Saturday, June 13, 2009

"This terribly significant business of other people"

As a social psychologist, trying to come to some reasonable grip, on at least a portion of the vast sea of human social activity and behavior, is the end game.

But, it is seriously worth noting that although social psychology is just over a century old, humans have been at this problem for millenia - indeed since there have been humans.

Will breakthroughs in biopsychology, cognitive science, and behavioral neuroscience yield an ax to break through the ice?

It is argued, and quite tenably so, that because people have free will (though this is certainly debatable), they can be placed in the exact same conditions, and behave differently. Seeing that one of science's pillars, Prediction, cannot hold when matter is at times erratic and self-driven - then how is social psychology to be legitimately defended as a science? Or, even a decent folk science?

Consider author Philip Roth's question in his famed book American Pastoral :

"You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong.

You might as well have the brain of a tank.

You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again.

Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of perception.

And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another's interior workings and invisible aims?"


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Social Brain Stresses: Relief in Trees

Robert Frost said that "To be social, is to be forgiving."

Wise words that point to the inevitable stresses we with social brains engage in, on some level or another, every day. But perhaps relieving The Social Brain's tension may be quite easier than anyone would have imagined. In the age of 'oh-yeah-we-got-a-pill-for-that,' this should come as welcome news.

"It used to be that we looked at cataclysmic events, like divorce or loss of a job, as stressors," says Kathleen Wolf of the College of Forest Resources at the University of Washington.

"But now we are seeing that our daily lives have constant small stressors, and the cumulative effect is significant. Consequently, even small, incremental contacts with nature in our daily lives are beneficial."

In her study, Andrea Faber Taylor looked at children living in Chicago's notorious Robert Taylor Homes housing project.

The children she studied were all from the same socioeconomic bracket; all were African American; all lived in virtually identical apartments to which their families had been randomly assigned; and all lived on the second, third, or fourth floors, the best levels for viewing nature.

The only difference was that some apartments overlooked trees and grass while others overlooked pavement.

Girls who could see nature from their windows were better able to concentrate, and to control impulsive behavior, as measured in standard psychological tests. These behaviors tend to help children resist peer pressure and sexual pressure, and help in other challenging situations.

"Our theory was that public housing is a very fatiguing environment," says Faber Taylor. "It turns out that small amounts of greenery seem to make a big difference. You don't have to live in Sherwood Forest to enjoy nature's benefits."

Source: How Nature Heals Us

For more info on nature and healing studies check this out:

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Happy People See Better than Unhappy People

"Good and bad moods literally change the way our visual cortex operates and how we see" (Adam Anderson).

A University of Toronto study provides the first direct evidence that our mood literally changes the way our visual system filters our perceptual experience suggesting that seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses is more biological reality than metaphor.

The Study

“Specifically our study shows that when in a positive mood, our visual cortex takes in more information, while negative moods result in tunnel vision," says Dr. Anderson. The study appears tomorrow in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The U of T team used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine how our visual cortex processes sensory information when in good, bad, and neutral moods.

The researchers first showed subjects a series images designed to generate a good, bad or neutral mood. Subjects were then shown a composite image, featuring a face in the centre, surrounded by “place” images, such as a house. To focus their attention on the central image, subjects were asked to identify the gender of the person’s face.

The Results

When in a bad mood, the subjects did not process the images of places in the surrounding background. However, when viewing the same images in a good mood, they actually took in more information — they saw the central image of the face as well as the surrounding pictures of houses.

The discovery came from looking at specific parts of the brain — the parahippocampal “place area” — that are known to process places and how this area relates to primary visual cortical responses, the first part of the cortex related to vision.

Why Positive and Negative Emotions are BOTH Useful

"Good moods enhance the literal size of the window through which we see the world. The upside of this is that we can see things from a more global, or integrative perspective.

The downside is that this can lead to distraction on critical tasks that require narrow focus, such as operating dangerous machinery or airport screening of passenger baggage.

Bad moods, on the other hand, may keep us more narrowly focused, preventing us from integrating information outside of our direct attentional focus" (Anderson).

Source: People Who Wear Rose-colored Glasses See More, Study Shows


Might this enrich, in part, our understanding of a number of interesting behavioral phenomenon?


-When we are happy we notice more things that previously did not penetrate our attention, stimulation is increased.

-Unhappy people tend to have more accidents and physical injuries.

-The attractiveness of a person can vary widely, despite various objective factors of beauty such as symmetry, depending on their moods: sanguinity noticeably adding to attractiveness and unhappiness detracting from it.

-Happy people do better and finish quicker on an array of physical and mental tests than discontented people.


Nietzsche Weighs In: Humanity's Major Questions

Human social behavior is wildly influenced by major uncertainties about our own nature, and our own "place" in the cosmos. That is, we seek out people, experiences, and social institutions to learn about, develop, edit, distill, and confirm/reject answers to fundamental questions of existence. And, it is with this information that many social actions are influentially guided. That said, a little wisdom from philosophy on these matters can be very illuminating on why The Social Brain acts as it does.
To know or not to know?

"Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders."

What are the defining characteristics of one's personality or identity?

"Character is determined more by the lack of certain experiences than by those one has had."

How can we maximize pleasure, and minimize pain?

"We must not study ourselves while having an experience."

Should we try to get back to the "good old days," "live in the now," or "plan for the future"?

"Existence really is an imperfect tense that never becomes a present."

What is the purpose and/or meaning of life?

"Art is the proper task of life.

What is next, or should be next, for humankind?

"Man is something that ought to be overcome."

Friedrich Nietzsche

(Note: There certainly will be more to come on this theme as many of the most thorny questions about the social animal have already been thoroughly examined, for millenia, by great philosophers, or as I sometimes like to call them "pre-scientists.")


Monday, June 1, 2009

The Social Brain Speaks: Lessons in Language

There is no doubt that language offers both demonstrations of and a special window into the social brain, and human nature in general. Watching Dr. Paul Bloom's lecture on language at Open Yale Courses, I learned a number of intriguing facts about our linguistic faculty:

(1) Babies who are not spoken to directly (though are around speaking) seem to develop the same capacity for language as those babies who are addressed on a regular basis. There appears to be no interesting influence of parental speech-rearing on the ability for babies to normally develop the miracle of speech. (But, why would anyone not talk to their babies? Some cultures see this as senseless because 'what does the baby have to say?')

(2) In Nicaragua, there are documented cases of children who have created their own individual sign language out of the need for better means of communication because their parents, who do not know sign language, possess a broken form of spoken language.

(3) All neurologically normal humans, who at least hear language or have another person to communicate to, can develop normal speech abilities.

(4) There has never been a human culture discovered that does not possess and use language.

(5) Children of slaves who spoke "pidgin," or a broken-up mishmash of different languages which is not a fully developed language (created by the desire to communicate between slaves with different tongues), were able to produce a full-blown linguistic system (often called "creole") with phonology, morphology, and syntax. The ability to manufacture a language in a single generation from parents with an incomplete one, seems to suggest that humans have some inborn capacity for language. For, how else do we satisfactorily explain this phenomenon?

(6) There are a number of completely intelligent children who are social beings with a strong desire to communicate, who simply cannot learn language. This can be attributed, perhaps, to genetic defects, as one could have a genetic defect that might cause one to see the world differently as in color blindness.

(7) The number of possible sentences one can produce with a finite set of characters is infinite. The reason for this is "recursion." That is although there are a finite number of letters, words, and morphemes (sounds clusters, syllables) in each language they can be repeated and interchanged in a never-ending sequence. This is also the case with the infinite possibilities of music composition despite the finite number of musical notes.

(8) Even after just 4 days, babies already show preference to their native languages. That is, they will suck on a bottle, or perform another indicated task so to hear their indigenous language as opposed to a foreign one. French children preferred French to Russian, and vice versa.

(9) There are cases where deaf twins or siblings develop their own totally unique forms of sign language to communicate with one another despite no training, cues, or observations of signing.

(10) Studies show that babies learn sign language in the same way and at about the same rate as spoken language. That is, they babble, use first words, sentences, and complex linguistic structure concomitantly.

(11) Babies do not need to be taught grammar or syntax, for few parents ever speak to their babies in a systemic and grammatically sound manner, it is usually "goo goo gaa gaa." Yet, syntax emerges, no problem.

(12) The average person knows on average, 80,000 words (the lower limit is about 60,000 and the higher limit is about 100,000 words). However, most of our acquisition of words is done as babies and young children. Therefore, the average baby learns about 9 new words a day.

For a copy of the transcript from Dr. Bloom's lecture click here.