Neuroscience, Decisions, and Strippers

Decision making: there are countless books about it because, lets face it, decisions are at the epicenter of what we humans do. Make the wrong choice and it can kill you, or at least cause a lot of sweat and tears.

One major crossroads for many involves mate selection. Some knock it out of the park—we’ve all seen the heartwarming stories of couples still in love after 50 years—and then there are the marriages that crumble after a few months, or even days.

So what can we learn from the long-term lovebirds? What’s their secret? How did they find each other? When you first meet someone, what are the telltale signs to look for and, perhaps more importantly, to avoid?

It’s classic advice column fodder, and people make a tidy living doling out their strategies for selection. But at the crucial moment, how much strategy is really involved?

In his book Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman shares an unlikely experiment done in New Mexico.

Scientists were curious about how someone’s attraction response to a woman might be influenced by her fertility. It’s a tricky thing to study: how do you quantify something as ephemeral as human sexual chemistry? For these particular researchers, the answer lay in strip clubs. If the two things were connected, they hypothesized, maybe a lap dancer’s nightly tips would ebb and flow with her menstrual cycle?

The results were surprising. Lap dancers during their peak fertility period earned a cool $68 a night. On evenings they were menstruating, their tips fell to $35, for a monthly average of about $53.

Those who were on the pill saw no such fluctuation. Instead, they averaged about $37 dollars an evening.

What accounts for the difference? Of course, there’s no way to be sure. But Eagleman speculates it has to do with subtle changes in things like body odor, complexion, and waist-to hip ratio. It might also involve the output of pheromones, those neural chemicals linked to attraction, picked up subconsciously through the nose.

In other words, without realizing it, strip club patrons were primed to open their wallets and give more freely. They took their cues from the most primitive parts of their brains, hardwired over the generations to notice potential mates with the greatest likelihood of producing offspring.

No rational decision-making was at work, no reference to a conscious list of preferred attributes. Consciousness wasn’t even invited to the party.

What does all this mean? Well, if you’re a lap dancer relying on those tips, it means doubling up on your shift during peak fertility and maybe looking at alternate forms of birth control.

If you’re a man trying to pick up women, it means you might want to second-guess that gut instinct. Ask yourself, ‘who’s driving?’ It might not be who you think.

The Happiness Epidemic: Catching a Habit

What do behavioral traits and infectious diseases have in common? According to researchers James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis, quite a bit.  Let’s suppose that in your thirties, you become obese. We might assume that your jelly donuts and lack of exercise has finally caught up with you. Fair enough.

What might surprise you is the contagious effect your new weight is having on your peer group.

Your friends are 57% more likely to gain weight as a result of hanging out with you.  Not only that, but their friends, the ones not in your immediate circle, are 20% more likely to gain weight as well.

The same contagious effect seems to be true about smoking. According to Massimo Pigliucci in Answers for Aristotle, quitting smoking means “your friends have a 67% chance of quitting too, and their friends a 36% chance; this is also true of alcoholism, depression, and the effect is even present for happiness (meaning subjective well-being) itself!”

‘Wait a minute,’ your rational brain might already be protesting, ‘there’s no cause and effect here, but mere correlation. After all, aren’t my friends probably living in a similar socio-economic bracket, therefore frequenting Dunkin Donuts too, essentially living my lifestyle?’

From that perspective, it would stand to reason that you’d see similar tendencies in your friends across the board. Yet Fowler and Christakis were able to document that the patterns of change aren’t simultaneous. They happen over time, like the spreading of a disease.

And if habits broke down purely on socio-economic lines, then your address would be one of the best indicators of your behavior. Surely if any collection of people could be expected to act the same, it would be those with access to the same grocery stores, gyms, bars, and restaurants. However, the behavior of your friends is a much better predictor, even if your friends live across town.

Why? Mimicry is an essential aspect of our lives. The association and comfort of being part of a group is well documented. And what is a group if not individuals brought together by shared experiences, held together by commonality?

As Fowler and Christakis discuss, these commonalities go beyond a nicotine habit or a number on a scale. One of the traits that seems the most influenced by who you spend time with? Happiness. Seventies acoustic troubadour Cat Stevens once sang, “If you want to live high, live high, and if you want to live low, live low” but these studies suggest you might first want to seek out other pals who are living how you want to live.

If Fowler and Christakis are correct and behavioral traits can spread like the common cold, the idea of frequent hand washing, and general accountability for one’s disposition, take on a whole new significance.

Beyond the Punchline: the Real Meaning of Laughter

“What keeps a dyslexic agnostic up at night? Wondering if there really is a dog.”

You can debate whether that’s funny or not, but either way, we’ll probably agree that the opening statement is a joke—or at least, an attempt at one.

When many of us contemplate the concept of laughter, it goes hand-in-hand with jokes. Unless you happen to be Robert Provine.

Robert Provine’s book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation attempts to understand what actually happens during spontaneous human laughter. Provine’s research team observed over 2000 cases in a wide variety of circumstances and situations. The study included men and women, and a range of ages.

The verdict? Laughter resulted from jokes or funny stories only about 20% of the time. So if it’s not all about the punchline, what’s going on?

Provine postulates that laughter has a deeper meaning. He sees it as an evolutionary advantage associated with group bonding and social communication.

Laughter shows up in infants as early as four months of age. This, of course, supports the idea that it’s not always joke-driven, most babies not being renowned for their senses of humor.

According to Provine, laughter exists across all cultures, most often accompanying statements that demonstrate knowledge of a person or people in one’s group. For instance, Hey Bill, how are the kids? or Here comes the hardest working person on the team. Accompanied by laughter, these mundane announcements reinforce a basic connection with between others and ourselves.

And interestingly, it’s the speaker who tends to do the laughing, at a rate of two to one over the listener.

You’re thirty times more likely to laugh in a group situation, and in fact the study suggests it’s pretty rare that we actually laugh out loud when alone. Go ahead and give it a try; since laughter is an unconscious act, laughing on command is always going to be an act of counterfeit.

You’re probably not surprised to find out that laughter is contagious. We tend to laugh when we hear others laughing—regardless of whether or not we know what they’re laughing at.

Provine tells us that women on average laugh twice as often as men, and the lower your social status in a particular group, the more comfortable you are laughing around them. Conversely, having a higher social in a group means you’ll be less likely to laugh.

There’s the old saying that “laughter is the best medicine.” It’s meant to underscore the importance of humor, of jokes. And even if we amend it to “laughter is the best medicine, at least 20% of time,” as a stress reliever, it can’t be beat.

The idea of laughter as an ancient group unifier makes sense, but if Provine is right, and funny stories and jokes only constitute about 20% of laughter worldwide, maybe it’s time we agree to rev up our joke production.

So Robert Provine, an agnostic, and a four-month-old walk into a bar…

The Science Behind Your Out of Body Experience

What do epilepsy, an out of body experience and your personal space bubble share in common? Mother-and-son science writers Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee explain the connection in their book, The Body has a Mind of its Own.

Team Blakeslee begin their story in an unlikely place: the region of your brain behind your right ear. It’s known as your Right Angular Gyrus (RAG).

Before an epilepsy operation, the surgeon’s standard procedure is to open up the skull and poke around a little to identify the various functional brain areas.

Even though human brains share the same essential architecture, each brain is wired slightly differently. A quick round of poking and prodding is the best way to get a sense of the layout, and thus to know what not to cut.

Since the brain doesn’t feel pain, this recon mission is done with the patient awake. The surgeon probes a given area, and the patient reports back what they are feeling. For example, a gentle touch on one area of your brain might register as if someone is tickling the big toe on your left foot. You get the idea.

One day, a neurosurgeon enacting this procedure happened to probe the patient’s right angular gyrus. Much to the surgeon’s surprise, the patient excitedly explained that they had the sensation of hovering above the operating table and looking down on their own body. The same thing has since happened to others as well. It turns out that at least some of the time, the classic out-of-body experience is as simple as knowing where to poke.

So what’s going on? In trying to predict and understand its environment, the brain constructs maps of the real world. This is how we can remember the floor plan in our house or apartment, or find our way back to the grocery store again and again.

In a very literal way, your sense of self reaches beyond your own skin.

In fact, your brain annexes and maps the area around you as if it were an extension of your body, albeit a virtual one. Scientists call this zone “peripersonal space.” The out-of-body experience, from the brain’s point of view is not so ‘out of body’, it’s just working from a different definition of where your body begins and ends.

This makes the use of tools in our lives much more meaningful. When a baseball player picks up a bat, his brain treats the bat as a logical extension of his own arm and hand. In the same way, an experienced backhoe operator’s command of the machine’s joystick turns the machines bucket into his own giant robot arm, thus extending his reach in an entirely literal way.

The Blakeslees also point out that your peripersonal space is not static, but “morphs” based on your movement and intentions. This is why a sight-impaired person can learn to navigate so well with a cane.

And as they make the way down the street, even though they are holding onto nothing but a glorified stick, their extended brain mapping allows them to feel the texture of the pavement, and extract a very real sense of the ground they are traversing.

So the next time you’re riding on a subway or find yourself crammed into a crowded elevator, keep in mind that you’re encroaching on some stranger’s peripersonal space, and from the brain’s perspective, you’ve just shared a very intimate moment.

Aristotle’s Three Musketeers, or, A Swiftly Tipping Stool

What might the Greek philosopher and Jack-of-all-trades Aristotle think of the latest findings in neuroscience? How would his notion of what it means to be a good public speaker stack up against the bevy of brain biases Daniel Kahneman outlines in prospect theory?

In On Rhetoric, Aristotle outlines three key concepts in building a convincing speech. The speaker must demonstrate:

Ethos: character, trustworthiness, credibility
Logos: logic, facts, figures or some process
Pathos: emotion, true feelings, a sense of connection

Your ethos can be broadly defined as your reputation or honor. Unfortunately, if your listeners don’t already know you, they are less likely to give you the time of day. When famed violinist Joshua Bell played an incognito recital in the Washington subway system, virtually nobody stopped to listen. Without context, Bell’s playing was swallowed up in the chaos of the daily commute. Our sense of importance is often driven more by context than actual value.

For Aristotle, logos were the facts and details, the nuts and bolts of any logical argument. The concept that an argument should be grounded in reason is one of the many things that western science borrowed from Aristotle. And yet, while we pay lip service to rationality, split-brain studies show that what we describe as our reasons often have little connection to the actual decision. We employ logic not as a compass but as a justification.

Danish author Martin Lindstrom notes an interesting phenomenon with product satisfaction surveys. Namely, that they’re useless. Ask someone to review a product they’ve just bought, and there will be nearly no correlation between their stated stance and what they’ll do the next time

When Aristotle talks about pathos, he is referring to the emotional appeal or the connection to the group, the speaker’s ability to stir the hearts and minds of the listeners. Perhaps modern neuroscience has advanced no idea more strongly than the power of pathos. This is why Kahneman labels the emotional factor, and not our rationality, as the real star of the show.

Aristotle understood this, but in the context of a powerful trinity, with pathos as one leg of a three-legged stool. He wasn’t entirely wrong, just a bit iffy on the relative proportions.

Aristotle often gets billed as a philosopher, and while this is true, it’s also selling him short; his writings cover everything from poetry to physics, music to politics, ethics to zoology. Philosopher Bryan Magee is quoted as saying (maybe a little hyperbolically), “it is doubtful whether any human being has ever known as much as he did”.

So if Aristotle was around today, maybe he wouldn’t need to be embarrassed at having inflated the value of ethos and logos a little. He’d probably be too busy delving into the advances in all his many favorite areas of study. Maybe a few new ones as well. Just what would Aristotle think of neuroscience? There’s no way no know for sure, but he would likely find it interesting. As a wise man once said, “The energy of the mind is the essence of life.”*

(*Aristotle. It was Aristotle.)

Processors, Poison, and Poetry: the Science Behind Eyes

Your eyes are far more than your windows to the outside world. They are the movie cameras that project information to the cerebral cortex, the brain’s hardworking visual processor.

In absolute silence and utter darkness, the information is translated inside your skull at amazing speeds.
It’s a complex operation: in a split second, shadows, movement, and shape are first separated and then knit back together again by a workforce of millions of neurons.

In the final stage, the subconscious brain must decide just how much of the imagery it will make available to your conscious mind. The brain only has a limited processing capacity, so these edits are an essential element to the process. Since the revisions happen outside of your awareness, the concious brain is forced to play the part of moviegoer rather than director.

How does your subconscious decide what to keep and what to leave on the metaphorical cutting room floor? Scientists are still in the dark (couldn’t resist).

But it is understood that your eyes, and by that I mean your pupils in particular, give us a window into your brain’s ability to focus. We know, for example, that there is a direct correlation between the dilation of pupils and mental effort. The larger the pupils, the more concentration on display.

Many, many tests have proved this relationship. When I’m working hard on a math problem, for instance, my pupils become quite large. When I give up on the problem, my pupils immediately shrink, as if to say, “Hey, that’s all folks.”

Pupil dilation also occurs when you looks at someone you find attractive. But interestingly, the reverse is also true.

Not so long ago, scientists ran an experiment wherein they showed men photographs of swimsuit models. The first photo was genuine, but in the second picture, the models’ pupils had been photoshopped to look larger. Sure enough, 90% of the men preferred the doctored photographs.

This is hardly news. The scientists could’ve saved a lot of time had they been able to talk to seventeenth century women. A common beauty trick at the time was to cut a sprig of the belladonna plant and sniff it from time to time which—you guessed it—dilates the eyes. Apparantly this trick was quite effective. (Hopefully it was worth it; belladonna is also quite poisonous.)

So how do restauranteurs take advantage of this? They dim the lights at night, ostensibly to create “ambiance”. The lower light levels make the pupil dilate, which suddenly makes the person across from you far more desirable. This generally leads couples to linger in the restaurant longer, which naturally leads to another glass of wine, or a piece of cheesecake. And so with a flick of a switch, everybody is happy, especially the restaurant owner.

The eyes might not be the windows to the soul, as many a poet has suggested. But you could certainly make a strong case that the eyes, in their ability to reflect both inward and outward, help define both what we see and who we are. That alone is worth the price of admission.

The Final Word on Word-of-Mouth

Let’s start at the location where every single sale begins. I’m talking, of course, about a customer’s brain.

Inside each customer’s skull is enough neural pathways to go around the moon and then circle the earth 6 times. It is this web of myriad connections that will decide whether to or not to make the purchase.

And that decision, the one that has enormous implications for you and me, our families, the economy, and virtually everyone else on the planet, begins its journey in the future.

Whenever someone decides to purchase a product, they begin the journey with a kind of thought experiment, imagining how their life will be with their new acquisition. This can take the form of a vague notion (‘Wouldn’t be nice to have a new pair of running shoes?’) or it might be a little more concrete (‘I want Chuck Conner All-Stars in bright orange with white laces, size 10 1/2’).

It is the job of a salesperson to usher these movies in our heads into reality, which often means helping to define that imagined experience.

Not so long ago, the first step to a sale might have begun with the yellow pages. Today, the Internet is where over half of new customers will plot the beginning and, in some cases, the end of the journey. This is why companies large and small devote major dollars to making their websites as vibrant as possible.

So does all of this mean traditional brick-and-mortar is going the way of the dinosaur? The demise of long-time retailers like Montgomery Ward, and more recent ones like Borders and Blockbuster, suggest that the Internet is definitely changing the purchasing landscape. In 2012, sales conducted online racked up over a trillion dollars worldwide.

In his book Contagious, Jonah Berger lays out the truth about the power of the internet as influencer. He points out the following:

1. Word of mouth is the primary driver of 20-50% of all sales in the USA

2. Including blogs, emails, and all social media, how much of that happens online? If you’re like most people, you’d guess around 50-60%. After all, it doesn’t take a mathematician to know that $1 trillion is a lot of money. However, according to the Keller Fay Research group, the real figure is (drum roll please): 7%.

3. Not 70%. 7%.

How is that possible?

Even if you, like the average American, spend two hours of each day online, most of your life is still conducted in “unplugged” mode. Even factoring in sleep, you spend 8 times more time dealing with people face-to-face, sharing your thoughts with the 150 people closest to you. (150 is the maximum number of real relationships one can actually juggle in their life according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar)

Your social group is powerful. You might have read incredible things about Nike on Consumer Report’s website, but if your friend told you she just bought a pair of Nikes and had a miserable experience, all of the carefully compiled statistics go out the window. Your friend’s word of mouth trumps the feedback of thousands of strangers.

And even though the average tweet or Facebook post has the potential to hit 100 people, less than 10% of them actually get read.

Yes, I can get up in the middle of the night half-asleep, turn on my computer, log onto Zappo’s, buy a pair of running shoes and stumble back to bed. And yes, that single item-based sale is susceptible to that sort of enterprise.

Still, when it comes to making purchasing decisions, your inner circle of family and confederates hold tremendous sway over the shopping center in your brain.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Are You Under its Spell?

When it comes to brain biases, one that gets an awful lot of play is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It’s a phenomenon demonstrated by many studies, but it all started with, you guessed it, Dunning and Kruger.

The pair surveyed undergrad college students who had just taken a test, asking each student to predict his or her score. Then they compared each student’s guess against the results.

The students who did really well on the test had slightly downgraded predictions. The students who did poorly, on the other hand, had overestimated their scores by an average of 30%.

In Daniel R. Hawes’ article “When Ignorance Begets Confidence: The Dunning-Kruger Effect”, he shares the same general conclusion from another study:

“Participants who took tests in their ability to think logically, to write grammatically, and to spot funny jokes tended to overestimate their percentile ranking relative to their peers by some 40 to 50 points, thinking they were outperforming a majority of their peers when, in fact, they are the ones being outperformed.”

Put more frankly, people with limited knowledge have the potential to make total fools of themselves, without ever realizing how ridiculous they seem to everyone else. The problem of course, is you don’t know what you don’t know, so unless someone breaks through the wall of that person’s cognitive dissonance, it can perpetuate itself forever.

So here is an interesting question, and one that might be slightly uncomfortable. What if you are the poster child for the Dunning-Kruger Effect? What if you’re the one they’re chatting about around the water cooler? To that end, I share the following four warning signs for D-KE.

•   Any conversation that begins with your coworkers saying, in voices choked with withheld laughter, “Tell us that story again.” As in, “Tell us again how you explained to the exterminator that insects developed wings not so much through an evolutionary process but because they just didn’t know they couldn’t or shouldn’t be able to fly.”

•   When you approach the water cooler and the eye rolls move from person to person like the wave at a football game, and then they all break into a smile.

•   You believe that simply observing someone do something qualifies you as an expert, as in, “I’ve seen Mick Jaeger twelve times, how hard would it be to strut around on stage like that– provided I had access to his wardrobe.”

•   Any time your sentence contains the following words: “It’s not rocket science…” This one is actually a double whammy, because the Dunning-Kruger Effect is in play when you believe you understand rocket science enough to make a generalized statement, and likewise assume you are an expert in what you’re comparing rocket science to.

Important note: the above list is by no means a complete catalog of being under the influence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect,  but it’s a start.

>It’s also important to understand that D-KE is not the same as self-delusion. Self-delusion  happens when you are in some way a willful party to the charade. But as a participant in the Dunning-Kruger Effect, you are completely oblivious to your behavior—which means without outside intervention, the behavior could continue indefinitely.

We all know people like this. They are both fascinating, and infuriating. And although it is unlikely that you or I will have any effect on the way they operate, there is something satisfying about at least having a name for their ilk.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch another video on a note-for-note breakdown of essential Jimi Hendrix guitar licks. Because there are two things I know to be true: practice makes perfect, and if I only had his guitar, I’d give old Jimi a run for his money.

Cause and Correlation, or the Pirate Problem


As you can see from the above graph, global warming is pirate-based.  It’s something I think we all suspected, but were hesitant to advance until the facts could be summarized in a handy graphic.

There is something about information delivered via graph that instantly lends an air of unassailable authority. The person trapped in the cube next to you, or even the guy down at the gas station couldn’t possibly carry the credibility of a simple graph.

It is an axiom of business that any presenter worth his or her salt is going to fill their PowerPoint with charts and graphs. The more the better, and the more oblique and difficult to read the best. Data delivered with a graph says “Here is the evidence, plain and simple. Let the ascending and descending lines tell you the story.”

The problem with the story, as with the graph above, is that we aren’t just suckered into believing correlation implies causality. We start thinking correlation is causality. Governments, businesses and individuals make this mistake on a daily basis. It’s impossible to calculate the frequency or the magnitude of the resulting financial loss, but it’s enormous.

We all know the crowing of the rooster doesn’t cause the sun to rise. But when rates of breast or prostate cancer is associated with soymilk, or some new drug, it can frequently drive us towards some definitive action, even though the connection of data points might in actuality be more rooster/sun than cause/effect.

The correlation/causality problem goes back a long way. The early human brain, confronted by the rustling of the bush, might naturally assume it was a tiger and not the wind. Erring on the side of safety could make the difference between life and death. Assuming correlation as causality was a small price to pay. This evolution based brain bias is still part of our biology today.

Here are four questions worth considering the next time you’re faced with the seductive whisperings of an X-axis.

1. Where do the represented data points come from?  Groups and individuals might be selectively mining the facts based on their own private agenda.

2. What do the data points represent?  Tiny samples can lead to casual conclusions that would be dismissed in a more robust survey population

3. Was this a blind study? A control group gives you some yardstick by which to judge the rest of the information.

4. Could other factors be in play?  This is probably the most abused problem with the correlation/causality mix-up. Maybe there is some relation between the X axis and the Y axis, but they could just as easily be responding to some other, third influence.

In the case of the rooster/sun problem, you’d want to consider both planetary revolution and the circadian rhythms of diurnal animals. (Additionally, if you’ve ever been on a farm, you’ll know that while roosters do crow at daybreak, those feathery little jerks will also sound their alarm in the middle of the night.)

So the next time some newscaster announces that eating peanut butter has “been linked to” autism, think back to our little graph. And remember: despite the insistence of Pastafarians everywhere (a group inspired by a modern-day Russell’s teapot analogy), most meteorologists agree that pirates have next to no effect on the climate.

Fans of buccaneers, privateers, and skallywags can let out a “Yarr!” of relief.

The Top Six Errors in Unbalanced Brain Strategy

Recently, I talked about whole brain strategy.

This week, a look at what happens inside a workplace when a company or organization tries to implement a new policy without understanding how the human brain works. If you’ve ever witnessed a giant disconnect between the systems a company claims to use, and the way their employees actually operate (call it Ghost Ship Syndrome, if you will), unbalanced brain strategy may very well be to blame.

So without further ado, I give you: the top six errors in unbalanced brain strategy: Continue reading