Wednesday, January 12, 2011

New Year's Resolutions - brain sabotaging our efforts

Jack Dikian
Jan 2011

New Year’s Resolutions
Does our brain sabotage our efforts

We all know that habits are hard to break – specially the bad ones. It can be said that the bulk of our learning and behaviours is a consequence of earlier behaviours that we found beneficial, rewarding, and / or pleasant. And even when we want to break a habit, we are more likely to identify an alternative behaviour to replace the one we wish to avoid. Some unhealthy behaviours become ingrained and we fight against the power of immediate rewards. Think chocolates and vegetables - Chocolates will trump veggies, more generally, the immediate gratification we receive from eating a chocolate bar greatly outweighs the longer term benefits of eating all of our greens.

There is hard-wiring in our brains that preferences immediate reward as opposed to a delayed outcome. A neurotransmitter,
Dopamine is involved in turning that happiness into a habit. It helps condition the brain to want that reward again and again — reinforcing the connection each time — especially when it gets the right cue from the environment. And so, we tend to overestimate our ability to resist temptations, thus undermining attempts to avoid bad habits.

In an experiment, psychologist Loran Nordgren, an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, he measured whether heavy smokers could watch a film that romanticizes the habit — called "Coffee and Cigarettes" — without taking a puff. Upping the ante, they'd be paid according to their level of temptation: Could they hold an unlit cigarette while watching? Keep the pack on the table? Or did they need to leave the pack in another room?

Smokers who'd predicted they could resist a lot of temptation tended to hold the unlit cigarette — and were more likely to light up than those who knew better than to hang onto the pack, says Nordgren. He now is beginning to study how recovering drug addicts deal with real-world temptations.

Much more insidious

But temptation is much more insidious than the closeness of the cigarettes or that irestable snack. By eating that snack whilst watching our favourite TV show - a dopamine-rich part of the brain named (the striatum) memorizes rituals and routines that are linked to getting a particular reward. Over time, those environmental cues trigger the striatum to make some behaviours (like having those snakes) almost automatic.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Women Apologise More Frequently Than Men Do

Jack Dikian

Jan 2011

Despite wide acceptance of the stereotype that women apologize more readily than men, there is little systematic evidence to support this stereotype or its supposed bases.

Researcher Karina Schumann, from the University of Waterloo, Department of Psychology, Canada confirms that women tend to apologize more frequently than men do, but there's a curious twist as to why this is the case.

In the first study of two participants self-reported offences and apologies over a 12-day period. That is, they reported on offences they committed or experienced and whether an apology had been offered. Women reported offering more apologies than men, but they also reported committing more offences.

There was no gender difference in the proportion of offenses that prompted apologies. This finding suggests that men apologize less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior. So the issue is not necessarily female over-apology.

In the second study, the researchers tested the threshold hypothesis by asking participants to evaluate both imaginary and recalled offenses (3 separate offences were rated by 120 subjects on a seven-point scale). As predicted, men rated the offenses as less severe than women did. These different ratings of severity predicted both judgments of whether an apology was deserved and actual apology behavior.

So, in fact, according to this research, women and men could easily disagree on whether or not a transgression has occurred at all.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Speed of the Human Brain

Jack Dikian
January 2011

Whilst pondering over time dilatation and relativistic effects of motion, it occurred to me to ask what if someone amongst us had a brain/mind that operates at a faster rate. I’m not talking about someone with a high IQ, or someone with a quick wit, rather, an individual whose “time base” (a clock that forms the time base for biological and physiological processes) runs at a significantly faster rate than seen in humans. My initial thought was: does this individual perceive the world to be flowing in a slower motion.

The first thing I needed to understand is what provides our time base. Sure, we have a "body clock", the "circadian rhythm" a self-regulating biological timekeeper. The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), a tiny cluster of nerve cells in an area of the brain known as the hypothalamus.

This body clock helps regulate breathing and heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, hormone production, and other vital bodily functions. Our bodies know what time it is by constantly measuring the concentration of a protein called PER in the body.

Buildup of PER, it is thought, slows down a mammal's internal clock, causing it to have longer days. Next I wanted to consider the speed of the human brain compute.

This can be estimated by looking at 3 main variables

  • The number of neurons,
  • The speed that neurons can fire, and
  • The number of how many cells it connects to.

A human being has about 100 billion brain cells. Although different neurons fire at different speeds, as a rough estimate it is reasonable to estimate that a neuron can fire about once every 5 milliseconds, or about 200 times a second. The number of cells each neuron is connected to also varies, but as a rough estimate it is reasonable to say that each neuron connects to 1000 other neurons- so every time a neuron fires, about 1000 other neurons get information about that firing. If we multiply all this out we get 100 billion neurons X 200 firings per second X 1000 connections per firing or

20 million billion calculations per second.