Tag psychology

Mother’s Little Helper, the Brainstem

Psychologists have known for a long time what seems pretty obvious intuitively: that given two routes to achieve the same reward, a person will take the easier path.

But Not TWO Miles...

For example, if you were to ask a person to walk a mile to get a thick, juicy steak or ask them to walk two miles to get the same thick, juicy steak, it’s pretty obvious that most people would take the easier way to the food.

This has been codified as the Law of Less Work:

If two or more behavioral sequences, each involving a different amount of energy consumption or work, have been equally well reinforced an equal number of times, the organism will gradually learn to choose the less laborious behavior sequence leading to the attainment of the reinforcing state of affairs. — Clark Hull, Principles of Behavior (1943)

By analogy, and probably by common sense as well, it seems likely that we do the same with mental work as well.

However, it’s not that easy to make the leap.

Review: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine is an example of that rare science book that sets me on a new way of thinking. That’s not to say I found it perfect — there is much to disagree with between its covers, some of which I will abstract here — but for framing and displaying the Big Questions that guide us as scientists, it has few parallels.

It seems the only uninterrupted (read: Internet-free) time I have to read is on airplanes. The time between boarding and achieving cruising altitude, and the mirror-image process of landing, is a time that all electronic devices are stowed, and therefore a perfect time for an old-fashioned, paper and pasteboard book.

I was sitting on the plane to Seattle, engaging in my usual practice of “eavesdropping” on what the person to my right was reading.

It was the book Bringing Up Boys by James Dobson. The passage at the top of the page he was reading (page 15, to be precise) said:

“Think for a moment about the above quotes from Steinem, Greer, and the other early feminists. Most of them were never married, didn’t like children, and deeply resented men, yet they advised millions of women on how to raise their children and, especially, how to produce healthy boys. There is no evidence that Steinem or Greer ever had any significant experience with children of either sex. Isn’t it interesting that the media (to my knowledge) never homed in on that incongruity? And isn’t it sad that these women were allowed to twist and warp the attitudes of a generation of kids?”

What I was reading was like a sort of Ode on a Grecian Urn of Nonsense, a perfection in stupidity. How did Dobson know that early feminists “deeply resented men” and “didn’t like children”? That damn mainstream media dropped the ball again, by refusing to expose the perfidy of people fighting for basic human rights. I’m not even sure what the evidence is for either Steinem or Greer “advis[ing] millions of women on how to raise children”. Sure, I know they wrote on the subject, but as an adolescent at the time, I don’t recall a lot of my peers’ parents following Greer’s advice to raise us like Tahitians. I don’t recall a single lavalava being worn to classes in my high school.

Seven Deadly Sins Sunday: Gluttony Part 3

 

In Part 1 of “Gluttony”, we set up the concept of Seven Deadly Synapses the book.

 

 

In Part 2, we looked at how an Oreo cookie is broken down and ends up either becoming a part of us, or being released in the toilet.

In this Sunday’s installment, we’ll see how chemicals in our brain and even the bacteria that live in our gut drive this process.


Gluttony

Part 3

The brain not only keeps us from suffering social embarrassment from anal leakage, but also has a huge role in determining when, where, and what we eat. If gluttony is a sin, it resides in the brain, not in the automated parts of the gut that lie outside of our control. The brain is a complex organ. There are, scientists estimate, 100 billion nerve cells, about the same number of nerve cells as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Each of these nerve cells makes connections with 10,000 others, on average. To make sense of such a complex organ, it’s convenient to think in terms of levels of organization, and for our purposes, we’ll consider four levels.

Nerve activity in the gut is in waves, which is what moves materials through the gut by peristalsis. Photo: Rolf Hicker http://www.hickerphoto.com/

The intestines form a tube, and all along that tube is a gut nervous system. We saw this earlier when we were talking about peristalsis, the milking action of the bowel. This is a sort of  “housekeeping” function, which occurs to a greater or lesser extent throughout a lifetime. Nerve cells fire in waves, like the ebb and flow of the ocean, and like the ocean the waves can be big or little, or can come in frequently or less frequently, but they’re always there. The gut nervous system, called the enteric nervous system, is influenced by the content of the gut as well. More about this later.

Seven Deadly Sins Sunday: Gluttony Part 2

Each Sunday, I’m excerpting a chapter of The Seven Deadly Synapses, a book on the neuroscience of sin. In this series, we’re examining the sin of Gluttony.

In part 1 of “Gluttony”, we didn’t get to the scientific part. It was mostly just a warm-up. Now it’s time to figure out how the taste system sends a signal to the brain, and how the digestive system handles food.

 


Gluttony

Part 2

For most of mankind’s history, eating has been the key to staying alive and so has been a human’s main job. Most of a person’s waking hours were devoted to getting calories, processing calories into a healthy and digestible form, and storing calories for future needs. The word “famine” appears 107 times in the King James Version of the Christian Bible (including the passage shown here, that describes a famine so severe that a mother boils and eats her son); “hunger” 60 times; “starve”, “starving”, “starvation”, 19 times. Other religious texts show a similar historical fixation with either metaphorical or real hunger: the word is used 74 times in the Qur’an, and only 18 times in the Upanishads. Gluttony is likely to be a sin mostly because it revels in the flaunting of what mankind has struggled so hard, for so many years, to achieve: nutrition.

 

To find food, and eat it, and to balance surfeit with famine, is the responsibility of a few thousand nerve cells in a pinky-end-sized hunk of brain called the hypothalamus. Just like the thermostat in your house keeps the household temperature close to where you want it to be, the hypothalamus is responsible for your body’s balancing acts, the processes and feedback loops that physiologists call “homeostatic mechanisms”. Like Goldilocks, we want our bodies to be “just right”. not too cold, not too hot; not too thin, not too fat; not too much breath, not too little. How the hypothalamus causes us mischief is the root of our story.

To Sleep, Perchance to Cause a Midair Collision

Recent incidents with air traffic controllers have pointed up the hazards of shift work and the supremacy of the circadian rhythm. In one recent case, an air ambulance was forced to land at 2 a.m. without local air traffic controller guidance at Reno-Tahoe International Airport.

These recent incidents have pointed up the existence and causes of what medical science calls Shift Work Sleep Disorder, or SWSD. It’s not clear how many people are affected by SWSD, but it’s probably a fairly significant chunk of the 15% of Americans who perform night-shift work.

Lead (battery) balloon

When I was 19, I dropped out of school for a time and took a job working in a plant that melted down lead plates from car batteries and turned them into lead ingots. The lead ingots were then sold back to AC Delco and other manufacturers of lead-acid batteries.

My job was to maintain the efficiency of the blast furnace by climbing two stories to its top, where there was a small hole about twice the diameter of a pencil. I’d stick a hollow metal rod inside. On the cooler end of the rod was a hand pump and a toy balloon for collecting the gases. Then I’d bring the balloon back to the lab, rushing so that the entire thing didn’t leak, and run the gases through a chromatograph, an instrument that separated the gases by size. I’d report this to the engineers in the morning. These data would tell the engineers, who wore white hardhats, whether the furnace needed more air, or more fuel, to burn efficiently.

Seven Deadly Sins Sunday: Gluttony Part 1

Every Sunday, I’ll print an excerpt from the upcoming book Seven Deadly Sins. Because alliteration is a virtue, not a sin, I’m calling this feature “Seven Deadly Sins Sunday”. Other days of the week will be devoted to other things, but on Sunday we’ll examine the neuroscience of sin.

Everyone wants to read about Lust, but that’s a cheap shot and I want to keep you wanting more, not sated after the first few Sunday posts. So I’m going to start with gluttony. (I mixed a little Lust in just to keep your interest.)

 


Gluttony

Brain science is a big field. With so much scientific real estate to cover, there are not one, but several Holy Grails. You could define the Holy Grail of Neuroscience many different ways. Maybe it’s a rare piece of scientific evidence that makes all the other pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Maybe it’s the chance laboratory finding that helps billions of humans lead healthier lives. Maybe it’s a secret that makes you rich beyond your wildest imagination. I’m sure neuroscientists would disagree on which of these is the most desirable, but if I got to choose, I’d go for all three at once — I’d figure out how to make people eat only healthy foods, and only the food they need. I’d slay gluttony.

Searching for the Holy Grail of Neuroscience will likely involve Killer Rabbits.

Liberally Thinking: Red Brain, Blue Brain

I was at a dinner party, held at a huge mansion lit with gaslamps. We were in one of the most conservative neighborhoods in one of the most conservative states in the union. But this was a party filled with liberals, and the whole enterprise had a feel like we were teenagers who had taken over someone’s parent’s house while they were away on a European vacation.

Sandra Irby had a conversational point to make, an amuse bouche for the group of a half-dozen of us huddled around a Louis XVI coffee table. “I know stupid conservatives, and I know smart conservatives.”

We all nodded at the “smart conservatives” part. Some of my best friends could put William Buckley to shame in the brains (and political orientation) department.

“But I don’t know any stupid liberals. Do you?”

“Teddy Kennedy,” I offered, citing his fatal error at Chappaquiddick.

Edward Kennedy leaves court at Edgartown, surrounded by state troopers. Source: AP.