Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and ...

In "Brain detects happiness more quickly than sadness" (Eurekalert), we learn:
The results, published in the latest issue of the journal Laterality, show that the right hemisphere performs better in processing emotions. "However, this advantage appears to be more evident when it comes to processing happy and surprised faces than sad or frightened ones", the researcher points out.

"Positive expressions, or expressions of approach, are perceived more quickly and more precisely than negative, or withdrawal, ones. So happiness and surprise are processed faster than sadness and fear", explains Aznar-Casanova.
The finding doesn't particularly support the famous "left brain, right brain" thesis, that is so embedded in popular culture that even your cousin, who never reads a book, knows about it.
Two theories are currently "competing" to explain the pattern of cerebral asymmetry in processing emotions. The older one postulates the dominance of the right hemisphere in the processing of emotions, while the second is based on the approach-withdrawal hypothesis, which holds that the pattern of cerebral asymmetry depends upon the emotion in question, in other words that each hemisphere is better at processing particular emotions (the right, withdrawal, and the left, approach).
When we are miserable, we should seek out people we believe to be right-brained (chances are they will intuit our needs), and when we are happy, we should go to the races with people who are left-brained. (And get them to help us decide where to place our bets).

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

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Daydreaming: Neuroscientist calls it key to creativity, unimaginative boss still calls it loafing

What luck! While others gab around the water cooler, we use our brains better by loafing in the office wondering why the sky is blue (but not bothering to look it up). Daydreaming is actually a useful activity, says neuroscientist Kalina Christoff of the University of British Columbia:
According to Christoff, there are two major networks in the brain: the executive network, involved in problem-solving, reasoning, and “goal-directed deliberate thinking” and the default network, which becomes activated when you’re not doing anything in particular. While only one of the two networks is generally activated at any given time, the study found that when subjects daydreamed or mind-wandered, both networks were activated at the same time.
In theory, that should offer different ways of thinking about a problem.

But if the boss is not sold on this, we must learn to look furiously busy while daydreaming.

CBC's Bob McDonald has a great interview with her on the Saturday science show, Quirks and Quarks (but you must scroll down to find it).


Quantum physics can't network us to the cosmos, physicist insists

In his recent book, Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos and the Search for Meaning, physicist and philosopher Victor J. Stenger, proposes to set the lay public straight, that our minds are not connected to the cosmos via quantum mechanics.

Stenger, who is also the author of God: The Failed Hypothesis, proposes
... a new kind of deism, which proposes a God who creates a universe with many possible pathways determined by chance, but otherwise does not interfere with the physical world or the lives of humans. Although it is possible, says Stenger, to conceive of such a God who "plays dice with the universe" and leaves no trace of his role as prime mover, such a God is a far cry from traditional religious ideas of God and, in effect, may as well not exist. Like God: The Failed Hypothesis, this new work presents a rigorously argued challenge to many popular notions of God and spirituality.
Now, why oh why do I think that that was the point of the project?

From "New Book: Does Quantum Mechanics Show a Connection Between the Human Mind and The Cosmos?" in Medical News Today (27 June 2009).

One difficulty, of course, is that there are a number of interpretations of quantum mechanics, and some may suit the views he deplores better than others.

Here's a new journal that explores the issue, hopefully with an open mind.

Here are physicist Henry Stapp's reflections, which offer another view.

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Empathy: "Hath not a Jew eyes? ..."

A recent article in ScienceDaily, "Less Empathy Toward Outsiders: Brain Differences Reinforce Preferences For Those In Same Social Group" (July 1, 2009) reports that
... perceiving others in pain activates a part of the brain associated with empathy and emotion more if the observer and the observed are the same race. The findings may show that unconscious prejudices against outside groups exist at a basic level.

The study confirms an in-group bias in empathic feelings, something that has long been known but never before confirmed by neuroimaging technology
Published in the Journal of Neuroscience,
... the finding raises as many questions as it answers, Farah said. "For example, is it racial identity per se that determines the brain's empathic response, or some more general measure of similarity between self and other?" she said. "What personal characteristics or life experiences influence the disparity in empathic response toward in-group and out-group members?"
One can think of a few, including slightly dissimilar facial expressions. The researchers chose race as the characteristic to study, but race is rarely a category by itself. It is bound up with class, status, lifestyle expectations, history, and culture. Some other, more tightly specified, category may have been more informative.

Remember Shylock's wrenching plea in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice?

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

- From The Merchant of Venice (III, i, 60-63)
Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose