Is reality all in the brain?

A new study links a subtle fold in the brain, the paracingulate sulcus or PCS, with the ability to remember what happened vs. what was imagined. The smaller the structure, the more likely test subjects were to misremember who said what or to take imagining a word for speaking it. It was only a small study: 53 people. And cause and effect have not been proven. But it’s suggestive. And imagine the implications for conspiracy theories or religious conviction!

A hair-dryer kids in a toaster-brained world

This series of articles, from MOM – Not Otherwise Specified, gives an insight into autistic children’s feelings & behaviour: A hair-dryer kid in a toaster-brained world.

Spiders and snakes

It’s interesting that so many people are afraid of spiders (or bugs) and snakes. I’m afraid of spiders, even though they are so much smaller, but I like snakes. I wonder how much is learned and how much inherent. My parents were careful to raise me without irrational fears; my mother at least concealed her own so as not to pass them on. My brother, on the other hand, when I told him that I was talking myself out of a fear of spiders, took care to reinforce it.

But in Africa, where there are more venomous snakes (and more-venomous snakes) than in North America, chimpanzees are said to have an instinctive fear of snakes. I don’t know how they react to spiders. I noticed recently that my cat reacts with what seems to be instinctive fear. I gently tossed a belt I was going to wear onto the bed where she was dozing, and she startled and jumped away sideways. The only explanation I could think of was that it looked vaguely snakelike. She’s an urban cat and I very much doubt that she has ever seen a snake. She does hunt mice and even rats.

On the other hand, I have two younger cats who are avid hunters. They more than once brought home long strips of spongy weatherstripping putty, seemingly because it was snakelike. Am I reading too much into this? I mean, they also bring home small stuffed toys to wrestle with, and I can hardly claim that stuffed toys are a natural prey item.

Hat tip to the Kelosophy blog.

News flash: discrimination makes victims uncomfortable

Discrimination and stereotyping hurt: “Creation museum causes discomfort for some.”

The guards at the creation ‘museum’ are heavily armed, supposedly because of death threats. I don’t for one minute think that anyone has written to them threatening violence against museum staff or patrons.

Quoting Martha Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum has argued persuasively that our sense of ‘disgust’ gets tied in with morality and we come to make erroneous moral judgements as a result, for instance in condemnations of homosexuality:

I use the term “projective disgust” to characterize the disgust that many people feel when they imagine gay sex acts. What does that term mean, and to whom does it apply? The view I develop, on the basis of recent psychological research, is that projective disgust has its origin in a discomfort with one’s own body and its messier animal aspects, including sexuality, and that, in a defense mechanism, disgust is then projected outward onto vulnerable groups who are characterized as hyperphysical and hypersexual. In this way, the uncomfortable people displace their discomfort onto others, who are then targeted for various forms of social discrimination.

‘I’m only faking it: I’m not really making it’

‘…This feeling of fakin’ it—I still haven’t shaken it.’

Simon and Garfunkel had a point there. Scientific American Mind for September 2010 has an article on the costs of faking it.

Faking It: Why Wearing Designer Knockoffs May Have Hidden Psychological Costs
Polishing your self-image with counterfeit goods may lead to lying, cheating and cynicism

By Wray Herbert

… Three scientists—Francesca Gino of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University… want to find out if counterfeit labels might have hidden psychological costs….

To do that, they ran a couple of different studies. In one, young women were given expensive Chloé sunglasses to wear. The women were randomly divided into two groups: half of them were told that they were wearing counterfeits of the designer product.

The researchers wanted to see if wearing counterfeit shades—a form of dishonesty—might make the women act dishonestly in other ways.

They asked the subjects each to solve a complicated set of mathematical puzzles, but deliberately did not give them enough time to finish. They then asked the subjects to report their own scores and accept payment for each puzzle solved.

The women who thought they were wearing the fake Chloé shades cheated more—considerably more. Fully 70 percent inflated their performance when they thought nobody was checking on them—and, in effect, stole cash from the coffer. By comparison, “only” 30 percent of the group who knew they wore authentic Chloés cheated.

In another test, the subjects were asked to report the distribution of dots on a video screen.

Choosing “left” earned them half a cent, and choosing “right” earned them five cents, regardless of whether the answer was correct. In other words, the task forced a choice between a correct answer and the more profitable answer. And again the women wearing what they believed to be knockoffs pocketed the petty cash much more often than did their peers who knew they wore the authentic shades…. it was the very act of wearing the so-called knockoffs that was triggering the dishonesty.

The scientists went on to find that wearing “counterfeit” sunglasses turned people cynical:

…if wearing counterfeit stuff makes people feel inauthentic and behave unethically, might they see others as phony and unethical, too? To test this, the scientists again handed out genuine and supposedly counterfeit Chloé shades, but this time they had the volunteers complete a survey about “people they knew.” Would these people use an express line with too many groceries? Pad an expense report? Take home office supplies? There were also more elaborate scenarios involving business ethics and a series of statements (“my GPA is 4.0”) that the volunteers had to rate as likely to be true or more likely to be a lie. The idea was that all the answers taken together would characterize each volunteer as having a generally positive view of others—or a cynical one.

The result? Cynical, without question. Compared with volunteers who were wearing authentic Chloé glasses, those who had been told that they were wearing knockoffs saw other people as more dishonest, less truthful and more likely to act unethically in business dealings.

So what’s going on here? Ironically, as the scientists reported in the May issue of Psychological Science, wearing counterfeit glasses not only fails to bolster our ego and self-image the way we hope, it actually undermines our internal sense of authenticity. “Faking it” makes us feel like phonies and cheaters on the inside, and this alienated, counterfeit “self” leads to cheating and cynicism in the real world.

Counterfeiting is a serious economic and social problem, epidemic in scale. Most people buy these fake brand-name items because they are a lot cheaper than the real deal, but this research suggests that a hidden moral cost has yet to be tallied.

Improve your life in less than a minute

Yesterday I got an advance copy of Richard Wiseman’s latest book, which among other things looks at whether various self-improvement or happiness strategies work, based on research instead of wishful thinking. It’s called “59 Seconds”.

Disclaimer: I have nothing to do with Richard Wiseman, a cognitive psychologist from England, except that I’ve twice heard him speak and own three of his four(?) books.

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