brain science roundup, vol I

A roundup of recent findings and articles—mostly brain-related—that I found intriguing.

1. The gambler’s fallacy is the belief that random events “balance out”, like thinking a coin that came up heads five times in a row is due for tails or that George Lucas is due for a good movie. New work suggests soccer goalies fall victim to that belief when trying to save penalty kicks (summary; article):

…the goalkeeper must guess the likely direction of the kick, and dive in anticipation, if they are to have a chance of saving the shot. …Following repeated kicks in the same direction, goalkeepers became increasingly likely to dive in the opposite direction on the next kick.

Humans are pattern-seekers, and we’re bad both at perceiving and generating randomness, so it’s not surprising that goalies would have this bias. The more surprising thing is that the shooters are able kick to random locations—they don’t have the same bias. But that’s not a universal: TJ Oshie is hockey shootout savant who excels precisely because he’s able to avoid tendencies and preferences in his shots. I wonder if the ability to “generate” randomness is a skill on which people differ, and if so, can we train people to get better at it?


2. I wrote a few months ago about how anti-discrimination policies at institutions can have the ironic or paradoxical effect of making white people less likely to “see” events as being discriminatory. A recent study (summary; article) finds that white participants shown sets of mugshots with greater proportions of black individuals are more likely to later support punitive sentencing policies:

we found that, ironically, exposure to extreme racial disparities may make the public less, and not more, responsive to attempts to lessen the severity of policies that help maintain those disparities.”

Pointing out discriminatory outcomes may not just be an ineffective way to reduce prejudice and discrimination, but actually a counterproductive one. Humans are clannish, and while that tribalism is often subconscious, it’s also automatic. If simply telling people about discrimination actually entrenches that tribalism, then perhaps the best question is simply this: what are the circumstances or situations in which it’s possible to tamp down or ignore those subconscious “lizard brain” pings of xenophobia or sexism or outgroup hatred? Can they be ignored?

3. There’s a well-supported theory that leaded gas increased global lead exposure and caused increased crime in the 1970s onward, owing to neurological deficits from lead poisoning (specifically in impulse control). A new report shows that mice whose mothers were exposed to even low levels of lead have more body fat and less insulin production than their no-lead counterparts, suggesting a role of environmental lead in weight/metabolism issues (summary; article).

Perinatal Pb exposure at blood lead levels between 4.1 µg/dL and 32 µg/dL is associated with increased food intake, body weight, total body fat, energy expenditure, activity, and insulin response in mice.

It’s a little surprising that lead could be linked not just to impaired cognitive abilities, but also impaired metabolism issues as well. But it’s intriguing because it suggests that lead could be one of the chemical causes for increasing obesity rates, which are going up not just in humans, but also in animals—suggesting some kind of environmental cause. I strongly recommend this recap of that phenomenon, which includes a description of a theory that capitalism underlies rising obesity rates (is there anything capitalism can’t do?).

Studies that throw two different groups of people (men and women, liberals and conservatives) in a brain scanner and look for anatomical differences are like pop-science catnip. Neuroskeptic is skeptical of a study showing brain differences between sciences and humanities scholars.

Specifically, the scientists had more grey matter in the medial prefrontal cortex (p=0.035), but their humanist counterparts had a higher white matter density around the right hippocampus (p=0.018). On average.

The authors suggest that these brain regions are associated with autism—essentially arguing that from an anatomical perspective, scientists are all on the autism spectrum. Studies like these, though, often end up providing each “side” with “hard” evidence (the seductive allure of brain pictures) of the other’s innate defect. But it is not a shocking revelation that two groups that act differently have different brains, is it? There might be no greater disconnect between the media play a study gets and its utility than this class of “group brain comparison” studies.

Finally, some very good and strongly recommended science reporting: Maria Konnikova on the paradox of how even having nothing but good choices available can be anxiety-inducing (see my discussion of Barry Schwarz’s The Paradox of Choice for more); a depressing read on sexual harassment in the sciences; Olga Khazan on the possible uselessness of the “trolley problem”, a moral dilemma used in almost all research on moral psychology.



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