Can Genes Send You High or Low? The Orchid Hypothesis A-Bloom


Author’s: This post is an expansion of a feature I published a few weeks ago in New Scientist. It draws from research for a book I’m now writing, The Orchid and the Dandelion (Crown; ETA 2015). I originally explored this subject, at more length (and with monkeys) in a November 2009 Atlantic article, “Orchid Children.” 

A few years ago, Arial Knafo, a psychologist at Jerusalem University, wanted to see if three-year-olds would share their bonbons. Snack time would come amid a bunch of other activity at Knafo’s lab — drawing, games, doll-making — whose real purpose was to disguise tests of prosocial behavior in these toddlers. The researcher, saying it was high time for a snack, would bring out two packages of Bambas, peanut-butter-flavored corn puffs much coveted in Israel. The child’s pack, like every pack, would hold 24 of the little treats. But when the researcher opened her pack, she would cry out in dismay, dump the bag out on her plate, and say, “Ohhh, mine has only three!” Which it did, because the researcher had earlier removed the rest. Would the child share her bigger treasure without being asked?

Most did not. This was expected. “The average child,” says Knafo, “will help or share without being asked less than one in three times. Self-initiated sharing is a difficult task — they have to detect the need, then decide to do it.”  A few 3-year-olds, however, will do it far more often than their counterparts. And in Knafo’s study, the ones who tended to share more were kids carrying what is generally considered a risk gene for antisocial behavior: DRD4-7R, a variant of a dopamine-processing gene called DRD4. In a pile of previous studies, 7R kids, if they had harsh or distant parents, were far more likely to develop attention, social, conduct, and school problems. These studies had given the DRD4‘s 7R variant a reputation as a “vulnerability gene” — bad news. People had dubbed it the ADHD gene, the drinking gene, the bully gene, even the slut gene. Now Knafo, in effect, was calling it the Bamba-sharing gene.

Continue reading →

Neurocritic Asks: Does the Human Dorsal Stream Really Process Elongated Vegetables?

You can’t make this stuff up. Neurocritic on a roll here. But there was part of me that wanted nothing beyond the title and the opening graphic and caption:

Does the Human Dorsal Stream Really Process Elongated Vegetables?


What do zucchini and hammers have in common? Both might be processed by the dorsal stream.

Believe it or not, there’s real science here. Get the rest at The Neurocritic: Does the Human Dorsal Stream Really Process Elongated Vegetables?.

Maybe The Coolest Dance Film Ever – Or Is It Film Dancing?

The film comes straight via the invaluable Snarkmarket. It looks like something out of film class, but the video itself is undoctored: The dance is shot as it appeared to the audience, without cuts or angle changes. But as the audience’s excitement makes clear, it came off the stage as it comes off the screen here: as something that’s not just dance, but dance plus something else —  something the dance itself created. And that something is film, essentially; they’ve used  TRON-inspired suits and some very slick lighting choreography to create effects that would never have been conceived outside of filmic history and language. Beautiful, startling stuff.

As Robin Sloan puts it at Snarkmarket:

It’s ostensibly TRON-themed, but that’s irrelevant to its coolness.

What makes it so great is the way that it puts the techniques of video editing—freeze frames, jump cuts, motion trails—back up on stage, live. (And of course now we’re watching it on video again. I love the flip-flop: from digital to analog to digital to analog to…)

You actually see a lot of this in dance these days. To me, popping and locking and the stuttering, slow-mo dance moves on display (e.g.) here are basically inconceivable without video. We need to see human bodies moving this way on screens before we can imagine moving them that way out on the street.

Via Michael Donohoe.

If you need more, this mashup of Russian mil dancers and hip-hop provides another sort of meta-merge pleasure. I love this thing:

Trash Talk From An 80-Year-Old Hitter: “Throw Me A Real Pitch!”

Neurogeek Bradley Voytek describes how he met neuroanatomist Marian Diamond — on the softball diamond. He was a Ph.D. student in neuroscience. She was a very senior faculty member, close on 80 at the time, according to Voytek:

We were at the neuroscience picnic during the first year of my PhD. I was pitching in the softball game and she came up to bat.

She was about 80 years old at the time.

I lobbed her a soft pitch and–I kid you not–she grabbed it out the air with one hand while still holding the bat with the other and says to me, “No. Throw me a real pitch,” and throws the ball back to me.

She’s an amazing woman.

via Oscillatory Thoughts: The Neural Correlates of Cake.

Sharing Nicely With Gorillas, and Other Adventures in Genetic Misunderstanding

Western Lowland Gorilla

Evolutionary anthropologist John Hawks, eagle-eyed as ever, calls out a common mistake made by one expert in a response to findings in the gorilla genome:

The Nature News story on the gorilla genome includes this section relevant to the evolution of hearing in gorillas and humans:

[from the Nature story:] Some of these rapid changes are puzzling: the gene LOXHD1 is involved in hearing in humans and was therefore thought to be involved in speech, but the gene shows just as much accelerated evolution in the gorilla. “But we know gorillas don’t talk to each other — if they do they’re managing to keep it secret,” says Scally.

“This weakens the connection between the gene and language,” says [Wolfgang] Enard. “If you find this in the gorilla, this option is out of the window.”

[back to Hawks:]

This is one of the genes that I have been working on with reference to its acceleration on the human lineage. It is a mistake to view the evolution of hearing to be directed specifically to language; instead human and gorilla lineages are both adapting to a aural environment different from ancestral hominoids. In both these lineages, there was an increase in body size and reduction in the mean frequency of vocalizations, enough to prompt adaptive changes. In humans, we have had additionally the addition of language as a communication system, which has its own auditory requirements. The connection with language is only indirect, in that human-specific changes to this and other genes provide evidence of adaptive change in the auditory system.

Hawks addresses what strikes me as a common error in thinking about genes, traits, and evolution: The assumption that when we talk of a gene or a trait and its role in evolution, it’s tempting to think that because that gene or trait helped create an outcome, then it more or less codes FOR that outcome. Thus a gene that seems necessary for understanding speech, Hawks argues here, has been mistaken as essentially coding specifically for that ability,r ather than creating sub-abilities, as it were, that underlie the “final” trait  that we happen to focus on, which in this case is comprehending speech. An equivalent might be mistaking, say, a LIMBO2 gene, which helps build limbs, as necessary to wings, when in fact it simply helps create limbs — legs or arms in some species, wings in birds.

Implicit here is another mistake: overlooking the multigenic nature of complex traits and abilities. How might the LOXHD1 gene be crucial to both gorillas and humans but (help) generate different auditory traits in each? Because it works with different sets of other genes in the two species, and, of course, vastly different physical and social environments.

This isn’t a dumb mistake. In fact it’s quite understandable and thus easy to make. All the more reason to be aware of it.

See Gorilla genomics and hearing evolution | john hawks weblog

Also Kerri Smith’s sharp write-up of the gorilla genome findings at Nature, and another by Alok Jha at the Guardian, which along with being quite sharp, wins the cute-photo award for the day.

Image: Western Lowland Gorilla, by just chaos. Some rights reserved.

SMILE: A Simple Act Becomes a Too-Simple eBook

As I noted a few days ago, I’m now one of the editor-reviewers at Download The Universe, a site dedicated to reviewing ebooks about science. My colleagues, there, who include some of science writing’s best, have already reviewed books on exoplanets, superorganisms, doomsday, and contagious cancer, to name only the most recent. Below is my first review, of a book about smiling. I regret I wasn’t terribly happy with it.


Smile cover

SMILE: The Astonishing Power of a Simple Act, by Ron Gutman. TED Books, 2011. Kindle /Nook / iBookstore

Reviewed by David Dobbs

Sometimes when I encounter writing I especially admire, I like to type it out. Say, Nabokov, in The Luzhin Defense, describing his heroine taking a bath amid marital confusion:

As she immersed herself in the bath she watched the tiny water bubbles gathering on her skin and on the sinking, porous sponge. Settling down up to the neck, she saw herself through the already slightly soapy water, her body thin and almost transparent, and when a knee came just barely out of the water, this round, glistening, pink island was somehow unexpected in its unmistakable corporeality.

I type such passages because it seems they might rub off. So when for some reason the passages I had highlighted in my Kindle version of the book under review here, SMILE: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act, did not carry from my reading device to my Amazon Kindle highlights web page, where normally I would be able to select and copy them, I frowned, because this malfunction meant that to show you any passages from this book I would have to re-type them, and I feared, dear reader, and still fear, that they might rub off. I will have to read a lot of Nabokov to make up for this.

The problem begins with the beginning, where precisely 11% of this e-book, according to my Kindle, is devoted to setting up a punchline that the title has already shouted loud. The author, a Palo Alto entrepreneur named Ron Gutman, who truly does seem like a nice guy, opens by describing a bus ride he once took in Africa. The driver and all Gutman’s fellow passengers greet glumly his foreign face, language, and clothing, then leave him sitting alone, isolated on the crowded bus. After a couple hours of this dusty bus ride, and many, many words, he springs his surprise:

I decided to try something different and do something entirely unexpected. It was time to pull out the special power I had learned and brought with me from my interactions with people I had met during my previous travels through Asia and India, when I had connected with people from other cultures who did not speak any of the languages that I do.

I smiled.

I smiled at everyone around me. I smiled indiscriminately, I smiled widely, I smiled continuously. Whether people looked at me or not, I smiled at them. Although no one responded to my smiles, I started to feel better.⁠

They do eventually respond, of course, and soon the whole bus is smiling. Thus this book is born:

In the heart of a foreign land, away from development and infrastructure, in a closed environment where I looked and felt like an outsider, stuck in a situation where it seemed I could not talk to or understand others, and in the midst of unusual tension that I could not understand or explain, I became aware of the hidden power of the smile⁠.

This smiling reveal may have worked on the bus, and it works, mostly, sort of, in Gutman’s 7-minute TED talk. It does not work on the page. As I seem to remember someone once saying rather cruelly of another writer I’ll leave unnamed: What’s important is not new, and what’s new is not important.* And everything is repeated.

Did you know, for instance, that people everywhere smile? This means smiling is universal. Even more amazing: Your smile not only makes the people you smile at feel better, it makes you feel better too. Also, on a separate page very nearby, even as smiling makes you feel better, it makes others feel better! Or did I say that? Anyway, smiling at people also makes them think that you are both more competent and more friendly than they would think otherwise — and, incredibly, your smile also makes them feel more friendly and competent. Plus better.

This can change things. Indeed, if you think about it, smiles have “incredible transformative powers.” Smiles “can dramatically and quickly change social situations, breaking down barriers while forming connections and fostering happiness.” They can also, even as soon as one paragraph later, “create rapport and a human connection.”

Gutman finds this all astonishing — although he usually says “amazing,” presumably to reserve “astonishing” for the book’s subtitle. He is explicitly amazed, in fact, 12 times. (Beware, authors, the power of the Kindle to count your crutch words.) Overall, I would say, what amazes him most is the smile’s astonishing power to make things better. He remarks on this power to make things “better” at least 25 times. It excites him. So he exclaims! Alas, Kindle will not find and count exclamation points. Damn!

Mechanisms emerge. Smiling, Gutman tells us, sets up a feedback loop:

Screen Shot 2012-02-28 at 9.30.56 AM

To glaze this donut, Gutman turns to science. He finds many studies but, apparently, few commas. Did you know, for instance, that “in two separate studies examining thousands of pictures taken from 1968 through 1993 and 1970 through 1999 researchers discovered that 55 percent to 60 percent of men and 80 percent of women smile in photos from pleasant public situations”? Me either.

Why do people smile so? Because “smiling makes us feel and look better, both to ourselves and to others.” It was about here that my frown began to turn to fury, for while Gutman had related this fact at least ten times already, I was only, my Kindle cruelly revealed, 62% of the way through the book, which was way too far and hardly far enough. Then, in case I’d forgotten this crucial message while checking my progress, he used the next sentence to tell me an eleventh time.

The glaze accrues. “Under certain conditions, when men see women smile at them they interpret that as a sign that the women think they are attractive.” I would never have guessed. Lest I resist this news, however, Gutman offers a study showing that a women who smiles at male patrons as she enters a bar will get hit on far more often than she would if she simply makes eye contact as she walks in — which to me seems a brave enough thing itself. Same goes in libraries, One researcher, in fact, “ended up marrying one of her test subjects who first approached her because of her smile!” Exclamation point his.

Scan studies too enter the picture, arriving as thin, obvious, inevitable, and alluring as a pharmaceutical sales rep at a doctor’s office. One fMRI study, for instance — of 28 moms, which is only a few more than the number of times Gutman mentions this effect — showed that Mommy’s pleasure centers light up when Baby smiles. Other scan studies show that a single smile can bring the brain as much pleasure as 2000 chocolate bars or $25,000. Someone tell the chocolate people they’re wildly underpricing. And for me, please hold the smile; I’ll take the cash.

What can we do with this information? Gutman offers suggestions. Smile. Smile at strangers. Smile at yourself. Smile the first thing on waking. Smile when you’re skydiving. Smile while you’re giving natural childbirth. Offers one smiley devotee, “I smiled through my natural, drug-free labor and fully believe it transformed the whole experience. I recommend smiling to all women going through childbirth.” I would love to have seen this woman recommend that to my wife as she was being wheeled down the hall for a c-section after 40 hours of labor and 4 hours of pushing. In fact, to test the astonishing power of this recommendation, I just now read it aloud to my wife. Her reaction makes me long to see this woman offer her this advice even now. She wouldn’t be smiling when she finished.

I don’t mean to be cruel. I’m actually fairly smiley myself. But this book, which as a TED book is supposed to be about “a powerful idea,” is a fatty concoction of neuropop, adventure travel, self-help, California woo, and Palo Alto entrepreneurial gush. It pushes positive thinking across some mathematical warp zone that renders it negative. I suspect it would make even the father of positive thinking, Norman Vincent Peale, just fwow wight up.

But don’t take my word for it. I’ll give Gutman a chance to close the deal. Elipses are his:

So, whenever you want to look great, sociable, and competent, or whenever you want to reduce your stress or improve your marriage, or whenever you want to feel as if you’ve just had a huge stack of high-quality chocolate (without incurring the caloric cost) or as if you’ve just found $25,000 in the pocket of an old jacket you haven’t work for ages…. Or when you want to earn the trust of others so you can change the world for the better…. Or when you just want to help yourself and others around you live longer, healthier happier lives … SMILE.

At that I believe I did smile, or at least grimace with relief, for I had finally reached the end.

Roy Scheider’s with me on this, by the way:

Thanks, Ed Yong, for the tip on the vid.

Do check out the other reviews at Download The Universe. We’re running a fresh one every day or two.


Contagious Cancers, Cool Astronauts, Cold Cadavers: Neuron Culture’s Best of February 2012

Vacation made me late getting to this, but here are Neuron Culture’s Top Five from February, plus a couple notables that didn’t make the cut.

Decoding a Contagious Devil-Killing Cancer

“Rudolph’s condition gave her pause. He was a two-year-old, nicely grown since she had first trapped him, his red nose healed . . . but there was something on the edge of his right eye. A pink growth, no bigger than a caper. “Oh shit,” she said. Tumor? Or maybe it was just a little wound, puffy and raw. She looked closely. She peered into his mouth. She palpated lymph nodes at the base of his jaw. The volunteers and I waited in silence.”

No Contest: The Coolest Astronaut Photograph Ever

Pictured above: John Glenn, 50 years ago last month, taking his ease on the deck of USS Noa, which plucked him from the Atlantic after he rode a rocket into space and rode round Earth 4 times before plunging through fire back into the atmosphere and smashing into the ocean. A good morning’s work. Plus the shoes.

Is Sensitivity a Curse or a Blessing? My Latest on The Orchid-Dandelion Hypothesis

My latest on the orchid-dandelion hypothesis. Full version to come shortly.

Open Science Revolt Occupies Congress

The open-science revolt, catalyzed just a few weeks ago as a reaction to publisher Elsevier’s backing of a clumsy bill introduced to the U.S. .Congress, now has a champion in that Congress, Representative Mike Doyle, a Democrat of Pennsylvania, who has introduced legislation to encourage open access to government-sponsored science. It’s notable that this bill, the Federal Research Public Access Act, seems to have bipartisan support in both houses, including from some, such as Texas’s Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who aren’t exactly of the the radical left. From Doyle’s office

What An Autopsy Looks Like — And Why You Need One

As people milled and talked, the assistant sank a scalpel into the flesh behind the man’s ear and began cutting a high arc behind the rear crown of the skull. When he reached the other ear, he pulled the scalp’s flesh away from the skull a bit, crimped a towel over the front edge of the opening he had made and, using it for grip, pulled the scalp forward over the man’s head. When he was done, the man’s skull lay completely exposed and his inside-out scalp covered his face down to his mouth.

And a couple personal favorites that didn’t make the top 5:

Dissing the Disabled Without Data: A Biologist Mom Punches Back

Wonderful guest post from Emily Willingham:

I’m going to call this Emily’s Law. It’s the law that if your child has a developmental disorder and you’re middle class, eventually someone will accuse you of being in denial about the real nature of your child’s problem, which boils down to either your bad parenting or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).

Madness, Genius, & Sherman’s Ruthless March

How can a decision to sack a city and destroy an entire region’s infrastructure be a sign of empathy? Sherman’s decision can seem sociopathic –  the work of a mind that understands others’ suffering only so he can exploit it. Yet it’s hard to square such a view of Sherman with the extraordinary letter that Ghaemi excerpts in his book.

Careful Erasing Those Memories, Says the Memory Master

Should we erase memories? Recently, in a recent, fascinating Wired feature, my friend and Wired colleague Jonah Lehrer looked at the looming possibility that we will soon be able to do so. Today, in an excellent interview in the New York Times, neuroscientist Eric Kandel, who rightly won a Nobel for discovering memory’s fundamental mechanisms, warns against wielding this power too liberally.

Early in the interview Kandel remembers being run out of his native Austria by the Nazis:

How old were you when the Nazis marched into Vienna?

I was 8 ½. Immediately, we saw that our lives were in danger. We were completely abandoned by our non-Jewish friends and neighbors. No one spoke to me in school. One boy walked up to me and said, “My father said I’m not to speak to you anymore.” When we went to the park, we were roughed up. Then, on Nov. 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, we were booted out of our apartment, which was looted. We knew we had to get out.

Fortunately, my mother had the foresight to apply for visas to the United States earlier. For more than a year, we waited in the terror of Vienna for our immigration quota number to come up. When it finally did, my older brother, Ludwig, and I made the Atlantic crossing alone. Our parents came later. On the trip, it’s amazing how unfrightened I was, considering that even before the Nazis, I was an apprehensive child. You rise to the occasion.

 Later, the interviewer, Claudia Dreifus, asks about memory-erasing drugs:

Q: As neuroscience moves forward, there are all kinds of new possibilities emerging. There are people who are experimenting with ways to erase unpleasant memories. Do you approve?

A: I have no difficulty about enhancing memory. Removing memory is more complicated. If it’s to reduce the impact of a particular trauma, I have no difficulty with that, but there are other ways to deal with it — cognitive behavior therapy, exposure therapy, drugs. To go into your head and pluck out a memory of an unfortunate love experience, that’s a bad idea.

You know, in the end, we are who we are. We’re all part of what we’ve experienced. Would I have liked to have had the Viennese experience removed from me? No! And it was horrible. But it shapes you.

As Jonah* notes in his piece, this is the problem we’ll encounter if (Jonah says when) we figure out how to remove specific memories: How do we distinguish between memories that are truly and lastingly toxic and those that, despite being unpleasant, helpe shape us into stronger, better, happier people — not just despite but because they sometimes make us feel bad. As Kandel has related elsewhere, the power of those memories from his ninth year helped drive his extraordinary 60-year (and counting) investigation of memory. As he puts it above, “It was horrible. But it shapes you.” In his case, they led to his work. His rough early memories helped make possible the very memory erasure that he now contemplates.

In the starkly lit world of bad movies, the line between ‘traumatic memory’ and helpful memory is brightly defined. In real life, good luck finding it. Bad memories have tremendous power to motivate change. They can imprison us — but they are just as likely to liberate us, driving us to change faults and habits that we might otherwise repeat. This can happen even with memories we’ve carried, to ill effect, for years.

A few memories, of course, are toxic and will always remain so. But I think those are a very few. When we try to distinguish between them and the rest, we enter a slippery slope obscured by the fog generated by our confusion, our amply demonstrated exaggeration of the power of drugs and technology, and our wishful thinking. I have thin faith we’ll walk that slope without falling.

A Quest to Understand How Memory Works –

*Jonah knows this work well, and not only because he once worked in Kandel’s lab.

Megan Garber on How TED Makes Ideas Smaller

Megan Garber hits her stride at AtlanticTech:

The TED  talk, at this point, is the cultural equivalent of a patent: a private claim to a public concept. With the speaker, himself, becoming the manifestation of the idea. And so: In the name of spreading a concept, the talk ends up narrowing it. Parisers filter bubble. Andersons long tail. We talk often about the need for narrative in making abstract concepts relatable and impactful to mass audiences; what TED has done so elegantly, though, is to replace narrative in that equation with personality. The relatable idea, TED insists, is the personal idea. It is the performative idea. It is the idea that strides onstage and into a spotlight, ready to become a star.

How TED Makes Ideas Smaller – Megan Garber – Technology – The Atlantic.

Is YouTube a Gateway Drug to Twitter? Fixin’ to Find Out

For months — has it only been months? — UK neuroscientist and baronnes Susan Greenfield has been blasting Twitter and other social media for destroying the minds of the young. Today over at the invaluable Mind Hacks, the inestimable Vaughan Bell, who has tangled many times with Greenfield’s Twitter attacks,  brings us the latest development. He does so in so pithy a fashion I had to just lift the whole thing. I pray he will forgive me:

Susan Greenfield, the neuroscientist who seems to have given up on science but constantly appears in the media telling people that ‘the internet can damage your brain,’ now has a website and a YouTube channel.

A sense of irony, however, seems still to be on pre-order from Amazon.

from At least it’s not Twitter « Mind Hacks.