Puzzles and Cultural Differences

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchHere’s some interesting research where neuroscientists are using brain scans to show that cultural differences reach down to the level of functional activation in the brain.  Americans had a harder time with visual puzzles that required manipulating objects in context than “East Asians.”  Here a quote from the news article:

 

Neuroscientists Trey Hedden and John Gabrieli of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research asked Americans and East Asians to solve basic shape puzzles while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. They found that both groups could successfully complete the tasks, but American brains had to work harder at relative judgments, while East Asian brains found absolute judgments more challenging. Previous psychology research has shown that American culture focuses on the individual and values independence, while East Asian culture is more community-focused and emphasizes seeing people and objects in context. This study provides the first neurological evidence that these cultural differences extend to brain activity patterns.

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Why We Love, The Time Magazine Version

Too bad Jeffrey Kluger didn’t pay closer attention to Hannibal Lecter.  He might have written a better article on “Why We Love,” out this week in Time Magazine, instead of giving us a flawed view of evolution and brain research.  Still, in furtive glimpses of data, rather than quick quotes and pop theories, another way to think about love glides onto stage. 

As I told my anthropology students yesterday, the initial assumptions we make so often dictate our ideas and our results.  But those assumptions are generally presented as “facts” or assertions of truth, part of an unassailable background.  So here are the ones packed into Kluger’s piece, right there at the beginning: (1) that humans rely on our wits, so “losing our faculties over a matter like sex” needs explaining (in other words, humans are rational, why have primitive passions); (2) that we evolved in a “savanna full of predators,” so getting distracted by love could be potentially dangerous, (3) that our genes have “concerns,” primary among them to make us reproduce as much as possible (“breed now and breed plenty gets that job done”), and (4) that we can extend these sorts of explanations to all “the rituals surrounding” sex, love and relationships (like a bunch of scientists drunk on their own ideas—explanatory expansion gone wild!). 
Continue reading “Why We Love, The Time Magazine Version”

Monkey Makes Robot Walk!

Where does this leave the evolution of human bipedalism?  Is there some mystery “bipedal instinct”?  A bipedal “organ” in the brain?  I’ll let you decide… 😉 

Here’s the article.  It’s a great piece about the importance of training, the relevance of a body (build it and the brain will come…), and the management of different tasks by different areas of the brain that work in conjunction.  For the culturally inclined, the study authors argue that for Idoya, the monkey in question, her “motor cortex, where the electrodes were implanted, had started to absorb the representation of the robot’s legs — as if they belonged to Idoya herself.”

Re-training the damaged brain

There’s a good article today, “Coaching the Comeback,” about an occupational therapist working with patients recovering from traumatic brain injuries.  From physical training, nerve stimulation and direct social interaction (e.g., maintaining eye contact, talking to them), the therapist helps her patients along.  It’s a nice summary of several themes that we’ve said in different ways about brains.  And, the therapist with her collection of skills, her education of families, her moral views on recovery also shows the importance of culture in interaction.  It’s also a nice story in itself…

Steven Pinker and the Moral Instinct

By Daniel Lende 

Steven Pinker is selling something.  Here’s what’s on the table: “the human moral sense turns out to be an organ of considerable complexity.”  This organ has been built into our brains by evolution, culture-free except for how its five domains (harm, fairness, community, authority, and purity) are “ranked” and “channeled” in different places around the globe.  Ready to buy? 

Let’s sweeten the deal.  Pinker is offering his “deeper look” which will help you “rethink your answers” about life and morality.  He’s providing “a more objective reckoning” to help people get over their moral “illusions.”  And he’s got the data to show it, from people in the lab, Web sites, and brain scanners.  (I can’t help asking, these are his moral examples?  People in artificial situations, people who don’t physically interact, and a series of images?)  Continue reading “Steven Pinker and the Moral Instinct”

Loneliness and Health: Experience, Stress, and Genetics

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchFeeling lonely?  Well, that might make you sick.  The mechanism?  Well, here’s the surprise.  Patterns of genetic expression.

 Here’s the press release from Genome Biology, “People who experience chronically high levels of loneliness show gene-expression patterns that differ markedly from those of people who don’t feel lonely.”  The study’s lead author, Steven Cole, notes: “In this study, changes in immune cell gene expression were specifically linked to the subjective experience of social distance.  The differences we observed were independent of other known risk factors for inflammation, such as health status, age, weight, and medication use. The changes were even independent of the objective size of a person’s social network. What counts, at the level of gene expression, is not how many people you know, it’s how many you feel really close to over time.”    Continue reading “Loneliness and Health: Experience, Stress, and Genetics”