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Neuroscience of Change

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.

Meritocracy...

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Science: the surprising story of why it's hard

According to the dynamic philosopher of working people Eric Hoffer, “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future.” But it turns out that learning is not easy. It may not even happen in the way we think it does.

Beginning thirty years ago, researcher Kevin Niall Dunbar analyzed the scientific process at four biochemistry labs at Stanford. His results are deeply unsettling.

Most of us have grown up thinking of science – and of the civilizations based on the technology made possible by it -- as an orderly process of gradual revelations about the world. Based on their observation and experience in a field, someone develops a theory. Then methodical testing leads an accumulation of experimental data to offer insights into improving the theory.

But in his research, apparently half or more of the results don’t make any sense, and are discarded, even if they indicate important new directions for the theory.

From fMRI scans, Dunbar...

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Community keeps us safe, joyful, and sane

I love my work. At EEGer, we get to explore mysteries at the boundaries of neuroscience, learning, games, neurofeedback, signal processing, and tech support. The zen of tech support I'll come back to another day. One of the facets of our work that inspires me the most is interacting with the community.

I first met EEGer clinicians at the Neurofeedback Interchange Conference in April 2013, where Karin and I recorded some interviews of participants, and I was blown away at the pragmatic enthusiasm of people in the EEGer community. Most of all, I found your passion for this brain-training process compelling and contagious. I heard stories of how therapy and neurofeedback helped people recover and thrive from debilitating anxiety, addiction, trauma, traumatic brain injury, even epilepsy and Parkinson's.

This community embodies a rare combination of skills, understanding, and curiosity. In short, this is what motivates me to cultivate tools and resources, to continue development of the...

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From Trauma and Courage to Safety

empathy neuroscience safety Apr 14, 2021

These days bring me effortlessly to the big questions. I wonder about basic stuff: Who am i? Why are we here? What's worth doing? If I'm candid, it's probably also a consequence of being dad to a toddler, curious about everything. Being a parent is partly an opportunity to be in awe at random, unexpected moments. It's humbling to be surprised by this.

One of the things on my mind is safety. I've had a relatively narrow view of what it means to be safe, for different reasons.

We were taught as kids to be mindful to be physically safe in each moment. We didn't discuss how the way we live may be dangerous for our future selves, or future children. And we're neurophysiologically ill-equipped to respond to such abstract threats. With an alligator I have a visceral reaction. With climate instability, or a pandemic, there's some imagination involved. For many of us, most of the time, the consequences of our actions are literally imaginary.

We also were not taught that safety is wildly...

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Why The Bystander Effect Has It All Wrong

 

This past week, I've been thinking more about the so-called bystander effect, and about what encourages pro-social, "heroic" behavior. I wrote about this before the US election last November, about how the concept of the bystander effect is incomplete, flawed even. In short, there is ample evidence that when not surrounded by (secretly instructed) passive bystanders, people tend to help, even at personal risk.

So I've been wondering why this notion of a cruel, self-centered, unhelpful world has such traction in our time, despite evidence showing that  we are generally empathic and active interventionists. It led me to wonder who benefits from such a narrative, this tale that people are innately passive -- even selfish -- bystanders? Put another way, what changes might happen if more of us were motivated by a realization that actually, our desires for a beloved community are widely shared?

We are accustomed to thinking that active caring is unusual, maybe a consequence...

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The Dangers of Overconfidence

beginners mind Apr 02, 2021

I am sure of less today than a year ago. This time has been an extended opportunity to re-evaluate my assumptions. What do I understand about how decisions are made, by my compatriots, by people in power? How much can I rely on my expectations that tomorrow will be like today? Am I living sustainably given the transformations of our times? What do I believe, and believe in? What do I need to learn?

This week is the celebration of fools, and I keep thinking about confidence. Certainly, for many US cultures, confidence is associated with competence, knowledge, and experience. And yet there is evidence -- both in the real world and in the research -- that overconfidence leads to being wrong.

In this study from 2016, researchers asked the participants how confident they were in their answer being correct. The more confident they felt, the poorer the accuracy of their self-assessment. Interestingly, in fMRI scans greater confidence meant greater activation in the striatum, associated...

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