here). I’ve studied autobiographical memory for over a decade, from my very first published paper (found here) to the one that’s currently in the STUFF TO DO NOW folder on my desktop.

As neuroscientists have come to navigate the ever-shifting landscape of our personal memories, it has become increasingly clear that our representations of the past and the future overlap to a very large extent. A former lab-mate of mine, who finished her PhD with the supervisors of my very first project (Dr. Morris Moscovitch and Dr. MaryPat McAndrews, at the University of Toronto, co-authors on my first published paper), went on to complete a highly-successful post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard with (another U of T alum) Dr. Daniel Schacter. Donna Addis is a sweet, intelligent and dynamic woman (now a professor in her own right at the University of Auckland) who conducted a seminal neuroimaging study demonstrating that the brain regions that support episodic memory (the medial temporal lobe, the core of which is the hippocampus, as well as areas of dorsolateral prefrontal and parietal cortices) are also involved in imagining the future (paper available here).

Most married couples, among other people, know that memory is a constructive process, rather than an accurate recording of what actually happened. For a long time, this constructive aspect of event memory was seen as a short-coming, rather than a desirable feature. But Dan Schacter and Donna Addis suggested that we should rethink this negative connotation and think about the benefits of a constructive memory system. Specifically, they suggested that this feature enables us to pull together bits of our past, recombine them and imagine the consequences of our actions in the future. Our constructive memory system gives us the tools we need to become effective soothsayers.

This ability gives me an edge over Mr. Cat in many different ways. I can dream big, and imagine every step that I need to take in order to make that dream come true. I can delay immediate gratification for a bigger reward down the line. I can adapt to changing circumstances because I can alter my imagined future to account for new information. But this ability can also draw me out of the present and prevent me from enjoying the moment because I’m too busy planning for the future. I’ve got a lot of decisions to make in the coming weeks and I need Mr. Cat to remind me that when the door is open, my belly is full and it’s raining outside, it’s perfectly ok to snooze with the chef.


There's still hope for sopranos: thanks to evolution

This week I’ve been having a lot of fun with the music that I’m working on because my voice teacher is out of town and I took her absence as an opportunity to remind myself why I continue to work on improving my vocal chops every day rather than simply maintaining my current level of performance. With sincere apologies to my neighbors, I have to admit that I’ve been enjoying practicing the stratospherically-high runs in the famous Queen of the Night aria (Der Holle Rache - you can find it here, starting 40 secs into the video) from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Sometimes I just need to let it rip.


I’ve also been dusting off the Chansons Madecasses or Madagascar Songs by Maurice Ravel, in preparation for a concert that I’m giving on July 15th (details and a sample of one of the songs can be found here). These are fabulous, sensual and politically-charged pieces for voice, piano, cello and flute and I love them dearly. These chansons couldn’t be more different from Der Holle Rache in terms of the words, dramatic context, feel, style, tonality and texture and yet, when I’m singing them right, I get goosebumps. And not just when I’m singing them, but also when I hear someone else performing them.

Having that experience made me wonder, as I often do, why we get the ‘chills’ from specific musical passages. Jaak Panksepp, an Estonian-born (we’re practically neighbors! as my mother would say) neuroscientist in Washington state has studied and written about this phenomenon for decades, with an influential paper published in 1995 showing that, contrary to our intuition, we get the chills when we listen to ‘sad’ music, rather than music that makes us feel happy. A solo line, often in the soprano register (lucky for me), emerging from a denser musical texture most often caused his subjects to experience chills. He also found that women are more likely than men to get goosebumps when listening to music.

He has since gone on to suggest that the experience of chills evoked by music is related to the distress that we feel when we are separated from someone we love and that this response has perhaps evolved to encourage mothers to respond to their crying babies. It’s easy to imagine many of the most memorable musical passages as separation calls: Whitney Houston’s version of Dolly Parton’s I will always love you, the guitar solo in The Eagles’ Hotel California, the vocalise by Rachmaninoff, to name just a few. The solo instrument, on a simple melodic line, emerging from a thicket of other sounds.

Blood and Zatorre, neuroscientists at McGill University used neuroimaging to explore the parts of the brain that are activated during the experience of the chills evoked by music (you can find a copy here). They report that the same brain regions involved in other pleasurable activities such as eating or having sex such as the orbitofrontal and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the striatum and the midbrain, are also involved in this experience. But what’s most interesting to me about their studies is the fact that exactly which musical passage evokes the experience is very much tied to the individual: just because I like it, or find it moving, doesn’t mean that you will. Of course, that observation is self-evident to most of us, and the staggering diversity of music available to us demonstrates that musical taste is deeply personal. By the same token, I’ve watched mothers pick out their own baby’s cry from a cacophony of sounds with remarkable ease.

As I return to my vocal practice this week, I’m going to keep both Panksepp’s and Blood and Zatorre’s findings in mind. And at my next audition, I’m not going to worry about the fact that at least a hundred other sopranos are vying for the part. I’ll remember that, just like a baby’s cry, each of our voices is unique and there’s no telling which of our voices will wake the latent maternal instinct deep in the heart of the men and women on the audition panel. There might be a lot of sopranos out there, but we also might be favored by evolution to give our audiences the chills. And that’s a goal worthy of all the practice hours it demands.

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...

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...