This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind


Chummy technology

One of my buddies just sent me a link to a really interesting article on our relationships with technological devices.

Yes, that's right, I said relationships - and appropriately so, because that's just what the research discussed in the article covered: the emotional and personal connections that we inadvertently make with our inert and non-living tools.

Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, noticed that human beings often treat their computers, iPods, and other technological devices as though they had feelings of their own.  When they don't do what we want them to, we get mad at them...when we inadvertently break them, we feel sad...and when we use them consistently, we might even find ourselves conversing with them.

Is it really true that we can't help but form relationships with the electronic tools that we use every day?  A growing body of research suggests that it is.

For example, Nass studied the extent to which our natural tendency to form in-groups and out-groups carries over to machines.  He separated people into two groups, a green team and a blue team, and paired them with a computer that was either the same color as their team (described as a "teammate") or unrelated to their team's color.  What he found was that participants gave much more favorable reports of their interaction with the computer if it carried the same color as their team - a totally illogical yet very real phenomenon that was reproduced many times.

In another example, researchers tackled the decade-old object of my hatred, "clippy" from the Microsoft Suite.  While subjects originally reported this little character as nothing short of an unhelpful nuisance, researchers found that they could very easily alter users' relationship with Clippy in a dramatic way.  Instead of just telling you what to do, the researchers made Clippy ask whether or not his advice was helpful, and if the user selected no, he continued by berating the Microsoft corporation and suggesting that an angry letter get sent.  The result - users started to like Clippy, found him helpful.  Their anger had been turned to companionship.

These kinds of findings hold many ramifications for the real world and in the ways in which we can interact with objects of our own creation.  It seems like every day we come to rely upon machines for getting through our daily lives, and perhaps it is no surprise that we become attached to them just as we would to any being that we interact with regularly.

Without getting too "dystopian future with robots ruling us all," I'd be interested in seeing whether or not the presence of robots or computers could provide an adequate substitute for adequate human interaction.  If we act towards these machines as we would to other living things, perhaps their effects on us are similar as well.

via The Wall Street Journal


Nature is awesome! Lasers are awesome! Together, they’re really awesome!

Here's a really cool video of what happens when you illuminate a drop of plant water with  a high-powered laser in a dark room.  The creator of this amazing video apparently saw a picture of a mosquito being struck by a laser pointer, and this is what they answered with.

One suggestion that somebody made was to take two different lasers, say, one red and one green, and shine them on a drop of water with the same setup as this one (only with a slight distance between the two).  If you wore those red/green differently colored glasses that they used to give out, would you be able to see the images in 3-D?  Somebody with lasers needs to try this right now.

Either way, this is the kind of hands-on experiment that could be used in any number of school classrooms.  Something like this might have made studying electromagnetism in college a bit more bearable.


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On the subject of scientific approaches to the world, I thought I'd share an article that covers another integral aspect of any person's daily life - imagination.

I know that this sounds hokey, of course everybody uses their imagination - but as much as we like to use it in our day to day lives, I think it's still underestimated as a valuable tool for solving any problem.

This is the stance taken by Timothy Williamson, a philosopher at Oxford University.  He argues that, while deduction is certainly an important part of understanding the world, it isn't as simple as just crunching the data you're given and cranking out an answer.  The world is far too complicated for such a simple method of problem solving, and perhaps our ace in the hole is our ability to imagine.

While it's easy to think of hearing or seeing or smelling as a simple matter of analyzing the sensory information you're given, in truth any sensation you feel is the product of a two-way conversation that is constantly occurring between your brain and the outside world.  What you perceive is highly influenced by what you expect or what you've seen before, and this is where imagination comes in.  Humans do not simply use deduction to understand their world, they also use induction.

So what does this mean for all of us?  Well, if imagining things plays such an important role in our ability to understand the world, then we should certainly make an effort to improve our ability to  do so.  I'd certainly like to see what the folks who are trying to cut many of the creative arts in our public schools have to say about this.

In addition, this kind of approach to cognition points to the value of larger, more ambitious, and ultimately rougher theories about the world.  It is with these kind of guiding ideas that we can connect our minds with the data that the world gives us and come up with truly amazing results.

And even if it weren't so valuable as a life skill, at least you'd beat all your friends at pictionary...if you don't mind, I'm going to go look at the clouds now.

via The New York Times


Bard College just got my attention…

In an age when it seems that schools and universities are cutting important programs across the board, it's good to see an example of a useful course of study actually being created.

Incoming freshman at Bard College, a liberal arts school in New York, will be required to take a "Citizen Science" program during their first years.  Such a course will entail learning about the scientific method, covering modern issues in science, and understanding how empiricism and a scientific approach to the world can be applied to all kinds of life's problems.

This sounds like a pretty awesome program, and assuming that they pull it off well, hopefully it will inspire many more colleges to do the same.  One of the things that I love about science is the extent to which it connects lots of different aspects of life that seemingly have nothing to do with research or academics.

By having a solid understanding of logic, the use (and misuse) of data, and basic statistics, students of all academic approaches will learn to make better decisions and separate the legitimate claims that people make from the utter nonsense that is often thrown around the media.  Teaching these basic principles (and others involved in the scientific method) to students outside of the scientific disciplines is a great step towards more well-rounded students and will help bridge the gap between the scientific community and the general public.  Bravo, Bard College!



Stress and Stratification

So it's been a while since I've last posted, and for this I apologize, but unfortunately it's pretty difficult to write material for your blog while you're stuck in the middle of Nevada trying to get to the West Coast before you perish of boredom.

Anyways, I've arrived in Berkeley which means that I have some more time to share some interesting articles and insights with you this one, a piece detailing the life of Robart Sapolsky as well as his interesting thoughts on stress and its effects on our lives.

Now, I know that everyone hears a lot about stress.  They know it's bad, know it should be avoided, and know the kinds of situations that might increase or decrease its effect on your life.  However, Sapolsky takes our knowledge of the causes of stress to a new level.  Interestingly, he accomplishes this by studying baboons.

To clarify, we're not talking about the "oh my god I almost ran over that old lady" stress (aka "acute" stress).  We're talking about the day to day toil.  The never-ending, soul-crushing droll that causes many people to suffer from so-called "chronic stress."  While the former is tied with particular events that are especially nerve-racking, the latter describes a much slower and ultimately more dangerous process, one that has many interesting causes.

Perhaps the most interesting nugget of information to come out of Sapolsky's research on monkeys in Africa is the extent to which daily stress, social status, and overall mental and bodily health are inextricably connected.  He monitored the activity of wild baboons, observing behavior, physical condition, and occasionally taking samples of stress hormones circulating throughout their systems.

What he found was that those baboons at the lower end of the monkey social hierarchy were less physically fit (seriously unhealthy in some cases), had bad personal habits, and had significantly larger numbers of stress hormones (their version of what we call "glucocorticoids) in their system.

He hypothesized that if chronic stress (a result of low social hierarchy) was causing all of these problems in baboons, then it must be wreaking havoc on the bodies and minds of human beings, who are constantly assaulted by a vast and complex stream of stress each day.  What he found was that high levels of stress was significantly associated with a large number of problems such as heart failure and anxiety.

Ultimately, these glucocorticoids are meant to play a positive role in our lives, allowing us to appropriate our bodily resources to the task at hand when a particular stressor makes it absolutely necessary.  However, when we are hit with multiple stressors over long periods of time, these chemicals cause us to shift our body's focus away from maintenance and construction, and towards dealing with this constant and unstopping stress.  The result: poor health, mental deterioration, and a slippery slope towards more anxiety and stress.

Sapolsky is working on a number of methods to try and fix this problem - most of them involve developing a treatment that will suppress the release of glucocorticoids during particular kinds of stress.  However, I'm inclined to believe that we will never find a solution to this problem until behavioral changes are made on the part of individuals.  Certainly, there will always be life's doom and gloom to make your day a little more unpleasant, but there are also plenty of ways that a person can add some positivity to counteract the stressors of daily life.

Maybe chronic stress can be cured with a drug.  Maybe it requires a different daily schedule.  Maybe it's an incurable aspect of modern life.  I'm not sure what the correct answer is, but with the likes of Robert Sapolsky around, I'm confident that we're making progress.

via Wired Magazine

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