This is what Candy Crush does to your brain

What level of Candy Crush are you stuck on? 42? 73? 130? 305? I myself can’t get passed level 140. Yet despite the frustratingly frequent losses and time-outs, I can’t seem to put the game down. So just what is it about this mind-numbingly simple app that has us all so enthralled?

My latest piece in The Guardian explores the addictive nature of Candy Crush — its similarities to slot machines, how it taps into our dopamine learning and reward circuitry, the illusion that we are in control of the game, and how the finite number of lives actually makes it extra enticing when we are let back into Candyland.

While the game isn’t actually harming you (presuming you’re not throwing away money on it), it is a time-sink, so instead of playing another round, check out my article instead!

Am I a narcissist, or just kind of a bitch?

I have a new piece up on Thought Catalog, a navel-gazing exploration into narcissism and the concern that “kids these days” are self-centered, entitled assholes, raised on a plethora of gold stars and participation trophies.

I dig into the research arguing both sides, as well as subjecting my friends and family — in a completely biased sample — to a pop psychology quiz on narcissism. (Spoiler alert: the younger generation comes out on top.)

Ultimately though, I believe that all is not lost, and really this self-aggrandizing trend is more a reflection of our age than our generation. And maybe it’s not such a bad thing. After all, why would we try to change the world for the better if we didn’t actually think we could do it?

Check out the full piece, complete with a link to the narcissism quiz, here, and let me know how you measure up.

Fitter, happier

Have you ever heard that Radiohead song with the creepy computer voice telling you how to live a “fitter, happier, more productive” life? Regular exercise, not drinking too much, eating well, getting on better with your associates. Sardonic or not, it seems like we’re constantly inundated with recommendations for healthy living: eat five fruits and vegetables a day, get 150 minutes of exercise every week, don’t drink more than two glasses of wine a night.

The big question though, is, does anyone actually follow these guidelines?

Well apparently, we are. Two new studies have come out in the last week reporting that a recent leveling off in obesity rates around the country can be attributed to better eating habits, and that interventions among college freshman can actually reduce problem-drinking behaviors among students.

The first study, a survey of roughly 200,000 Americans on their grocery shopping habits and food and drink choices conducted between 2003-2011, revealed that we’ve reduced our average calorie intake by 34 calories per day in children and 14 calories in adults. Much of this improvement seems to stem from a reduction in sugary beverage consumption, which have taken a beating in public health campaigns over the last five years. Moreover, the researchers concluded that this change was not attributable to the economic recession or rising food prices. Instead, they believe that we are actually making better, more conscious decisions about what we put in our bodies; this was especially the case in households that had young children at home.

In the second study — a meta-analysis of 60 different intervention programs implemented on college campuses over the last ten years — researchers reported that students who had received some sort of alcohol education as freshmen had fewer problem-drinking behaviors and consumed less alcohol on average than those who hadn’t. While they acknowledge that no one intervention was perfect, they cite the “Prevention Paradox,” that a few small individual changes (i.e., getting students to reduce their drink intake by one on nights that they go out) can have larger overarching effects across the entire student body. One method that the researchers particularly recommended was providing individualized reports on each student’s drinking habits and how they measured up to their peers. Other general tips included alternating alcoholic beverages with water, being particularly mindful at fraternity parties, and setting goals or limits before going out.

All in all, this is encouraging news. It seems as if the barrage of public health campaigns that have papered our cities in recent years, admonishing us for our soda habits and encouraging better cooking and eating behaviors, have been effective. And apparently all those Alcohol EDU courses we had to take as freshmen were having a greater subliminal effect on us than we realized. Now, the only thing left to tackle is making us happier, more productive, comfortable…

Playing with children, adults and Michael Gove: An interview with Patrick Bateson

I’ve got a new piece up today on King’s Review of an interview I conducted with Cambridge professor of ethology Sir Patrick Bateson. Professor Bateson has a fascinating new book on the benefits of play and playfulness, and how these traits can help us develop creativity, innovation and flexible thinking.

I discuss the book with Professor Bateson, as well as branching into the effects reforms in education are having on our brains and behaviors, and how too much school may actually be harming children today.

And finally, the question everyone’s been wondering, do those ping-pong tables in new-age offices really offer any sort of benefits? Read the article to find out!

Playing with children, adults and Michael Gove: An interview with Patrick Bateson.

It’s official…

Well folks, I’ve finally been made legitimate.

No, I haven’t received my doctorate yet (that won’t be happening for awhile!) Instead my rogue bastardized blogging days are over – I’ve been made an official Nature Publishing Group blogger, writing for the Nature Education site Scitable. I’ll be blogging on all things brain and biology on the psychology group blog, Mind Read, with the fantastic Jordan Gaines of Gaines, on Brains. We’ll be posting weekly on the latest nerdy neuro papers and fascinating psychological phenomena – think similar Brain Study content but now on a legitimate platform.

As always though, Brain Study is dearest to my blogging heart, and I’ll be sure to post Mind Read pieces here, as well as trying out slightly “edgier” content perhaps not suitable for the corporate science blogosphere.

My first post is on one of my personal favorite topics, synesthesia, exploring Hearing, Touching and Tasting in Color. A sneak-peek with some insight into my own form is below:

I don’t know about you, but to me Wednesday is sun-shiney yellow. Tuesday is hunter green, Thursday purple-ish blue and Friday a deep red. Monday is white, a blank slate and a chance for a new week, whereas Saturday is sparkly black. Sunday is gray, the depressing slouch towards the beginning of the work-week, but also a convenient mix of Saturday and Monday.

This color-word association is not a figment of my imagination or an indication that I’m going crazy, but is instead a recognized neuropsychological phenomenon called synesthesia.

So please check out the new site, and let me know what you think!

Finding Mr. Right just got a lot harder

It’s hard being a young woman these days. Chivalry is dying, but many glass ceilings are still firmly in place. We’re supposed to have it all but sacrifice nothing, balancing choosing a career path and a life partner. We can delay having kids by putting our eggs in the freezer next to our vodka, but our similarly aging male partners’ sperm might handicap our chances of having healthy offspring, with higher risks for autism and schizophrenia linked to paternal age.

And now it turns out that hormonal contraception, or The Pill, our revolutionary defense against the inherent misogyny of biology, could be tricking us into choosing the wrong men.

Two studies led by Dr. Craig Roberts from the University of Stirling in Scotland have suggested that taking oral contraception can change your attraction to and preferences for men. In an initial study, Dr. Roberts and his team asked women who were about to go on the pill to rate the attractiveness of a selection of male faces, considering them as both short-term and long-term partners. They were then tested again approximately three months later to see if their preferences had changed. Sure enough, in the second test session women who had started hormonal contraception had significant shifts in their partner preferences, now preferring significantly less masculine-looking faces than they had three months earlier. Conversely, control women who had not started the pill did not differ in their choices from the first session.

In a follow-up study, real couples who had met while the woman was either on or off the pill were assessed for the male partner’s masculinity. This involved complex photo manipulation and judgment of the pictures by outside individuals, who ranked the male faces on features of masculinity. Though these methods are a bit fuzzy and convoluted, the researchers’ results (surprise surprise) matched those of the first study. That is, male partners of women who were already on the pill when they met were judged to be significantly less masculine looking than men whose female partners were not taking hormonal contraception.

Notable masculine features include squarer face-shapes, stronger jawlines and less prominent cheekbones, all of which are typical signifiers of higher levels of testosterone. The authors claim that this shift to preferring less masculine features is perhaps a transition towards subconsciously choosing more faithful or nurturing partners after starting contraception, which can be beneficial for long-term relationship success. However, a major problem with these partner preference shifts is that presumably at some point during a mature, adult, monogamous relationship women go off their contraception, potentially reversing back their partner preferences. This can lead to dissatisfaction in the relationship, female philandering, and some very awkward conversations: “Sorry honey, you used to do it for me, but now I find you much too feminine for my liking.”

Another major concern is that genetically we are supposed to be drawn towards mates who are more dissimilar to ourselves. This is evolutionarily advantageous, as greater parental genetic variability reduces the likelihood of heritable diseases in the offspring. Basically, your children are less likely to be born with a genetic disorder if your and your partner’s DNA are more different. It has been proposed that some of the shifts in partner preferences after initiating oral contraception are actually towards men who are more genetically similar to you, which can be problematic, but there are no theories yet as to why this might be the case.

However, it’s a pretty big stretch to say that preferring men with slightly rounder faces means you’ve undergone a major change in your list of demands for your partner’s personality and genetic makeup (if you happen to have such a list for that). Also, the first study was performed with only 18 women in the experimental condition, which is a pretty tiny population for measuring significant differences in behavior. So the researchers conducted another follow-up experiment to investigate if these effects mapped onto real-world behavior. Researchers tested 2500 women (a much better sample size) in stable relationships who had started dating their partner while they were either on or off the pill and compared them on several measures of relationship and sexual satisfaction.

Women who first met their partners while taking oral contraception scored significantly lower on measures of sexual satisfaction and rated themselves less physically attracted to their partners than women who met their partners while not on the pill. However, the women taking the pill did have higher overall non-sexual relationship fulfillment and financial stability than those who were off the pill. In a related twist, women who were on contraception were actually less likely to have separated from their partners than women not on the pill when they chose their partners.

So what’s the takeaway from this? Don’t take oral contraception and you’ll have better sex with a more attractive man, but will be more likely to break up with him in the future? Go on the pill and you’ll be dissatisfied sexually by your unattractive mate and your offspring will have genetic disorders, but at least you’ll stay together forever? Maybe. Or maybe being on the pill leads you to choose partners based more on long-term than short-term payouts. Or it means that you have different priorities in your partner preferences to begin with. Either way, make the decision wisely, your future children may depend on it.

Gender bias on both sides of scientific research

A disturbing new study from researchers at Yale University was released this week in PNAS, reporting that gender bias is still pervasive in science and the workplace. An identical application for a laboratory manager position was given to 127 senior faculty members at a number of research universities, the only difference being that half of the applications contained a male name, while in the other half the applicant’s name was female. Across the board supervisors (male and female alike) ranked the ‘male’ application as more competent, more hireable, and stated that they would be more willing to supervise this candidate. Even more striking was the pay gap that existed between the recommended wages for the male and female applicants, a difference of roughly $3,700 starting salary. This is representative of the reported 23% average earnings difference between men and women in the workplace.

Despite efforts for equal opportunity and the eradication of sexism from science, this study clearly demonstrates that there are significant lingering differences in the perception of male and female applicants and their competence based solely on gender. These findings are particularly disturbing as the job was for an entry-level research position, suggesting that there is a bias against women even trying to get their foot in the door in science. The gender disparity in tenure-track professorships has previously been explained with similar rationales as those used to justify the dearth of women in executive suite positions in finance or industry, namely differences in life choices or a lingering male-domination from previous generations. However, now there is clear evidence that women are discriminated against from the start of their careers, making it far more likely that they will drop out of the profession, and thus perpetuating the gender imbalance in science, particularly at the higher end of the career ladder.

Gender bias in science isn’t just present in a lack of professional opportunities; women are frequently excluded from being subjects in research studies, particularly those involving the brain or behavioral traits. Women can be ‘difficult’ subjects as anatomically our brains differ in size from males, and hormonal fluctuations can affect chemical reactions to pharmaceutical challenges used in experiments. Instead of pursuing and exploring these differences though, females subjects are often omitted from both human and animal research. Results from male participants are then applied to females post-hoc, however this method is far from perfect as these very differences in behavioral and biological performance make extrapolations imprecise and potentially invalid.

For example, a study published earlier this year in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research reported on the differing effects of heavy alcohol consumption and recovery on the brain in men and women. Females appear to be more sensitive to the neurotoxic effects of alcohol on the brain, particularly in the frontal lobe, with a greater proportionate reduction in white matter volume than men with every additional drink. Conversely, male alcoholics show a greater decrease in volume in the corpus callosum (neuron tracts that connect the left and right hemispheres) related to the duration of heavy drinking. Fortunately, abstaining from alcohol was linked to recovery of white matter in both genders, with longer periods of abstinence associated with greater recovery in each region. However, men did not exhibit this trend with less than one year of sobriety, while women experienced neurogenesis only within the first year. While these distinctions between women and men are subtle ones, they are significant and could be related to differences in behavioral ability or possible treatment outcomes.

Ignoring female subjects in research studies biases results and can hinder progress in the advancement of clinical treatments. Similarly, dissuading or not adequately supporting women in their own research endeavors undoubtedly handicaps scientific progress by limiting the intellectual pool of talent. Reports of women being naturally ‘bad’ in science or mathematics have been overwhelming refuted and lingering prejudices, even unintentional ones, hurt not only the individual but the field of science as a whole.

(Thanks to Adam Levy and Ruth Watkinson for the gender bias article.)

Analytical thinking and religious disbelief: A Dawkinsian tale

Last week Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, out-spoken atheist, and author of The God Gene, announced his support for British education secretary Michael Gove’s proposal to put a King James Bible in every state school in the UK. Dawkins stated that, “I have heard the cynically misanthropic opinion that, without the Bible as a moral compass, people would have no restraint against murder, theft and mayhem. The surest way to disabuse yourself of this pernicious falsehood is to read the Bible itself.”

Dawkins’ tongue-in-cheek support for the measure highlights his proselytism of critical thinking over blind acceptance of the scriptures. This more rational and methodical type of thought is affectionately known as “System 2” in the neuroeconomics and decision-making literature, and a new study published last month in the journal Science suggests that Dawkins, as an atheist, is not alone in his analytical thinking habits. The other mode of thought, System 1, relies more on instincts and heuristics (quick decision-making tools based on past experiences), and is thought to underlie much of an individual’s conviction in religious beliefs. The stories that make up the dogma of organized religion often require acceptance of supernatural processes that are difficult to rationalize, such as immaculate conception or resurrection. These leaps of faith require a reliance on intuition over analytical rationalization, and as such individuals with strong religious beliefs are thought to have a greater activation of System 1, whereas disbelievers engage System 2 more frequently.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia tested this hypothesis of a distinction between religious believers and non-believers in dual-process thinking (System 1 vs. System 2) by carrying out several experiments assessing analytical abilities and religious beliefs in 179 undergraduate students (insert joke about the oxymoron of analytical thinking and undergrads here). The tasks required “an analytical overriding of initial intuitions”, meaning that the first obvious answer to any problem was wrong, and an inhibition of this initial response and critical re-assessment of the problem was required to arrive at the correct answer. Participants then completed three questionnaires asking about religiosity, intuitive and supernatural beliefs. Successful analytical thinking on the cognitive tasks was negatively correlated with all three measures of religious beliefs, such that the ability to over-ride an immediate intuition was associated with greater religious disbelief.

Follow-up studies aimed to assess the directionality of these trends – i.e. whether a lack of religious beliefs led one to think more critically, or if a tendency towards analytical thought resulted in greater disbelief. Researchers attempted to answer this by exposing participants to a series of subtle primes of words and images that were meant to subconsciously evoke connotations of analytical thought, and then asking them about their levels of religious or supernatural beliefs. For example, in one test students were primed with an image of either Rodin’s The Thinker or a control image matched for pose, material and familiarity. During a pilot test, viewing The Thinker was related to an increase in analytical reasoning, and during the experiment seeing it resulted in an increase in self-report levels of religious disbelief as compared to control images.

In the final and most devious manipulation, researchers had participants rank their religious beliefs on a questionnaire presented in either standard font or in a more challenging and difficult-to-read one. Reading in an unusual font, known as perceptual disfluency, requires greater cognitive effort, which the researchers hypothesized would result in increased recruitment of System 2. This would then over-ride any natural inclinations towards System 1 and presumably reduce reliance on intuitions. Sure enough, participants who filled out the difficult-to-read questionnaire rated themselves as being less believing, regardless of previously obtained baseline levels of belief.

The researchers caution against reading too much into these experiments, stating that no estimation on the value of religious beliefs can be interpreted from the findings. Additionally, disbelief could stem equally from a lack of intuition-based thought as an increase in analytical thinking. My main question regarding these findings is just how unaware the participants were to the researchers’ objectives in the study. A psychology experiment, a setting less than welcoming to religious convictions, and particularly one with an emphasis on cognition and critical thinking, may cause individuals to feel sheepish about their beliefs in supernatural phenomena, religious or otherwise, and lead them to under-report their personal levels of faith. Thus the setting of a research laboratory, as well as any expectation bias introduced by the researchers, should be considered as a caveat for the results of this study.

On an unrelated side note, today marks the one year anniversary of Brain Study! A big thank you to all of my readers, be they friends who feel obligated to check in every week or poor unwitting strangers who stumble across the blog through Google searches. Hope everyone’s enjoyed reading this past year as much as I’ve enjoyed writing, and stay tuned for more posts on our brains, bodies and life as a graduate student in science!

Sex at Dawn vs. sex today

There has been an undeniable shift in the conventional nuclear family over the last several decades, with increases in single parent, step-parent, grandparent and single-sex parent homes. A recent survey by the New York Times stated that as of 2009, women who gave birth under the age of 30 were for the first time less likely to be married than not. These trends, along with the rise in divorce rates seen over the last 40 years, support the relationship narrative put forward by Dr. Christopher Ryan and Dr. Cacilda Jetha in their book Sex at Dawn of long-term, semi-monogamous mates, rather than story-book life-long, monogamous marriages.

Ryan and Jetha question the naturalness of our society’s emphasis on exclusive and eternal pair-bonds. They cite the polyamorous relationship tendencies of our early ancestors and the sexual habits of our closest living relatives, free-loving bonobos and chimpanzees, as evidence that we were not always this way. They also list current hunter-gatherer societies who maintain looser definitions of sexual relations and expectations, and who have adjusted their property owning and child-rearing practices accordingly. Examples include the Curripaco tribe of Brazil, where a couple who hang their hammocks together are considered married (until one hangs her hammock elsewhere), or the Dagara of Burkina Faso, one of many societies in which every woman is called “mother” and every man “father” as questions of paternity are highly uncertain. Allocations of resources and affection are spread equally throughout these tribes, treating all as family and ensuring the well-being of every member of the community.

Ryan and Jetha’s research is wide-ranging, in-depth and highly interesting, including evidence from anthropological, biological, philosophical and historical perspectives. Their arguments are compelling and for the most part well-thought-out, identifying flaws in the standard narrative of the evolution of sexual relations. The analysis on the anatomical differences in primates as evidence for different mating styles is particularly provocative and entertaining. For example, who would’ve thought that large external testicles were an indicator of sexual competition within species, preparing the males for battle in a “sperm war” in more free-wheeling and promiscuous females? As such male gorillas, the largest living primates, have the smallest relative penis and testicle size, as they enjoy a relatively stable role in the social hierarchy and a lack of sexual competitors. And who knew that female baboons vocalize during orgasm to attract attention from other future potential male suitors? Certainly puts Meg Ryan’s famous deli scene in When Harry Met Sally into a new perspective!

However, one issue that I felt was glaringly under-addressed in their sexual manifesto was the question of jealousy. The authors acknowledge early on that this fundamental problem arises when contemplating the benefits and detriments of a more inherently promiscuous lifestyle, and promise to address the issue in full later in the book. However when the big moment arrives, they merely cite more tribes existing today who practice non-monogamous pair-bonding and communal child-rearing, and state that jealousy is not an issue in these societies. They further suggest that our deep feelings of jealousy are a learned result of our mating and marriage practices, stemming from the agricultural revolution and commoditization of women and children. There is no mention of the biological underpinnings of jealousy (thought to involve activation in the anterior cingulate cortex, the same area involved in feelings of emotional and physical pain, in case you were wondering), its potential evolutionary benefits, or its prevalence in modern society.

Now perhaps this is rather naive and un-empirical of me, but I find it difficult to swallow that the intense physiological pangs that nearly all of us have felt in the course of our romantic lives are a culturally created phenomenon. The visceral and automatic nature of these feelings would suggest that jealousy is a more organic emotion, rather than a learned response to a threat of ownership or security. Also if, as Ryan and Jetha claim, our naturally non-monogamous ways are the reason so many relationships fail, then why are we unable to evolve away from these underlying promiscuous tendencies but have developed these accompanying negative emotions in the meantime? Jealousy is a highly unpleasant experience that I would imagine few desire to feel, so why is it that we have created this emotion in ourselves that can be so painful?

For the most part, I found myself agreeing with Ryan and Jetha’s hypothesis that humans were originally a more “promiscuous” species, rejecting life-long mates in favor of short-term or non-monogamous relationships. However my question to this new narrative they present is, so what? Are we to change our dating, mating and marriage habits today because our ancestors did it differently 2 million years ago? As our lives and cultures have evolved, to the extent that they are almost incomparable to the ones maintained by our ancestors, is it not natural that our sexual and romantic relationships would change as well? And even if these behaviors are more natural to humans than the practices we hold today, could we ever feasibly go back to that way of life, even if we wanted to?

(Thanks to Jesse Sleamaker for the recommendation for this book).

Salivating for stocking stuffers

In the spirit of this season of holy consumption, I thought it appropriate to write about an article released earlier this year in the Journal of Consumer Research on salivating over material goods. Author David Gal, an economist at Northwestern University, proposes that when we covet an item, be it ice cream or an iPhone, we literally drool over it. He hypothesizes that this response mechanism is caused by our reward system, with desired material items stimulating the same pathways and neural regions that hunger for food or other natural reinforcers do. This includes the striatum, amygdala, and hypothalamus–areas involved in reward responses and homeostatic mechanisms such as hunger and satiety. Activation of these areas in response to salient stimuli signals that these items are rewarding and could be important for survival. Supporting this claim, in previous research, the mesolimbic dopamine reward pathway is seen to light up in a similar manner for luxury items and sports cars, which are secondary learned reinforcers, as they do for natural incentives such as food and drugs.

Taking this a step further, the physical outputs of this heightened reward arousal state can include the secretion of saliva, triggered by the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Salivation occurs in response to cues for food or water as part of the natural metabolic system, preparing us for mastication and digestion. However, Gal claims that it is also a byproduct of the autonomal arousal system controlled via the hypothalamus, and salivation can indicate any desired or salient stimulus, whether it be naturally rewarding, such as a member of the opposite sex, or a secondary conditioned reinforcer, like money or material goods.

Gal investigated this theory by presenting 169 undergraduate students with images of either money or mundane items, such as office supplies. While viewing the stimuli, participants were asked to keep cotton dental rolls in their cheeks and under their tongue to measure their saliva output. The weights of these cotton swabs were then compared to baseline measurements taken before the experiment to assess the increase in salivation due to the images presented. A second condition involved priming participants with feelings of either efficacy or helplessness by asking them to recall a time when they had felt either powerful or powerless. Gal hypothesized that money, symbolizing economic control, would be more coveted by those who felt they had little power, making it more desirable and rewarding than to those who deemed that they had greater power at the time of the experiment. Supporting this notion, only participants induced with feelings of powerlessness had significantly increased saliva output in response to the monetary cues. Individuals who felt powerful had no difference in salivatory rates when viewing the money images, nor was there a difference in saliva outputs in either power condition among participants in the control office supply group.

In a second follow-up study, Gal repeated the experiment using coveted luxury items in the place of raw currency. Gal exposed young men to images of sports cars, while also inducing in them the goal of winning a potential mate. He achieved this by presenting some participants with images of attractive women with whom they were to imagine going on a date with, while those in the control condition were to imagine having their hair cut. Men who viewed the sports cars as opposed to the mundane images had greater salivation rates compared to baseline ratings, but only when they had been primed with the goal of mating. The mating prime had no effect on saliva output in the control condition, and viewing the sports cars without the salient goal did not increase salivation rates on its own.

Importantly, increases in saliva production seem to be contingent upon the immediate rewarding value of the goods, only enhancing salivation rates when the presented stimuli were seen to help achieve a recently primed goal. This suggests that the triggering of salivation by reward cues is dependent upon the present desire or need for the item, much like the more visceral feeling of hunger in the presence of food.

So as you are finishing your Christmas wish-list this year, dreaming of drool-worthy duds and mouth-watering machines, perhaps rank your heart’s desire on how quickly they’ll come in handy and how moist your mouth feels afterward. You’ll be sure to find them more rewarding.

Happy holidays everyone!

(Thanks to Emily Barnet for this article.)