An interview in which I’m on the wrong side of the table

Research Digest has posted an q&a interview with me as part of their The Bloggers Behind the Blog series. Here are a few key tidbits. Do read the rest there, as well as the other interviews already run and to come.

On why I write about psychology, psychiatry, and other behavioral sciences:

Science constitutes our most serious and rigorous attempt to understand the world — and psychiatry, psychology, and now neuroscience make great material partly because they so often and starkly show science’s power and pitfalls. These disciplines are hard. The people who work in them, whether researching, treating patients or both, are trying to discern and treat enormously complex and opaque dynamics.

Some do brilliant work. Others, both now and through the centuries, have come up with some really fascinating wrong ideas, some of them, like phrenology, hare-brained and obviously corrupt, and others, like Freudian psychology, more rigorous but in the end almost as badly flawed empirically. Freud created a brilliant, beautiful, and disciplined body of work — a gorgeously developed account of how we think and behave — that ultimately fails as science because you can’t falsify it. Meanwhile, Cajal was figuring out the neuron — and quietly laid a path now being followed to much greater effect.

At their best, these disciplines try to find empirical ways to understand human behavior, mood, and thinking, and to treat problems in the same areas. And even as we’re starting to get a few real insights into the brain, these disciplines offer one object lesson after another in the challenges and dangers of science. Take neuroimaging alone. You get brilliant people like Helen Mayberg, who uses imaging to create and test deep, complex, substantial ideas about how depression works. And you get others who claim they can read an fMRI and tell you whether someone is lying. And in between you encounter — sometimes starkly, sometimes subtly — every kind of intellectual, financial, cultural, and personal issue that generate what we call conflicts of interest — that is, the desires and motivations that pull scientists or medical people away from solid, empirically based science and practice and into murky terrain. Meanwhile you get the very cool technical solutions people devise, and the lovely long detective-story-level intellectual puzzles they solve.

All that, and a million alluring ideas about why we act, think, and feel the ways we do. There’s no end to the richness. 

On my blog’s ‘mission’:

Same as my writing in general, only faster. I want to write about science, nature, medicine, culture, and — the big fun — how they overlap. Blogging lets me do this in quicker, more provisional takes. It lets me revise my provisional takes and respond more fluidly to other people’s provisional takes. It lets me elaborate or post sources on longform articles I’ve written for print. It lets me write about things I’ll deal with more deeply in my book on behavioral genetics — and on related issues I won’t have room for in my book. All that, and I can post YouTube mashups ofSoviet soldiers dancing to hip-hop. I can write about curveballs and Sandy Koufax. Twice.


Paul Bloom: Pleasure is a by-product

Many significant human pleasures are universal,” Bloom writes. “But they are not biological adaptations. They are byproducts of mental systems that have evolved for other purposes.” Evolutionary psychologists like Bloom are fond of explaining perplexing psychological attributes this way. These traits emerged, the argument goes, as accidental accompaniments to other traits that help us survive and reproduce.


Perhaps this is the adverse of depression as a spandrel.

Posted via email from David Dobbs’s Somatic Marker

David Foster Wallace is, indeed, Smarter than You Think

Every time I read David Foster Wallace, I think, that’s just classic David Foster Wallace. Which is to say it’s completely unexpected, novel, different from the way almost anyone else thinks, including David Foster Wallace the last time I read him.

This is a fun review in the NY Review of Books of a book about Wallace I think I now must get.

I like the title. That’s Wallace: Smarter than you think. And even smarter than you think or remember Wallace is from last time you read him.

Smarter than You Think

“What I would love to do is a profile of one of you guys who’s doin’ a profile of me,” David Foster Wallace told the journalist David Lipsky in 1996 during a series of conversations now collected as Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. “It would be a way,” Wallace continued, “for me to get some of the control back”:

[excerpt] You can’t tell outright lies that I’ll then deny to the fact checker. But…you’re gonna be able to shape this essentially how you want. And that to me is extremely disturbing…. I want to be able to try and shape and manage the impression of me that’s coming across. [end excerpt]

As Lipsky tells us in his introduction, he loved Wallace’s idea of profiling the profilers:

[excerpt] It would have been one of the deluxe internal surveys he specialized in–the unedited camera, the feed before the director in the van starts making cuts and choices…. That’s what this book would like to be. It’s the one way of writing about him I don’t think David would have hated. [end excerpt]

Best sit in a soft chair to read this




Ed Yong offers a particularly nice write-up of some studies about how physical experience shapes emotion, opinion, thinking, and so on. TKTK:

When you pick up an object, you might think that you are manipulating it, but in a sense, it is also manipulating you. Through a series of six psychological experiments, Joshua Ackerman from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has shown that the properties that we feel through touch – texture, hardness, weight – can all influence the way we think.

Weight is linked to importance, so that people carrying heavy objects deem interview candidates as more serious and social problems as more pressing. Texture is linked to difficulty and harshness. Touching rough sandpaper makes social interactions seem more adversarial, while smooth wood makes them seem friendlier. Finally, hardness is associated with rigidity and stability. When sitting on a hard chair, negotiators take tougher stances but if they sit on a soft one instead, they become more flexible.

Makes me wonder: Could the chair you sit in shape your psychotherapy session?

According to Ackerman, these effects happen because our understanding of abstract concepts is deeply rooted in physical experiences. Touch is the first of our senses to develop. In the earliest days of our lives, our ability to feel things like texture and temperature provides a tangible framework that we can use to understand more nebulous notions like importance or personal warmth. Eventually, the two become tied together, so that touching objects can activate the concepts that they are associated with.

This idea is known as “embodied cognition” and the metaphors and idioms in our languages provide hints about such associations. The link between weight and importance comes through in phrases such as “heavy matters” and the “gravity of the situation”. We show the link between texture and harshness when we describe a “rough day” or “coarse language”. And the link between hardness and stability or rigidity becomes clear when we describe someone as “hard-hearted” or “being a rock”.

Get it all at Heavy, rough and hard – how the things we touch affect our judgments and decisions

Original Joshua Ackerman study is in Science, at

What glitters in the net today

I’m ‘posed to be writing, really writing (insert argument over what’s really writing in comments), but hit so many juicy bits in my morning read today I wanted to share. Here’s my eclectic mix for the day:

A great rompy scary post from @susanorlean on how her book bounced around many publishers and editors.

Keith Kloor at Collide-a-scape has a round-up of stories on the “credibility of climate experts” report

“memory performance boosted while walking”  Beautiful. Perhaps why walking oft solves writing probs.  via @mariapage:

“Theory Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning” From @kerin at Savage Minds, on anthropologists’ uneasy rel w theory.

At The Economist: Every genome on the planet is now up for grabs, including those that do not yet exist #economist via @revkin

Knight Science Journalism Tracker » Blog Archive » MedPage Today: Should reporters tell readers when a PIO listens in? I say Yes.

7th-Graders Discover Mysterious Cave on Mars – Yahoo! News Interesting if true. But what were those kidsi doing on Mars?

Newspapers Are Still Dying, But the News Is Not Going Anywhere. This is increasingly obvious but still worth stating.

John Updike’s Archive – A Great Writer at Work – I thought this nicely done. But then, I love Updike, despite being conflicted about his complicated misogyny.

My wife loves Gourmet magazine. She thinks the iPad ridiculous. Gourmet Magazine Revived for the iPad This will be interesting to watch.

Get inside mind-bloggers’ heads with this interview series

Research Digest blog, the highly useful and content-rich site that tracks all things psych, just opened its “The Bloggers Behind the Blogs,” series, which will run ten interviews with bloggers of mind and brain. It’s with a nice interview of Jesse Bering, of Bering in Mind.

It’s a dandy line-up (of which I’m happy to be part), and I look forward to reading them as they come out, about one a day, over the next couple weeks. Here’s who’s coming, in alphabetical order.

Jesse Bering of Bering in Mind — already posted
Anthony Risser of Brain blog. (coming soon)
David DiSalvo of Brain spin and Neuronarrative. (coming soon)
Petra Boynton of Dr Petra. (coming soon)
Vaughan Bell of Mind Hacks. (coming soon)
Mo Costandi of Neurophilosphy. (coming soon)
David Dobbs of Neuron Culture. (coming soon)
Neuroskeptic of Neuroskeptic. (coming soon)
Hesitant Iconoclast of Neurowhoa! (coming soon)
Dave Munger of Research Blogging and Cognitive Daily. (coming soon)
Wray Herbert of We’re Only Human & Full Frontal Psychology. (coming soon)

If you know even some of these blogs, you know this promises a rich series. Bering, for instance, who leads off, has been shaking things up nicely at his blog over at Scientific American, where you never know what he’ll write on next..

I’m glad that Scientific American readers have joined me on my voyage of discovery about the evolution of pubic hair, fag hags, female bitchery and other important issues. Because I cover such heavy subject matter, I’ll occasionally throw in a post or two as a light diversion, say, about God or the afterlife. 

Check it out. I’ll crosspost mine here when it’s up in a few days, and likely post a few tidbits from others’ as this goes along. 

20,000 genes a surprise? Heck, this guy knew that long ago

Hawks headshot.png

John Hawks, in his paleodreams. I mean that in the best way.

John Hawks bumps into a prescient estimate of the total gene number in humans:

While doing some other research, I ran across a remarkable short paper by James Spuhler, “On the number of genes in man,” printed in Science in 1948. We’ve been hearing for the last ten years how the low gene count in humans — only 20,000 or so genes — is “surprising” to scientists who had previously imagined that humans would have many more genes than this. So here’s the next to the last line of Spuhler’s article: On the basis of these speculations there are then some 19,890-30,420 gene loci in man. He actually estimated the total gene number in two ways. The first, based on estimates of chromosome length in Drosophila and humans, coupled with Bridges’ estimate of fruit fly gene number (5000), led to an estimate of 42,000 genes in humans. This means of estimation was probably closer to those that later suggested a high gene number in humans.

I love this. The history of science is almost always richer and more variant than we imagine.

Hawks amends:

That estimate also gives the lie to the idea that geneticists always expected a very high gene count in humans. What’s remarkable to me is that the entire means of estimation required no knowledge of gene sequences or DNA; the estimates required only epidemiology coupled with cytological estimates of chromosome lengths.

More at Hawks’ blog, including the linkless old-school ref:

Spuhler JN. 1948. On the number of genes in man. Science 108:279-280.


Does Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus undervalue meatspace?


Jonah Lehrer has a nice post elaborating on his Barnes & Noble review of Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus. Like me, Lehrer finds alluring and valuable Shirky’s central point, which is that the net is harnessing in constructive form a lot of time and energy that we appear to have been wasting watching TV. Yet Lehrer — who, unlike me, has read Shirky’s book — finds that Shirky overplays his case, and that in his enthusiasm for networked contributions and collaborations he discounts both consumption and many offline interactions.

He Lehrer mounts a convincing argument, and you really should go read the thing — and Shirky’s book, too, I suspect. But I want to pull fully into the open something implicit but unhighlighted in Jonah’s post. It struck my mind when Jonah mentioned the many good (meatspace) conversations he has had with people about the Sopranos (a favorite consumption item of Mr. Lehrer). If pressed too far, Shirky’s high valuation of online activity, which Jonah says extends to lolcats, risks undervaluing many valuable things that don’t show up on the Net, and in particular it risks undervaluing meatspace conversations.

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One path to the Nobel

At the age of 21, as a Moeid, I believed that behind every universal phenomenon there must be beauty and simplicity in its description


Ahmed Zewail, who won a 1999 Nobel for his work chemistry, wrote a quite charming memoir for the Nobel site.

Posted via web from David Dobbs’s Somatic Marker

Fungus amongus & other gleanings




Fungis Danicis, a lovely collection at the beautiful Bibliodyysey

Mind Hacks offers a reminder (we can’t get too many) that expressions of distress vary across culture and history. Separately he considers an interesting study showing that Tylenol reduces the pain of social rejection.

Neurophilosophy has a post listing several fine New Neuroblogs

NeuroDojo ponders the upgrade from helicopter parents: Armored car parents

A quite interesting post from BlogHer considers The iPad: a Near-Miracle for My Son With Autism. Among other charms, it lists what sound like some pretty cool apps.

Dan Gillmor suggests we subsidize open broadband, not journalists.

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