‘Innate’ fear of snakes?

Live Science has a recent piece, Why We Fear Snakes, written by Clara Moskowitz. I have to admit that, well, I hate this sort of thing for so many reasons that I hesitate to write. My problem with these accounts is with ‘innate’; I think the term is, generally, poorly defined, unprovable and unproven, sloppy, theoretically suspect, and freighted with so many dangerous implications that it gives me, for want of a better word, the heebie-jeebies.

Before I get too critical, however, it’s necessary to acknowledge that some of the assumptions I’ll critique may have, likely have, arisen in the translation of a complex research project into a few hundred words for a popular press account. God knows my own work has suffered when it’s been translated into popular formats (don’t even get started about a CNN special on race that I was interviewed for…). We’re encouraged to do outreach to the community, to put our specialties up on ‘expert’ databases and basically pimp ourselves for any positive reference, so we wind up bending over backwards to make our ideas accessible. This can lead us to stumble, especially in the view of a discipline that doesn’t share our concerns. For example, if I were to try to give an accessible account of my work, a neuroscientists would likely gag on some of the explanatory shortcuts. So some of the criticisms that I will level might be better applied to the science writer rather than the researchers; we’ll know when the research findings are eventually published. Caveats in place, on with it…

Apparently, the Psychology Department at the University of Virginia has a couple of scholars studying the ‘universal’ fear of snakes. The piece says what one might expect: ‘The researchers were inspired to investigate the fear of snakes when they thought about how universally people dislike the slithering legless lizards. “This feeling is really common,” [Vanessa] LoBue told LiveScience. “We don’t see snakes all the time. There’s really no reason for this overwhelming disgust or hatred of snakes.”‘ The researchers demonstrated this universal fear by showing that both adults and children ‘could detect images of snakes among a variety of non-threatening objects more quickly than they could pinpoint frogs, flowers or caterpillars.’ And the explanation is that an innate fear of snakes would have made humans more likely to survive in the wild.

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A Round Up


Benedict Carey, When People Drink Themselves Silly, and Why
Addresses the links between heavy drinking and social context, quite a nice piece summarizing some key anthropological and social psychological research 

Jeneen Interlandi, What Addicts Need
The polar opposite of the Carey piece, arguing for a psychobiological approach to understanding addiction.

First Peek into Deepest Recesses of Human Brain
Advances in neuroimaging of the ventral tegmental area.

Drinking Makes Heart Grow More Sorrowful, Study Finds
Drinking helps lock memories in place, at least in this rat research

Radley Balko, Better Dead Than High
Death as a social deterrent, based on restricting access of naloxene for overdoses

Jennifer Vineyard, ‘Harry Potter’ Is Addictive, Study Concludes
Withdrawal and craving after the series ends…

Mental Health

Paige Parvin, Why Is This Man Smiling
The Dalai Lama and Emory scientists team up to examine happiness

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Taking Play Seriously

When I lived in Nigeria, I used to cross the city of Calabar to visit the defunct zoo, taking food for the animals—a constrictor snake, some crocodiles, a male drill monkey—still trapped in cages.  Jacob, a large juvenile chimpanzee, lived in that zoo in a cage roughly ten feet by ten feet.  As I walked onto the zoo grounds, Jacob would greet me with an exuberant pant-hoot and I would respond back (my Intro to Anthro students are endlessly amused when I demonstrate my pant-hooting skills).  Though I carried food for him, what Jacob most wanted to do was play with me. 

Jacob loved to play tag first, swinging back and forth across the front of his thickly barred cage, sticking a hand out to see if I could catch it.  We would rush back and forth together, Jacob generally favoring the role of being chased.  Then we’d settle down for some tickling.  Believe me, being tickled by a chimpanzee is, I am sure, rather what my boys feel when I get overly excited about tickling them. 

Jacob’s fingers were powerful, and his arms more so, but I made myself laugh in the chortling sound of chimpanzees.  If he got too strong, I could simply let out a sound of pain and he’d stop.  Then we’d get started again, because of course I loved to tickle him back.  I remember times, our heads together, pressed against the bars, his hand at the back of my neck, my fingers digging into his ribs.  It was such fun, yet I never could quite shake the thought in that moment that he could crush my head so easily against the bars. 
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The Rat Park

Here’s a great article on some of my favorite research, how creating a Rat Park (i.e., paradise for rats), leads to remarkably low rates of spontaneous drug use rates among animal models.  As the article goes, this research by Bruce Alexander “led him to conclude that drugs — even such hard drugs as heroin and cocaine — do not cause addiction; the user’s environment does.”  The Rat Trap piece over at The Walrus Magazine goes on to examine the Rat Park research, and then Alexander’s subsequent work on environmental causes for addiction.

One good quote: “Alexander’s research reveals that addiction rates are low when societies are stable, and they rise at times of social disruption. ‘The extreme case is the aboriginal people,’ he says. ‘You don’t have anything identifiable as addiction until you screw up their culture, and then alcoholism becomes a major problem. In extreme cases, addiction rates can go from zero to close to 100 percent.’  Such spikes suggest that environment is a stronger determinant of addiction than chemistry. As Alexander puts it, if you put a carton of eggs under a hydraulic press, it’s true some of the eggs will crack before others, but the problem isn’t the eggs. It’s the press.”

Still, understanding which eggs will crack, and why; and how and why specific cracks happen, and not other cracks, all provide an important role for more proximate research.  It is that mix, of environment through individuals down to mechanisms and then back out, which is particularly challenging but interesting in addiction.  And, in the end, that type of research might lead us to develop theoretical models that will go beyond treating either environments or genetics as hydraulic press models, imprinting us with their forms.  In any case, for getting started, it is crucial to recognize the context, the overall lay of the land, and Alexander’s work provides us one good (though not complete, for me at least) perspective on that.

Tools, mirrors and the expandable body

Michael Balter writes in Science NOW Daily News, Tool Use Is Just a Trick of the Mind, about recent research led by Italian neuroscientist, Giacomo Rizzolatti of the University of Parma, head of the team responsible for discovering ‘mirror neurons’ (which I’ve been banging on about for a while, here and here). Rizzolatti’s team was looking at how primate brains managed to do the same tasks with hands and with tools. As Balter describes the research: ‘So how did primates learn to use tools in the first place? A new study in monkeys suggests that the brain’s trick is to treat tools as just another body part.’

Two monkeys were trained from six to eight months to grasp food with pliers. Then the team documented the activity of 113 neurons in areas F5 and F1, a region linked to manipulating objects. How did the monkeys’ motor areas act when using the tools?

The researchers first established the brain’s firing sequence when the monkeys grasped only with their hands. The experiment was then repeated while the monkeys used normal pliers that required first opening the hand and then closing it to grasp the food. The same neurons fired in the same order. Remarkably, the same neurons also fired, in the same order, when the monkeys used “reverse pliers” that required them to close their fingers first and then open them to take the food, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Balter summarize their conclusions: ‘Rizzolatti and his co-workers conclude that when learning to use a tool, the pattern of neuronal activity is somehow transferred from the hand to the tool, “as if the tool were the hand of the monkey and its tips were the monkey’s fingers.”‘

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Pets, health and our extended phenotype

There’s a fun piece in The New York Times on The Healing Power of Dogs that discusses a wide range of health effects linked to pet ownership. The article briefly discusses a range of research that has linked pet ownership to health benefits. For example:

One Japanese study found pet owners made 30 percent fewer visits to doctors. A Melbourne study of 6,000 people showed that owners of dogs and other pets had lower cholesterol, blood pressure and heart attack risk compared with people who didn’t have pets. Obviously, the better health of pet owners could be explained by a variety of factors, but many experts believe companion animals improve health at least in part by lowering stress.

This research is fascinating in its own right, especially for a person who’s only recently started to live around animals… a lot of animals (at last count, 8 horses, 1 horse expecting a foal, 2 cats, 2 dogs, innumerable wild birds, kangaroos and wallabies all wandering onto the property). I’ve noticed a huge difference in my health and mood since the change, but it’s hard to separate the effects of having Basil and Roxy (the dogs), Glitz and Glam (the cats), or the bigger monkeys around (the horses). But the research discussed also touches on two issues that I think are of particular importance to those of us interested in neuroanthropology and the biology-culture interface.

Edited version
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