From neuroscience to developmental psychology and beyond.
The Observer Magazine Articles
The Many Shapes of Applied Psychological Science
("The Restorative Role of Marine Life" and
"Safer Skies Through the Science of Pilot Selection")
The Observer, May/June 2018
"There’s something mesmerizing about watching a school of fish or a strand of seaweed sway beneath the waves, and Deborah Cracknell, an honorary research fellow at Plymouth University and the European Centre for Environment & Human Health (University of Exeter Medical School) in the United Kingdom, has made it her job to find out why. After 12 years in the finance service industry, Cracknell returned to Plymouth University to pursue a degree in marine biology and microbiology. Upon graduating in 1998, she went on to work at the United Kingdom’s National Marine Aquarium (NMA), also in Plymouth, for 19 years.
In that time, Cracknell worked as a biologist and diving officer, an environmental manager, and the lead researcher for the aquarium. When the NMA sank an ex-Royal Naval frigate, the ex-HMS Scylla, in 2004 to create Europe’s first artificial reef off the coast of Plymouth, Cracknell was responsible for monitoring its progress across the decade that followed. Eventually a wrist injury prevented her from continuing with the more physically demanding aspects of her diving role, and Cracknell transitioned to coordinating the NMA’s research program for Plymouth University students."
'I Feel Your Pain': The Neuroscience of Empathy
The Observer, January 2018
“Studies of emotional contagion in animal models have allowed researchers to further examine the role of deep brain activity, which can be difficult to neurostimulate in humans. Keysers’ work with rats has found that these animals are more likely to freeze after watching another rat receive an electric shock if they themselves had been shocked in the past.
Inhibiting a region analogous to the ACC in the rats’ brains reduced their response to another rat’s distress, but not their fear of being shocked themselves, suggesting that the area deals specifically with socially triggered fear, Keysers said.
Claus Lamm, University of Vienna, investigates the processes that regulate firsthand pain and those that cause empathy for pain through numerous studies on the influence of painkillers.
In these experiments, participants who took a placebo “painkiller” reported lower pain ratings after receiving a shock than did those in the control group. When those same participants watched a confederate get shocked, they reported a similar drop in their perception of the actor’s pain.
“If you reduce people’s self-experienced pain, if you induce analgesia, that not only helps people to deal with their own pain, but it also reduces empathy for the pain of another person,” Lamm said.”
On the neural level, Lamm said, fMRI scans showed that people in the placebo group displayed lower levels of brain activity in the anterior insula and mid cingulate cortex in both cases."
The WEIRD Science of Culture, Values, and Behavior
The Observer, April 2018
“Quick — your house is on fire. In one room, your mother. In the other, your spouse. You only have time to save one person — what do you do?
According to APS Fellow Hazel R. Markus, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, participants’ answers to this seemingly impossible thought experiment often depended on which country the burning house was built in.
“The Americans, in the large majority, say they would save their spouse because their spouse was their choice, and is, of course, the parent of their children,” said Markus, reporting a study by Tsui-feng Wu, Susan Cross, and Chih-Wen Wu.
The majority of Taiwanese respondents, on the other hand, said they would prioritize their mother’s life.
“It’s obvious from the ideas and practices of filial piety that pervade the society,” Markus explained. “Mothers give you life, you’re fundamentally connected to your mother, you begin with her. You have only one mother, you can get another spouse.”
Understanding the reasons for this cultural disconnect requires an awareness of how interdependent societies, which emphasize relationality and a pervading awareness and responsiveness to others, operate.
The IQ of Smart Fools
The Observer, December 2017
“During his APS William James award address at the 2017 APS Annual Convention in Boston, Sternberg said that universities may not be selecting the most career-ready applicants because “alphabet tests” such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and ACT primarily reflect IQ, a measure of abstract-analytical thinking, while neglecting the other skill sets recognized in his triarchic theory of intelligence. Practical thinking, creativity, and wisdom are just as, if not more, important than IQ when it comes to ensuring a longer and more productive future for society, Sternberg explained.
“It’s not just being smart. It’s using your smartness and knowledge toward a common good,” he said. “We should be developing active, concerned citizens and ethical leaders.”
Prior to the introduction of standardized tests in the 1960s, university admissions were primarily determined by family connections, Sternberg said. When James Bryant Conant, then-president of Harvard, first began using the SAT to assess applicants, it was intended to mark a shift toward meritocracy over nepotism. But that wasn’t a complete success.
“It turns out the tests were a way of laundering social class,” Sternberg said.
IQ scores have been found to correlate highly with applicants’ socioeconomic status, and colleges often select and reward people who may not have society’s best interests at heart, Sternberg said. The high IQ of a man who studies environmental law only to provide legal counsel for polluters might benefit his career as an individual, but it’s not necessarily doing much for the greater good, for example.”
Observation Blog Posts
How Mitochondria Keep Our Brains and Minds Moving
“If you know a single fact about mitochondria, it’s probably this: “The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.”
The energy produced by these organelles is essential for powering everything we do, and that includes using our brains to learn, think, and feel. In a review published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, scientists explore how these evolutionary tagalongs contribute to outcomes related to both mental health and mental illness.
“Given the multiple first-rate jobs that mitochondria do in the nervous system, it is hardly accidental that their malfunctioning has been associated with virtually every mental or neurological affliction on earth,” wrote researchers Peter Kramer and Paola Bressan of the Università di Padova in Italy. This includes everything from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, anxiety, and depression to conditions like autism and Down syndrome, the pair wrote.
Mitochondria generate energy within our body’s cells in the forms of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and heat by consuming glucose from the food we eat and oxygen from the air we breathe. Throughout this process, they also create waste products like carbon dioxide, water, and free radicals, corrosive chemicals that can degrade our cells as well as the mitochondria themselves.”
Intuition May Overpower Probability in Decision Making
“This is it, Coach, it’s all on the line: You’re on your own 36-yard line, it’s fourth down, and you have 4 yards to go. There are just minutes left in the big game. What do you do to secure your lead – punt or “go for it”?
A New York Times analysis of thousands of football plays over nearly 20 years found that teams are 9% more likely to win if they run the ball on the 4th down, but research in Psychological Science suggests that, even when made aware of this statistical edge, over half of people choose to punt anyway.
In a series on online studies featuring marble lotteries, prize envelopes, digital blackjack, and football plays, researchers found that 30% to just over 50% of participants with faulty intuitions “acquiesced,” acting on beliefs they knew to be irrational. These findings suggest that simply detecting an error in judgment often isn’t enough to alter our behavior.
“People can be consciously aware that they are making an error when they make it,” said coauthor Daniel Walco, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago. “If the intuition springs immediately to mind and is intuitively compelling, then it may continue to feel subjectively true even if people can identify that it is objectively false.””