Neuroscience of Change

Intuition About Ourselves: When To Think Twice

Intuition is suspect. Of course, we can hear how skeptical we should be about our “gut” feelings, and then choose not to act on this doubt. Faith and trust in experts is at an all-time low. People may be thinking, all we have is our intuition.

But it’s worth another look.

For example, reading a face, we can pretty much tell how someone feels, right?  According to Lisa Feldman-Barret, our intuition about emotions is often wrong,  She writes that facial expressions indicate more than one emotion category, and also nonemotional psychological meanings, in a way that is tailored to specific situations and cultural contexts. Framed like that, it seems obvious. Yet the idea of being able to judge essential characteristics from outward indications has deep and troubling roots. Consider phrenology, or the history of madness. Assumptions about categories of people have led to brutality.

It’s tempting to dismiss...

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Here And Hero: Neuroscience of Ethical Societies

We are born to care. According to research, even infants have a sense of what is fair. As we mature, our everyday conversations are interwoven with ethical considerations, about ourselves and about others. Much of the media we interact with is driven by moral outrage and controversy. Is this or that behavior decent, acceptable, criminal, or perverse?

For a social animal, this impulse, this justice sensitivity, has an evolutionary basis. Living in large groups of unrelated individuals, a shared commitment to fairness facilitates cooperation.

But does the growing field of research into the neuroscience of good and evil tell us anything about how we got here? For example, can it offer any insight into things like increasing authoritarianism, and wealth inequality?

For a moment, let’s look past polarizing stories about how prisons and police are inevitable or not, necessary or not, a blessing or not. Rather than asking whether surveillance, deterrents, and punishment maintain a...

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How Will This Year Smell?

The smells coming from the kitchen as I write are wonderful. I look forward to dinner.

It’s New Year’s Day, 2022, and I am wrestling with my story of how we got here.It’s hard to piece together: has my understanding of how the world works always been an illusion (and I’m just learning difficult new "realities"), or has the notion of the Common Good recently been fundamentally discarded?

Perhaps mostly illusion, at least according to neuroscience, which suggests that perception of reality is sculpted by attention, expectation, and memory.

Clearly, I had an irrational expectation of how people in public service would react to a global catastrophe. And, naively, I didn’t expect disaster to be justification for wholesale abandonment of the vulnerable and politically powerless. I didn’t expect such overwhelming bi-partisan acquiescence to power and wealth. Frankly, it has shaken my view of the world. What else am I missing?

And the pandemic – ...

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Mind The Story -- Are Your Words A Bridge? Are They A Pier? A Cage? (The Story With Your Brain, Part 3)

We are at war. According to what we hear, we are being assaulted on all sides – depending on whom you believe -- by the virus, climate instability, immigration, government mandates, fascism, screens, economic collapse, transgender sexuality, big tech, and more.

Of course war is an old, tired metaphor. It leads me to wonder: how do stories we tell affect the way we act?

In The Idea of the Brain, Matthew Cobb describes the evolution how we understand the brain. Whatever is the most recent technology provides the metaphor. So these days, we think the brain is most like a computer. We would find a description of our nerves as a telegraph system quaint and limited. The metaphor in each era is a heuristic, a short-cut we use to describe complexity. But the short-cut leaves out important details, such as the important ways that our brain is not at all like a computer.

It’s an evolving story, and the way we think about things has implications. Phrenology,...

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Pain and the Neuroscience of Patience

About twelve years ago, several years after I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, I began to have regular episodes of neuropathic pain.

Every few hours, there would be some intensity of sensation in the area of my right shoulder blade, right shoulder, or down my right arm. On a scale of ten, where zero is no pain, and ten is unbearable agony, these episodes would be between a three and a seven. At least once or twice a day, I would negotiate a nine, which means the pain was so intense that I would sit still, in a kind of stunned, submissive acceptance, and wait for it to pass.

By every few hours, I mean that for those years, I never slept through the night. I was chronically sleep-deprived. For some episodes I would be awake and in pain before I even understood where or who or what I was. The body is an amazing thing.

Each time was different. They evolved. I named them. The chandelier was where every small movement sent excruciating cascades. The lava flow was a burning flow...

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The Neuroscience of Language and Reality (the Story of your Brain, Part 2)

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” --Wittgenstein

At some point in my twenties, when I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, I decided to visit West Africa. I am white, and grew up in Florida. Anyone who tells you that racism is in the past has not been paying attention. I was drawn to see if I could understand why going to Africa had such a powerful impact on his thinking about how blacks and whites can work together.

When I got off the plane in the Gambia, I was ushered onto a bus to a fancy hotel with a fancy pool with a bar on an island. This was not what I had come to see. So I walked out the front gate. I discovered that I could make friends and stay with them. I had a notebook, and would ask in English (and later in French in Mali), how do you say, “good morning,” and “breakfast,” so on. Gradually, in each place I visited, I learned enough Mandinka, Fula, and Wolof to have very basic conversations with my hosts,...

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What's the Story With Your Brain, Part 1

A little more than six months ago, when she was not quite three, my daughter awoke very upset, saying to my partner, “Mommy, I can’t read!” Of course I can’t be sure, but it seemed she was longing to be able to simply explore her books on her own (rather than being upset because she feels pressured to read from us, say. We don’t really have timelines for what she needs to be able to do when).

One of the wondrous things about being her dad is the expansive and probing illumination of her stories. She’ll flip through a book and tell herself a story about it. We do a lot of role play. Are you the submarine? I’m the piranha. Will you be the grocer? Let’s have lunch in the park. Pretend lunch. And as other parents will confirm, these imaginings come mostly from who knows where.

Besides being part of how we learn and remember things, story may be central to healthy neural function. Previously, we discussed how oxytocin activates a kind of...

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Psychological Doubling and the Neuroscience of Bias

We each think of ourselves as moral and ethical creatures. It appears that everyone sees themselves that way, even those engaged in unethical, exploitative science, like these doctors, including a former president of the Canadian Paediatric Society who – it was revealed in 2013 – experimented on children at six residential schools around the same time that the Nuremberg code was created to explicitly address harmful experimentation by physicians.


Doubling was the psychological vehicle … in exchange for his contribution to the killing, he was offered psychological and material benefits.The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (Robert J. Lifton, 2017)


There is a puzzle here, in that being moral does not necessarily mean that one is not doing harm. How do we reconcile this contradiction? An understandable response is horror, anger, and outrage at such a violation of trust, such hypocrisy, such brutality. But then come the...

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Outrage For Love or Outrage For Guilt

Uncategorized Jun 14, 2021

We live in polarizing times. This animation from Pew Research captures this drift of political outlook for the U.S. In our hyperconnected, social media age, this tribal us versus them is not only the consequence of different cultures, geography, or history. Social fragmentation and – increasingly – hostility and rancor are driven by outrage. Outrage may now the most effective way to drive viral attention, and therefore revenue.

Besides profit, neuroscience research suggests that expressions of moral outrage are fueled by more than altruism and a desire for justice. It suggests that outrage is about threats to moral identity.

From the University of Arkansas, four studies of (presumably cisgender) heterosexuals* suggest that for men especially, expressing outrage may strategically signal social values, so that prospective long-term partners infer “benevolence and trustworthiness,” from implied shared values. In other words, these straight men are outraged for...

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Why competence is a problem

competence meritocracy Jun 08, 2021

Intuitively, it makes sense that as the world gets more complex, we need competent people in positions of power. In fact, most of us believe that this is the world we live in, where talent and hard-work pay off. In the US and Canada, more than two-thirds of us think that this is how things are.

But it isn’t true. Meritocracy, the idea that success is the consequence of individual ability, doesn't actually exist. What’s worse, our belief in meritocracy has a negative affect on society. Here are some examples.

In this study, researchers found that belief in meritocracy led students from under-privileged backgrounds to reduce cognitive dissonance about their lack of opportunities for economic success by rationalizing it. While this makes sense, it may be self-sabotaging.

A belief in meritocracy increases selfishness. In this study using the famous Ultimatum game, when subjects were led to believe they had skill in a game, they consequently acted more selfishly.


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