Sunday's Silly Science Roundup

This just in from the great minds at the University of Central Florida: Laws of physics, math debunk Hollywood portrayals of ghosts, vampires.
Using Isaac Newton's Laws of Motion, [UCF researchers] demonstrated that ghosts would not be able to walk and pass through walls [and] basic math disproves the legend of humans turning into vampires after they are bitten . . . because the entire human population in 1600 would have been wiped out in less than three years.
Time well spent guys--really.


The Art of Empathy

The Frontal Cortex has an interesting post about a recent study conducted by psychologists at the University of Toronto on the effects of reading fiction. (Full disclosure here: I haven’t read the entire study, which was published in the October issue of The Journal of Research in Personality. I just can’t bring myself to fork over the money for a subscription at the moment. So, the following observations are based solely on the abstract, which you can read here.) The thrust of the study appears to be this: researchers found that avid fiction readers are more socially adept and empathetic than readers of nonfiction.

On its face, this seems counterintuitive. How does reading about imaginary people better prepare you for the real world than reading about actual corporeal beings? I don’t have the answer to this question, and, as far as I can tell, neither do the researchers. But I do have a theory.

The thing that separates fiction from nonfiction is fiction’s ability to transport the reader into the mind of another. Reading a psychologically astute work of fiction is the closest we ever get to experiencing the world through someone else’s eyes. No other art form offers us the level of access that fiction offers. You could argue that even real life doesn’t offer the kind of intimacy found in a good novel.

Think about your greatest love affair. The psychic fusion that accompanies new love can be engulfing. It often gives people the feeling of being “at one” with their beloved. But even during this peak emotional experience, we are very much alone in our own minds. Your loved one knows as much about your interior life as you are willing to offer up and vice versa. And as rule, our disclosures represent only a small portion of our experiences. Now contrast this with your knowledge of Jane Eyre’s interior life. If pressed, I imagine that those of you who’ve read the book could talk at length about Jane’s heartbreaks, her dreams, and her yearnings. Could you do the same for your partner? My guess is that you couldn’t, certainly not with the same level of confidence.

My point here is this: reading fiction is an inherently empathetic act. So, it makes perfect sense that regular readers of fiction would have a highly developed sense of empathy. Practice, as the old saying goes, makes perfect. It’s only logical that the ability to transcend your own ego and adopt the perspective of another, honed by reading fiction, translates into better people skills in the real world.

It occurred to me as I was reading the abstract that it would be interesting to find out how mirror neurons behave when someone is reading fiction. For the sake of brevity, I’ll spare you a long definition of mirror neurons here. (For more info, see “Psychic Cells.”) Put simply, mirror neurons are empathy neurons. When you perform an action, like throwing a baseball, for the first time, this behavior gets encoded in a clutch of brain cells. But scientists have recently discovered that these brain cells also fire when you see someone else perform the same action. These are mirror neurons. And they are sophisticated. In addition to responding to physical actions, they light up when you see someone experiencing an emotion that you’ve experienced. If someone is mourning the death of a pet, for instance, and you’ve dealt with a similar experience, your own “pet mourning” mirror neurons will light up in sympathy. My hunch is that mirror neurons also light up when you read about someone mourning a pet. This would explain why readers can summon up the feelings ascribed to fictional characters so easily. Mirror neurons make their emotions real to us.

I don’t mean to imply that nonfiction is fiction’s poor relation. Nonfiction has a different, but no less important, mandate. It is a powerful way of relaying information and bringing real life into clear focus. The importance of this can’t be overstated. But nonfiction writers aren’t afforded unlimited access to their subject’s interior lives. They can give you glimpses inside the minds of their characters, but they can’t allow you to step inside their heads for prolonged periods of time. And this, I think, explains why reading nonfiction doesn’t allow readers to exercise empathy to the same degree as fiction.

Of course, the masters of nonfiction (Joan Didion, Gay Talese, even John Krakauer) are capable of blurring the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. They spend months – sometimes even years – immersing themselves in the lives of their subjects: gaining their trust, and analyzing their characters. The result is nonfiction that reads like fiction. Facts are presented in graphic detail, and thoughts and feelings are relived for the benefit of the reader. This requires painstaking attention to detail—a level of attention most nonfiction writers are unwilling or unable to invest.

*Virtual End Note*

I had the opportunity to talk to Gay Talese recently after he lectured at NYU. I asked him how he had been able to put himself so completely in the shoes of the boxer Floyd Patterson, a man he wrote about over the course of more than two decades. ‘How did you know what Patterson was thinking in a given moment,’ I asked? ‘I asked him,’ said Talese simply. Not once, but over and over again, several times a day, for years on end. Kinda makes writing fiction sound easy, doesn’t it?


'Trip' for your health

Those who read “Psychedelic Pharmacology” may be interested to learn that Dr. Erika Dyck, a medical professor at the University of Alberta, is trumpeting the benefits of using LSD as a treatment for alcoholism. After surveying past research, Dyck found there was ample evidence to support the idea that “tripping” helps addicts achieve the level of emotional catharsis required to give up the drink.

She interviewed a handful of reformed alcoholics who used acid to kick the habit some 40 years ago and reported:

The LSD experience appeared to allow the patients to go through a spiritual journey that ultimately empowered them to heal themselves, and that's really quite an amazing therapy regimen.
(“LSD Treatment for Alcoholism Gets New Look")

Sort of puts a whole new spin on the idea of a gateway drug, doesn’t it?



I find myself strangely obsessed with tracking the constant shuffle of Google Ads on the site lately. I worry a bit when Neurontic is papered with advertisements for suicide prevention hotlines, bargain-basement antidepressants, and therapy directories, as is the case when I spend too much time talking about depression treatments. I laugh when one posting that mentions the word ‘spaghetti’ results in a flood of links to pasta recipes. But I’m entirely perplexed by today’s top ranking ad: ‘God Ringtone.’

The ad instructs me to ‘send this ringtone to my phone right now!’ I can’t help wanting to. What exactly constitutes a ‘God’ ringtone anyway? Is it a George Burns voice over? A recording of a Latin mass? Is it sect specific? If you punch ‘3’ for Jewish, do you get a download of a famous cantor? Do agnostics just hear static? Kinda makes you think, doesn’t it?


A couple of things from last Sunday’s Times Magazine I wanted to direct your attention to:

*First, Charles Seibert’s brilliant article on the dissolution of elephant culture: “An Elephant Crackup?” Regular readers will recognize Seibert’s name from “Are rats laughing at us?” an examination of the burgeoning field of Animal Psychology. His latest article explores how humans have upset the delicate equilibrium of Pachyderm society by steadily annexing the elephant’s natural habitat, and decimating the elder members of herds in the name of population control and commerce (ivory).

It’s a truly tragic tale and one that has caught the attention of mainstream psychologists who normally reserve their attention for bipeds. Why? Because, as it turns out, young elephants from broken families exhibit many of the behaviors of human adolescents suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Elephants who have seen their nearest and dearest gunned down at an early age become despondent, antisocial, paranoid—and often violent (elephant attacks against humans have skyrocketed in recent years). If you think I’m anthropomorphizing, take a look: “An Elephant Crackup?

*And in “The Long Zoom,” Steven Johnson writes about Spore, a much-anticipated new game from Will Wright, the creator of The Sims. Wright has spent the last six years building a system that will allow users to play god in the most literal sense. Each player begins as a “single-celled organism, swimming in a sea of nutrients.” If you successfully survive the attacks of a legion of plankton-sized predators you start to amass “evolutionary credits” and eventually earn the title of “Creator Editor.” At this point, you are free to enact your own Genesis. You populate your world with creatures of your own design; you govern their ecosystems, construct their cities, organize their economies; manage the competing demands of your own self-created nation-states, etc.

Johnson believes that Spore is singularly suited to our historical moment, because it epitomizes the peculiar way cybercitizens view the world. Most eras have distinct “ways of seeing,” he writes:

. . . the fixed perspective of Renaissance Art; the scattered collages of Cubism; the rapid-fire cuts introduced by MTV; and the channel-surfing of the ‘80s. Our own defining view is what you might call the long zoom: satellites tracking in on license plate numbers in spy movies; the Google maps in which a few clicks take you from the view of an entire region to the roof of your house . . . And this is not just a way of seeing but also a way of thinking, moving conceptually from the scale of DNA to the scale of personality all the way up to social movements and politics.
("The Long Zoom")

Spore, Johnson contends, is the perfect example of this brand of telescopic thinking. In Wright’s game, we begin by embodying one of the tiniest creatures on earth, an amoeba, but quickly morph into the all-seeing eye--a truly omnipotent god.

Johnson goes on to argue that this particular mode of seeing is beneficial, because it allows us to conceptualize the true interconnectedness of everything. We become virtual Buddhists, capable of recognizing how the extinction of a species of water bug in a swamp on one of our planets might contribute to the build up of green house gases on another; or how downturns in the Western economy can lead to war in the East.

According to Johnson, this crash course in synergistic thinking has the potential to make us better world citizens. He may be right. On the other hand, Spore could just as easily produce a generation of children with deeply entrenched God complexes. Who knows?

Plus, am I the only one who thinks this sounds like really hard work? I may be old-fashioned, but I generally warm up the old X-Box when I’ve had enough of real world concerns. The idea of spending my leisure hours recreating the universe from scratch strikes me as exhausting. I mean I couldn’t even get my Sim to go to work. He was so depressed he kept peeing on the floor. I’m not so sure I’m cut out for this whole deity thing.


Repliee: Live in the "flesh"

A quick note to let all interested parties know that Repliee Q1expo, the latest thing in android science, is on display at this week's WIRED NEXTFEST in Manhattan.

If anyone out there has time for a fieldtrip, Neurontic would love to hear your impressions. Preliminary reports suggest that she's uncanny when sitting still, but bears a discomfitting resemblence to a wind up toy once set in motion.