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!

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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.)