Saturday, January 01, 2011

A Few Best of 2010 Lists from Cool Sites

Follow the links, see what you may have missed.

The Skeptic: The Top 10 Science Books of 2010

In the tradition of making end-of-the-year lists of the “Top 10 X” I present my personal picks for the Top 10 Science Books of 2010. Most of these books are available in audio format as well as the old-school ink-on-bound-paper format, and I highly recommend as the go-to source for easy listening to these selections while driving or riding your bike from your MP3 player or iPhone/iPod (use one ear bud instead of two so you can hear on-coming traffic, ambulances, etc.).

In reverse order I give you my Top 10 Science Books of 2010.
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Futurity: Top 10 stories of 2010

RESEARCH REWIND: A theoretical showdown between rock climber and surfer, medicinal beer, evolution's mishaps, and the life-changing power of gratitude, and more make the list of Futurity's top stories of 2010.

Take a look back at some of the most read and most talked about stories of the year.
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PLoS ONE News and Blog Round-Up: 2010 in Review

This year PLoS ONE had a lot of interesting research covered in the media. In fact, we had over 300 research articles receive substantial coverage from all over the world. So I thought on the eve of the New Year, it might be nice to list a sampling of some of the most widely covered papers. From new dinosaur discoveries to social networks predicting outbreaks, it was hard to choose but I narrowed it down to 25. Starting from the most recently published papers and working backward, here is the list of some of 2010’s most extensively covered papers.

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Looking Back at the Year in Socially Engaged Buddhism

December 30, 2010
by Maia Duerr

Buddhist monks praying for peace in Thailand, May 2010

This is the full first year that The Jizo Chronicles has been up and running, so it’s a good time to look back at what’s been going on in the world of socially engaged Buddhism in 2010. (To get an idea of what’s ahead for 2011, look at the Calendar of Events that we maintain here.)

It’s been quite a year, actually.

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Brain Pickings Redux 2010

A year’s worth of ideas, inspiration and innovation from culture’s collective brain.

It’s that time again, that very special day on which we turn back on the year whose end we celebrate tonight and take a look at the tastiest tidbits of interestingness that made our radar during the 4,500+ hours we poured into Brain Pickings in 2010. (And if you found any of them marginally interesting, stimulating or smile-inducing, please consider supporting us with a marginal donation — it’s what keeps the cogs a-turnin’ here.)

We kicked off the year with an uncovered gem: Steve Jobs on working with Paul Rand, the iconic designer perhaps as famous for his infamous temper as he was for his legendary work. We wanted to remember 100 places before they disappear.

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Top ten language stories of 2010

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2010 was a year rich in stories about language, not the uplifting kind that celebrate effective, poetic communication, but stories about attempts to regulate language, stifle it, even kill it off outright. Here are the top 10 language stories of the year, in no particular order.

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Ten great studies from 2010 that can improve your life.

The end of 2010 fast approaches, and I'm thrilled to have been asked by the editors of Psychology Today to write about the Top 10 psychology studies of the year. I've focused on studies that I personally feel stand out, not only as examples of great science, but even more importantly, as examples of how the science of psychology can improve our lives.

Each study has a clear "take home" message, offering the reader an insight or a simple strategy they can use to reach their goals, strengthen their relationships, make better decisions, or become happier. If you extract the wisdom from these ten studies and apply them in your own life, 2011 just might be a very good year.

Observing the Observer - Two Parts

These have been open tabs for at least a month - I have been meaning to blog about them but time has not been my friend. So here are the abstracts, the PDF link is the end of each abstract. These are cool articles although they are also quite geeky. Here is a very brief summary of the two papers:
In this paper, we describe the main theoretical components of this meta-Bayesian approach (i.e. a Bayesian treatment of Bayesian decision theoretic predictions). In a companion paper (‘Observing the observer (II): deciding when to decide’), we describe a concrete implementation of it and demonstrate its utility by applying it to simulated and real reaction time data from an associative learning task.
I have to admit that portions of these articles are very challenging and that I do not get the details - I'm settling for the gist.

Observing the Observer (I): Meta-Bayesian Models of Learning and Decision-Making

Jean Daunizeau, Hanneke E. M. den Ouden, Matthias Pessiglione, Stefan J. Kiebel, Klaas E. Stephan, Karl J. Friston


In this paper, we present a generic approach that can be used to infer how subjects make optimal decisions under uncertainty. This approach induces a distinction between a subject's perceptual model, which underlies the representation of a hidden “state of affairs” and a response model, which predicts the ensuing behavioural (or neurophysiological) responses to those inputs. We start with the premise that subjects continuously update a probabilistic representation of the causes of their sensory inputs to optimise their behaviour. In addition, subjects have preferences or goals that guide decisions about actions given the above uncertain representation of these hidden causes or state of affairs. From a Bayesian decision theoretic perspective, uncertain representations are so-called “posterior” beliefs, which are influenced by subjective “prior” beliefs. Preferences and goals are encoded through a “loss” (or “utility”) function, which measures the cost incurred by making any admissible decision for any given (hidden) state of affair. By assuming that subjects make optimal decisions on the basis of updated (posterior) beliefs and utility (loss) functions, one can evaluate the likelihood of observed behaviour. Critically, this enables one to “observe the observer”, i.e. identify (context- or subject-dependent) prior beliefs and utility-functions using psychophysical or neurophysiological measures. In this paper, we describe the main theoretical components of this meta-Bayesian approach (i.e. a Bayesian treatment of Bayesian decision theoretic predictions). In a companion paper (‘Observing the observer (II): deciding when to decide’), we describe a concrete implementation of it and demonstrate its utility by applying it to simulated and real reaction time data from an associative learning task.

Citation: Daunizeau J, den Ouden HEM, Pessiglione M, Kiebel SJ, Stephan KE, et al. (2010) Observing the Observer (I): Meta-Bayesian Models of Learning and Decision-Making. PLoS ONE 5(12): e15554. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0015554

PDF Download

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Observing the Observer (II): Deciding When to Decide

Jean Daunizeau, Hanneke E. M. den Ouden, Matthias Pessiglione, Stefan J. Kiebel, Karl J. Friston, Klaas E. Stephan


In a companion paper [1], we have presented a generic approach for inferring how subjects make optimal decisions under uncertainty. From a Bayesian decision theoretic perspective, uncertain representations correspond to “posterior” beliefs, which result from integrating (sensory) information with subjective “prior” beliefs. Preferences and goals are encoded through a “loss” (or “utility”) function, which measures the cost incurred by making any admissible decision for any given (hidden or unknown) state of the world. By assuming that subjects make optimal decisions on the basis of updated (posterior) beliefs and utility (loss) functions, one can evaluate the likelihood of observed behaviour. In this paper, we describe a concrete implementation of this meta-Bayesian approach (i.e. a Bayesian treatment of Bayesian decision theoretic predictions) and demonstrate its utility by applying it to both simulated and empirical reaction time data from an associative learning task. Here, inter-trial variability in reaction times is modelled as reflecting the dynamics of the subjects' internal recognition process, i.e. the updating of representations (posterior densities) of hidden states over trials while subjects learn probabilistic audio-visual associations. We use this paradigm to demonstrate that our meta-Bayesian framework allows for (i) probabilistic inference on the dynamics of the subject's representation of environmental states, and for (ii) model selection to disambiguate between alternative preferences (loss functions) human subjects could employ when dealing with trade-offs, such as between speed and accuracy. Finally, we illustrate how our approach can be used to quantify subjective beliefs and preferences that underlie inter-individual differences in behaviour.

Citation: Daunizeau J, den Ouden HEM, Pessiglione M, Kiebel SJ, Friston KJ, et al. (2010) Observing the Observer (II): Deciding When to Decide. PLoS ONE 5(12): e15555. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0015555

PDF Download

Cosmos Online - Rewiring Your Brain, with Norman Doidge

New year, why not a newly rewired brain to go with it. And I'll bet some of you are needing that right now if you partied a little too hard last night. Anyway, interesting interview. By the way, if you haven't read The Brain that Changes Itself yet, it's a good book.

Rewiring your brain, with Norman Doidge

11 October 2010

After reading this interview with Norman Doidge, your brain will increase the number of connections between certain nerve cells. The concept of such 'neuroplasticity' has come to be widely accepted after Doidge wrote the best-selling book The Brain that Changes Itself.

When I meet up with Norman Doidge it's at the end of a long day of interviews and he looks exhausted. "Give me a few minutes to get myself together," he says wearily as he ducks up to his hotel room for a few minutes of quiet. He returns with dark chocolate and popcorn, and over coffee he perks up and talks to me about the power of the mind and the best-selling The Brain That Changes Itself.

The literary neuroscience book uses case studies and research to show that our thoughts can change the actual structure and physiology of our brain - a theory known as neuroplasticity. When the book came out in 2007 (2008 in Australia), it revolutionised the way scientists thought about the brain, which researchers have long thought was unchangeable and machine-like.

For a man who has overthrown hundreds of years of neuroscience, Doidge is much more softly spoken than I would imagine. He's calm, attentive and patient and I can't picture him rushing out to crush an established theory. As it turns out, my impression of him is correct, and the events that led up to the publication weren't a rush at all - more a slow build up of mounting evidence that Doidge could no longer avoid.

"On the one hand, the research for the book was five years, and on the other hand it was all of my professional life," says Doidge as he offers me a piece of dark chocolate.

It was worth the time, the book has been hovering on the non-fiction best sellers lists for the past three years and has been reprinted 10 times - something that Doidge still finds surprising. But not quite as surprising as the concept of neuroplasticity itself.

"When I think about it I'm still like 'wow' - I still have to pinch myself. For so long we've been told that when areas are damaged you can't really expect the brain to reorganise itself. And so when I'm asked about whether a condition can be helped, the old reflexes are there ready to be very, very cautious and say, 'No, it's not possible'. But [...] I've seen so many amazing recoveries."

Doidge has captured some of these recoveries in his book and has since made two films on neuroplasticity, one by the same name and Changing Your Mind. Here's what he had to say about science writing, comparisons with The Secret and backlash from his book, during an interview in Sydney, in August 2010.

You've shown that thoughts and exercises can change our brain, how is this helping to treat people with neurological conditions?

There are so many approaches that doctors can take. One example is when a person has a stroke and they lose control of one arm - they'll try to use the affected arm but it doesn't work, so the brain learns not to use it and that brain area wastes away. But if we put the good arm in a sling or cast so they can't use it, then that bad arm is used incrementally. Scans show that by doing this, neighbouring tissue in the brain takes over moving the bad arm.

How exactly do thoughts control the structure of our brain?

From work on snails we can see that when animals are taught something, they double the number of connections between nerve cells. And we've shown that when learning occurs, genes are turned on in neurons that make proteins that go onto build these connections.

Now, that's been demonstrated, that's fact, that's not theory. Do we actually know where there is awareness or how those genes are stimulated? No, we don't know that yet. And we may never know, but we can already see the plasticity happening down to the genetic level.

Has there been any backlash since your book?

Very little to my face! The neuroplasticians I wrote about were almost all attacked pretty viciously by colleagues. Many experiments that they did in this area had to be done off grant - meaning they either had to pay for it or squirrel money off one grant to do this research. One of the most gratifying things about having written this book and one of the most gratifying things about its reception is that so many of the major neuroscientists now believe in neuroplasticity.

How did you manage to write on such a complicated topic while appealing to a general audience?

The actual writing of the book took maybe four or five years - there was a chapter (chapter three) that I rewrote 30 times. It was tough because I wanted to be completely true to the neuroscience, so I went off and immersed myself in the jargon and the scientific language - and I came back speaking it. I remember my wife helping me write the manuscript and saying, "How are you going to write a chapter about this?" It was as though I had to relearn to speak English.

Was it hard to find a balance between case studies and the facts?

There was a lot of thought given to it and my editor was very helpful. Early on I had the option of making it more like a textbook and putting readers to sleep, or working very hard to find examples of stories where there was a practitioner and a patient whose story I could marry together.

I learnt how to treat the scientific details as what a novelist would call back story, and to foreground personal stories so that the book would read like a page turner in a novel and still have the details and satisfy the neuroscientists involved.

I tried to keep my mind on the bigger picture. On the one hand it looks like it's a book of individual chapters about different investigators or doctors or patients. But this isn't just a clinical book, this is about re-conceiving the brain and learning to some extent what human potential is about. And it's about re-conceiving how culture influences the brain - it's not just that the brain produces culture, but that culture rewires the brain.

How do you feel about comparisons with books/films like The Secret?

I find that the problem with The Secret is the magical idea that at some level, if you wish for success it will accrue. And that bad things happen because you brought it upon yourself with negative thoughts. I mean have these people not heard of the Holocaust? Did those one million babies that were thrown into gas chambers deserve it because they were thinking negative thoughts? It's taking the idea of positive thinking and extrapolating it to the absurd.

How did making films on the subject differ to writing the book?

I didn't realise before I made the film how crucial and meaningful it would be to actually have these main stories documented visually. You know, some people are reflex sceptics and other writers take liberties and exaggerate things. I didn't exaggerate anything in the book knowingly, and frankly there was no need to exaggerate things. It's very rare that one has the opportunity in life to be exposed to an idea that turns out to be this big. But the film gives people the chance to see these things that I've seen and judge for themselves.

What's next for you and the field?

Scientists are trying to understand a fuller range of applications of neuroplasticity. There are still a number of unsolved problems about how the brain works and we need to deepen our understanding of how the mind can change the physical.

I'm working on a new book at the moment, I'm updating the reader on developments in the field. But I'm no longer trying to show that neuroplasticity is real - that's a fact.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Tom Rees - The transcendant temporal lobe

Tom Rees is the blogger behind the very cool [epiphenom] site - (the science of religion and non-belief). This post looks at the "self-transcendence" element of Cloninger personality model - it's an interesting bit of research that pinpoints (sort of) how self-transcendence manifests in denser tissue in specific parts of the brain.

The transcendant temporal lobe

The temporal lobe of the brain - the bit just above where your ear is - keeps cropping up in studies of spirituality.

In this latest one, Peter Van Schuerbeek and colleagues from the University of Brussels have looked at the volume of grey matter in different parts of the brain in young women.

They were interested to see how the volumes of different parts of the brain correlate with personality, and in particular testing a particular model of personality called the Cloninger personality model.

This model has four temperament dimensions (harm avoidance, novelty seeking, reward dependence and persistence) and three character dimensions (self-directedness, cooperativeness and self-transcendence).

The "self-transcendence" component is related to the feeling that you are part of a broader universe in some deep way, and includes tendencies towards spiritualism.

They found that women with a high sense of self-transcendence had more grey matter in the right-hand side of the brain in the region of the middle temporal gyrus and the inferior parietal gyrus (the images on the left of the picture).

They had less grey matter in the left-hand side of the brain in the region of the inferior temporal gyrus and the sub gyral (in the parietal lobe). They also had less grey matter in the superior frontal gyrus.

All this is intriguing because other research has shown that damage to the right-hand temporal and parietal lobes can lead to increased spirituality. That may be because these regions are involved in spatial awareness.

Now, that doesn't match precisely with these findings in Belgian women (who have more grey matter in this region. But perhaps there is some similar mechanism at work!

ResearchBlogging.orgVan Schuerbeek P, Baeken C, De Raedt R, De Mey J, & Luypaert R (2010). Individual differences in local gray and white matter volumes reflect differences in temperament and character: A voxel-based morphometry study in healthy young females. Brain research PMID: 21126511

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Eric Kaufmann: Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?

From Eric Kaufmann is a political scientist and author of the recently published Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century. Unfortunately, the book is not available until May, 2011 in the US.
With all the current talk about the revival of religion, political scientist Eric Kaufmann takes a look at the statistics and muses that if demography is any guide, the world over the next half century will become much more religious and much more conservative.

Eric Kaufmann is a writer, researcher and teacher of politics and sociology at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author of Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, The Orange Order: A Contemporary Northern Irish History and The Rise and Fall of Anglo America.

Buddhist Geeks, 201: Pragmatic Buddhism (Ken McLeod)

Cool - Ken McLeod has done so much for Buddhism in America.

Buddhist Geeks 201: Pragmatic Buddhism

BG 201: Pragmatic Buddhism

27. Dec, 2010 by Ken McLeod

Episode Description:

We’re joined this week by Buddhist teacher, Ken McLeod, to explore an approach he has coined “Pragmatic Buddhism.” We explore his early Buddhist training, which included 2 back-to-back 3-year retreats, completed under the guidance of Ven. Kalu Rinpoche. He describes this period as part boarding school, prison, and seminary. He shares why it was such a huge culture shock coming out of that traditional training, and ties that in with the way Buddhism has evolved in various cultures up to this point. Ken goes on to share 4 ways that he has adapted his own teaching style to reflect our culture, touching on issues of translation, power, questioning, and the meaning of practice itself.

This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to part 2 (airing next week).

Episode Links:


Maybe Logic - The Lives and Ideas of Robert Anton Wilson

Maybe Logic

Robert Anton Wilson helped change my thinking back in college when I first discovered his work - from Quantum Psychology to Prometheus Rising to Coincidance: A Head Test, he blew my perspective apart.

Maybe Logic

December 29th, 2010

Guerrilla ontologist. Psychedelic magician. Outer head of the Illuminati. Quantum psychologist. Sit-down comic/philosopher. Discordian Pope. Whatever the label and rank, Robert Anton Wilson is undeniably one of the foundations of 21th Century Western counterculture. Maybe Logic – The Lives and Ideas of Robert Anton Wilson is a cinematic alchemy that conjures it all together in a hilarious and mind-bending journey guaranteed to increase your brain size 2 – 3 inches! From the water coolers and staff meetings of Playboy and the earth-shattering transmission of the Illuminatus! Trilogy, to fire-breathing senior citizen and Taoist sage, Robert Anton Wilson is a man who has passed through the trials of chapel perilous and found himself on wondrous ground where nothing is for certain, even the treasured companionship of a six-foot-tall white rabbit. Featuring RAW video spanning 25 years and the best of over 100 hours of footage thoroughly tweaked, transmuted and regenerated, Maybe Logic follows a reality labyrinth which leads through the hollows of human perception to the vast star fields of Sirius where we find one man alone, joyfully accepting his status as Damned Old Crank and Cosmic Schmuck. Beaming with insight, frustration, compassion, and unshakable optimism, the ever-open eye of Robert Anton Wilson penetrates human illusions exposing the mathematical probabilities and spooky synchronicities of the 8 dimensions of his Universe.

Thursday, December 30, 2010


Cool interview with Alva Noe from Edge - a few years back - 2008 I believe. Noe is one of my favorite philosopher neuroscientists and I hadn't seen this lecture before.

A Talk with Alva Noë

The problem of consciousness is understanding how this world is there for us. It shows up in our senses. It shows up in our thoughts. Our feelings and interests and concerns are directed to and embrace this world around us. We think, we feel, the world shows up for us. To me that's the problem of consciousness. That is a real problem that needs to be studied, and it's a special problem.

A useful analogy is life. What is life? We can point to all sorts of chemical processes, metabolic processes, reproductive processes that are present where there is life. But we ask, where is the life? You don't say life is a thing inside the organism. The life is this process that the organism is participating in, a process that involves an environmental niche and dynamic selectivity. If you want to find the life, look to the dynamic of the animal's engagement with its world. The life is there. The life is not inside the animal. The life is the way the animal is in the world.

ALVA NOË is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. He works principally on the philosophy of mind and cognitive science, with special interest in the theory of perception, and is also interested in the philosophy of art, the history of analytic philosophy, Phenomenology, and Wittgenstein.

Alva Noë's Edge Bio Page

THE REALITY CLUB: Arnold Trehub [A reply to Noe]


[ALVA NOË:] The central thing that I think about is our nature, our human-animal nature, our being in this world. What is a person? What is a human being? What is consciousness? There is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm at the moment about these questions.

They are usually framed as questions about the brain, about how the brain makes consciousness happen, how the brain constitutes who we are, what we are, what we want—our behavior. The thing I find so striking is that, at the present time, we actually can't give any satisfactory explanations about the nature of human experience in terms of the functioning of the brain.

What explains this is really quite simple. You are not your brain. You have a brain, yes. But you are a living being that is connected to an environment; you are embodied, and dynamically interacting with the world. We can't explain consciousness in terms of the brain alone because consciousness doesn't happen in the brain alone.

In many ways, the new thinking about consciousness and the brain is really just the old-fashioned style of traditional philosophical thinking about these questions but presented in a new, neuroscience package. People interested in consciousness have tended to make certain assumptions, take certain things for granted. They take for granted that thinking, feeling, wanting, consciousness in general, is something that happens inside of us. They take for granted that the world, and the rest of our body, matters for consciousness only as a source of causal impingement on what is happening inside of us. Action has no more intimate connection to thought, feeling, consciousness, and experience. They tend to assume that we are fundamentally intellectual—that the thing inside of us which thinks and feels and decides is, in its basic nature, a problem solver, a calculator, a something whose nature is to figure out what there is and what we ought to do in light of what is coming in.

We should reject the idea that the mind is something inside of us that is basically matter of just a calculating machine. There are different reasons to reject this. But one is, simply put: there is nothing inside us that thinks and feels and is conscious. Consciousness is not something that happens in us. It is something we do.

A much better image is that of the dancer. A dancer is locked into an environment, responsive to music, responsive to a partner. The idea that the dance is a state of us, inside of us, or something that happens in us is crazy. Our ability to dance depends on all sorts of things going on inside of us, but that we are dancing is fundamentally an attunement to the world around us.

And this idea that human consciousness is something we enact or achieve, in motion, as a way of being part of a larger process, is the focus of my work.

Experience is something that is temporarily extended and active. Perceptual consciousness is a style of access to the world around us. I can touch something, and when I touch something I make use of an understanding of the way in which my own movements help me secure access to that which is before me. The point is not that merely that I learn about or achieve access to the world by touching. The point is that the thing shows up for me as something in a space of movement-oriented possibilities.

Visual consciousness relies on a whole set of practical skills that we have, making use of the eyes and the head. I understand that if I move my eyes, I produce a certain kind of sensory change. Perceptual consciousness is a mode of exploration of the world, making use of a certain kind of practical bodily understanding. And that is what dance is. And this makes dance, for me, the perfect metaphor for consciousness.

But there's more to the comparison with dance.

Consider this. On the traditional conception of the mind, if you want to study experience, you shut your eyes and you introspect. You look inward and reflect on what is going on inside of you, on the inner show. But if experience, if seeing, hearing, thinking, and feeling, isn't something going on inside of you, but is something you do, then you need a different paradigm of what phenomenology would be, that is, of what a reflection on experience itself would be.

To reflect on experience is not to look inward, it is to pay attention to what you are doing, and to the way in which what you are doing is world and situation and environment involving. Suppose I am a hiker. I walk along and move my legs in all sorts of subtle ways to follow a path along a trail. But the steps I take and the way I move my legs are modulated by, controlled by, the textures and bumps and patterns of the trail itself. There is a kind of locking in. To study experience, to think about the nature of experience, is to look at this two-way dynamic exchange between world and the active perceiver.

Not only is dance a good analogy for what consciousness is, but the experience of watching dance and the way in which we can cultivate our aesthetic appreciation of something like dance is, actually, a good way of thinking about what phenomenology itself could be. What do you see when you look at a dance? You understand the movements and the forms and the patterns of the ensemble in a particular dance environment, which may be a stage or it may be some other kind of environment. To watch a dance is to make sense of this kind of dynamic.

Contemporary dance—contemporary art more generally—can be hard to appreciate. If you're not already familiar with an artist's work, it can be difficult even to bring it into focus. But we do. It is interesting to compare this process whereby we bring a dance or other work of art into focus for aesthetic experience with the project of phenomenology itself, that is, with the project of bringing experience into focus for science. Scientists ask, how does our biological being enable us to have the kinds of experiences we have? That should be understood as a question less about how the function of our brain produces images inside our skull and, rather, about how our full embodiment enables us to carry on as we do in an environment in a situation. This raises an interesting possibility. Maybe we can think of aesthetic experience as a model of the workings at least of an important core of human consciousness—perceptual consciousness. And then may be we can think of artistic, creative, aesthetic practice as making a direct contribution to the study of mind itself. Art is not something for science to explain; art is a domain for scientific investigation, a potential collaborator for science. It is certainly clear that the empirical investigation of consciousness requires help framing the phenomena of interest for itself.

One experience that I've been especially interested in is our understanding and experience of pictures. If I show you a picture from a newspaper—for example, a photo of Hillary Clinton—there is a sense in which, when you look at that picture, you see Hillary. There she is, in the picture. Of course, Hillary is not there, so there is an obvious sense in which you don't see Hillary when you look at the picture. There is a sense in which you see her; and a sense in which you don't. She shows up for you, in the picture, even though she is not there. She shows up as not there. Getting clear about this phenomenon is the central empirical and conceptual problem about depiction.

One idea might be to say, well, seeing a picture of Hillary is just like seeing Hillary. Seeing a picture of Hillary produces in you, the perceiver, just the same effects that actually seeing Hillary would produce. The problem with that suggestion is that if that's right then we lose our sense of the difference between seeing Hillary and seeing a picture of Hillary. The distinctive thing about seeing Hillary in a picture is that she is there but not there. She is there but visually absent. She is manifestly absent in her visual presence. It's a kind of a paradoxical thing. There is something paradoxical about pictures.

My view is that traditional philosophy and cognitive science has been asking the wrong question when it comes to pictures. They ask, how does the picture affect us and give rise to an experience in our heads? Instead, what they should ask is how do we achieve a kind of access to Hillary, to properties of Hillary, such as her visual appearance, by exploration of something which is not Hillary, namely, a picture?

The critical thing is the relation between this model, this picture, and that which is absent, such that we can gain access to what is absent in the picture. Once again we are thrown back to this idea that the perceiving is an achievement of access by making use of skills, knowledge. I need to know what Hillary looks like in order to recognize Hillary in her picture.

A striking feature of pictures is their immediacy. A picture of Hillary doesn't seem to be a symbolic representation of Hillary. There seems to be the sense in which merely knowing how to recognize Hillary or how to recognize a human form, a figure, is enough to recognize a picture of Hillary. There is this idea that we don't need any further knowledge or further skills in order to perceive something in the picture.

That is a very interesting idea. But, in fact, there is a nice comparison we can make to help us see that pictures don't really have this sort of immediacy. Think about something like the Macintosh operating system. No promotional endorsement intended, but the Mac OS is user friendly. If you understand a few basic metaphors, about the desktop, clicking, open files, closing files, a few basic metaphors allow you to unpack just about any program that you might be working with.

So there is a sense in which the functionality of the graphical user interface is straightforward and immediate. But, of course, that is precisely because the engineers have built the program with our particular predilections and capacities in mind. They built it to be easy for us. It's not as though it just happens to be easy. Technological evolution made it transparent for us. And pictures are just the same. You encounter pictures in a newspaper, say, and we find it easy to see Hillary Clinton in the picture. We don't need any further training. But that is not because you don't require training to see Hillary Clinton in a picture. It's because that technology was devised to be easy for us. The technology was designed for people with the training we already had.

OK, what does that mean? Pictorial technologies, both painting and photography, have been designed to be straightforward for people that already know how to recognize things by using their eyes. Certain background visual skills are all that is presupposed. But then seeing itself requires tremendous background knowledge.

If I have never seen a camera before, I won't know how to make sense of what that is. A beautiful paradigm for how much seeing requires background knowledge comes from art again. When you go to a museum you can look at a picture on the wall and it can be flat and unavailable and opaque. You look about it, you think about it, you talk about it, you read the placard on the wall and discuss it with a friend and all of a sudden it can come into focus as an object. As you learn about it, you bring it visually into focus as an object. Your understanding, your thinking, helps make it intelligible. Ask this question: do you need to learn to see in pictures? Do you need to learn to see your father in a photograph?

I had an interesting example of this the other day. When I go to the museum, I often take photos with my cell phone as a record of the pictures I looked at and thought about. My son was looking through my camera and he came across this odd picture of a Dürer painting. I was in Vienna, and it was a painting that was covered with glass so that my face was also reflected in the picture of the painting. He said, "What's this?" And I said, "You tell me. What do you see?" He said, "That looks like George Washington, pointing to the business man depicted by Dürer. This other person, that looks like Martin Luther King." He failed to see me in the picture. He thought I was Martin Luther King.

I thought that the part that was interesting about that—my son is only six, I should add—is that so little of the stage-setting that normally goes into looking at and evaluating a photographic image was in place that for him that it really was strange. The image confronted him as strange. Most of the time when we look at pictures, we do so in a context, in a setting. We can already presuppose what we are looking for, what we are interested in. These are people, these are celebrities, there are artifacts, and these are works of art. That opens the door to the question about works of art because what makes a picture distinctively a work of art is precisely that that background presupposition is not clear, it's all in play.

The division between philosophical and empirical approaches to these questions of consciousness, understanding and experience is an artificial one. People interested in the mind, have a set of questions that they want to understand: what is thought, what is emotion, what is consciousness, what is cognition? How is it that we are able as the animals we are able to do all this? Philosophy and science have been working on this together.

In fact, most of the science grows out of philosophical discussions. It is sometimes said by scientists that now that we have the new technologies of brain science we no longer need to pay attention to what philosophy has to say about these questions. But in fact—and this is just plain truth—most of what empirical science has to say about consciousness, language, memory, perception, emotion is the expression of a philosophy. It comes out of an investment in a particular philosophy, namely the philosophy of the internal, the philosophy of the individual: the mind is something inside each individual; it is disconnected from other people and from the body and from the outer world. If natural science is to gain a foothold in this area, if our own nature is to become subject of empirical science, it can only be because the conceptual, methodological, philosophical, as well as empirical questions are approached in a new, open-minded way.

Scientists ask, what is it about the way these cells are firing in the brain that makes the corresponding experience a visual experience? It's a trick question because there is nothing about the way those cells are firing that can explain that. Certainly we don't now know anything that would allow us to point to the intrinsic properties of the cells and say, it's something about the intrinsic behavior of these cells that makes the resulting experience, the smell of coffee on a rainy morning, or the redness of red. Nor can we say that populations of cells give you the solution.

We have to get bigger than that. It's not one cell; it's not populations of cells. We need to look at the whole animals' involvement with a situation. The thing about a smell is that a smell gives you the space of possible movement sensitive changes. If I am smelling something, the movements of my nostrils in relation to the source of the order will produce changes in the character or the odor. If we want to ask, what is it about this cellular activity that makes it olfactory cellular activity, the answer is going to be the way in which the cellular activity varies as a function of the animal's movement.

And that is what the brain is doing. The brain is enabling us to establish this kind of sensorimotor engagement with the world around us. This is a is substantive empirical hypothesis that I am putting forward. There are profound philosophical reasons to embrace it. And I hope that scientists and philosophers will find ways of communicating so they can work on these questions together.

Even though I'm a theoretician and not an experimentalist, Philosophical research is empirically significant and I would hope that my theoretical work will contribute to the framing of theories that are empirically testable. I have collaborated with empirical researchers, although never experimentally.

In one article that I wrote with the philosopher Susan Hurley, who died in the summer of 2007, we actually made some predictions that turned out subsequently to be clinically demonstrated. In particular, we offered an account of phantom-limb pain that predicted what has subsequently been reported by V.S. Ramachandran, namely, that the use of mirrors to create sensory feedback could provide a therapy for phantom-limb pain. What Ramachandran and others have done is allow somebody who experiences phantom-limb discomfort to look at a mirror and move his good arm but get visual feedback as if he is moving the bad arm. They find that through moving the good arm it's possible to work out a cramp in what is in fact an absent arm. One of the problems of phantom-limb pain is that you can't massage it because there isn't actually a limb for you to touch. You can't work out the cramp. The sort of sensorimotor, dynamic approach that I have developed with collaborators actually predicted what they found. So that's an example of a philosophically-informed empirical prediction.

I started out in the mid-to-late nineties working on visual perception. I was intrigued by the fact that there was relatively little work done on the importance of action for visual perception. The assumption was that our visual system is kind of like a camera. Action allows you to point the camera over there, but then everything just happens inside the mechanism, that, between your eyes and your brain.

The standard approaches that have developed over the last 100 years or so, many of which are fantastically ingenious and rich, have tended to think of vision that way: it is something that happens in the brain once the eyes get stimulated. There is one exception historically to this standard approach, a very striking exception, and that was the American psychologist J.J. Gibson. Gibson interestingly was a very philosophically-savvy psychologist, somebody whose writing bears marks of the influence of Aristotle, Wittgenstein, and maybe even Merleau-Ponty. I view Gibson as a very important forerunner to the kind of work that I and others have been doing.

Part of the project for me has been to explore the way in which we go astray if we think of perception and action as divorced. Susan Hurley had a beautiful phrase for this. She talked about the "input-output picture," where the idea is that on this picture, perception is input from the world to the mind, action is output from the mind to the world, and cognition and consciousness is what happens inside the head to relate those two. In my view, this is all wrong. We need to get rid od the input-output picture altogether. This is what I argued in my 2004 book Action in Perception. To see is to attain a certain kind of skillful access to the world. It is, for that reason, an essentially action-dependent kind of thing—by which I don't merely mean that we need to move in order to see, but by which I mean that, in order to see, we need to understand what happens to us visually when we move—seeing is a kind of knowledge of the sensory effects of movement.

If I approach an object, it looms in my visual field. If I blink, the sensory stimulation from the object is disrupted. If I walk around an object, its profile transforms. In these and other ways movement produces sensory change. I hold that seeing just is an activity of exploring the world, making use of that kind of sensorimotor understanding. The world—three-dimensional objects arrayed in space, colors, shapes, etc.—only comes into focus for perception given the perceiver's ability to exercise this kind of practical sensorimotor understanding.

There are very straightforward ways of testing this. If I put on left-right reversing goggles, you might think that what happens is that things on the left look as through they are on the right and things on the right look as though they are on the left. In fact, that's not it at all what happens. If I give you descriptions written by subjects of what it is like to put on left-right reversing goggles, what they described are strange, trippy, nearly hallucinogenic experiences of boundaries between objects disintegrating, and bulges and distortions, and seemingly random movement—a breakdown of the visual world.

By hypothesis, these goggles are not distorting information. They are simply inverting it in a certain way. So why should that kind of mere inversion produce that kind of radical distortion of the character of our experience? The answer is very simple, as the psychologist Kevin O'Regan and I first showed in our 2001 Behavioral and Brain Sciences article on visual consciousness. When you put on those goggles, you change radically the sensory effects of your own movement. Now when you move your eyes to the left or right, you have unexpected, unanticipated consequences, and the result is not inversion, but a kind of swirling, sensory confusion. If you wear the goggles long enough, it's possible to adapt to them and to see things as they are.

What explains this is the fact that through exploration of the world with the goggles one learns the new patterns of regularity, the new ways in which movement produces sensory change, the new ways in which sensory change varies systematically with movement. Once you figure out the new laws of sensory motor contingency, the world comes back into focus. What is interesting in this story is you don't explain how the experience changed by looking at cells or populations of cells. You explain how experience changes by looking at the way in which cells function as part of a larger dynamic of activity: animal, world, brain working together to make consciousness happen.

One of the key thoughts here, then, is that if we want to understand human consciousness or indeed animal consciousness overall, we can't just look to the brain. We need to look to the embodied, situated animal's life. No brain scan, no matter how cleverly constructed, is going to reveal the consciousness happening because that is not where the consciousness is happening.

That's the wrong level of analysis. The consciousness is unfolding in this dynamic. The consciousness is not in the head. There are a number of philosophers who are very sympathetic to this kind of extended conception of the mind. Andy Clark, for example, or Daniel Dennett—I view them very much as allies, although explicitly Andy doesn't think the extended mind approach for consciousness. He thinks it works for cognition, certain kinds of cognitive processes, memory and cognition, but not for consciousness.

The problem of consciousness is understanding how this world is there for us. It shows up in our senses. It shows up in our thoughts. Our feelings and interests and concerns are directed to and embrace this world around us. We think, we feel, the world shows up for us. To me that's the problem of consciousness. That is a real problem that needs to be studied, and it's a special problem.

A useful analogy is life. What is life? We can point to all sorts of chemical processes, metabolic processes, reproductive processes that are present where there is life. But we ask, where is the life? You don't say life is a thing inside the organism. The life is this process that the organism is participating in, a process that involves an environmental niche and dynamic selectivity. If you want to find the life, look to the dynamic of the animal's engagement with its world. The life is there. The life is not inside the animal. The life is the way the animal is in the world.

This is perhaps the biggest idea I can talk with you about today: the problem of consciousness and the problem of life are in effect the same problem, and that the problem with so much of the science of consciousness today is that it treats consciousness as somehow separable from the mode of dynamic activity, which is the consciousness. (By the way, I should say this idea, this critical notion of the intimate interconnectedness of the problems of consciousness and life, is something that forms a theme of the work of Evan Thompson, who has a new book called Mind in Life.)

One way this comes out in an interesting way is if we look to a simple organism. An organism is not merely a collection of chemical processes. The organism has a certain unity, and it is only when I can conceptually bring that organism into focus as a unity that I can study it, that I can even recognize it. Once I do that, I can ask questions about what the organism's interest are, what its goals are, what its needs are. I can't ask about the needs of chemicals in a soup. There is sense in which just to perceive the life in the thing before me, I need already to see it as an integrated whole distinct from its environment. Once I do that, I can also see it as having needs and interesting goals, and, thus, in some sense, a mind. I don't mean to say that a bacterium has a mind. But I mean that wherever we find life we find the necessity for a certain kind of narrative which makes the attribution of mind at least intelligible..

This is the power of the theory of evolution: it makes the narrative official. Evolution shows us how life works; it allows us to tell stories about an organism has the traits it has. We tell historical narratives. If we try to stay just at the level of atoms or molecules or chemical processes, we couldn't do that. So in a way my moral is this: the standpoint that cognitive science needs to take towards animals, and indeed, towards ourselves, is the biological standpoint, the standpoint that allows us to bring the whole animal and its story into focus. Unfortunately, cognitive science has tended to take a distinctively non-biological approach. They say they are looking at the brain and the nervous system, but they tend to model the brain and nervous system as computational systems, systems thought of solving problems and computing functions, systems that are, in the end, very much divorced from the active life of the animal.

Philosophers like to say that for all we know we could be a brain in a vat. But If you actually try to fill out the details of that thought experiment, it starts to seem much harder to make good sense of it. For example, very few of us would be inclined to think that a couple of cells in a petri dish were conscious. So how many more cells would we need to pile up before we began to think it became conscious? There is not any obvious way we can say where we would have to stop. It seems we would really need to try the experiment. But then who knows? It may be that we would have to build up to such a complex brain in a vat that what we ended up building is a brain and a virtual environment to house the brain. So maybe what this would teach us is that to make a mind you need to make a world. There would be consciousness in a world in a vat! Now, let's ask: where does the brain's body stop and the rest of the world begin?The critical point is there's no way to draw this line a priori.

Evan Thompson and Diego Cosmelli have written a paper on this. They point out how much structure would need to go into the vat. The brain requires metabolism, it requires nourishment, and it requires the elimination of waste products. So if you actually try to fill in what the vat would look like, what you are actually describing is, in effect, a kind of body. But we already knew that a living brain and body can be conscious!

When we ask ourselves, wouldn't we have the same experience we are having now if we were being fed the right kind of stimulation? The answer is, yes, of course. But what does this show us? Again, we already know that there can be consciousness arising out of the close coupling of an animal and a world. But that's just we are imagining when we imagine a mad scientist stimulating the brain. We are imagining a new kind of coupling of brain, body and world. Crucially, here's what we are not describing: we are not describing a brain generating in consciousness independently of the involvement of a world. We have not factored the world out of the equation But that's what the old Cartesian thought experiment was aiming at, as if my internal states are sufficient for the world.

There is very interesting work done now in psychology labs—for example, work in O'Regan's lab—on the importance of eye movements and environmental stimulation for capturing attention and directing attention. This is why virtual reality systems are so hard to make really convincing. It's one thing to make a flight simulator—all you have to do is make a very good replica cockpit and a reactive virtual environment—But in most video games and in digital technology, there are huge shortcomings in the power of the virtual. In part this has to do with the fact our own perceptual attunement to the environment is so dependent on what the world brings to the table, as it were. Landmarks, markers, signposts that we respond to, all play a role in our experiments. If you take the world out of the equation, I suspect that the brain, with its own internal powers, would be capable of producing only very impoverished experiences.

In fact, there is one nice bit of evidence I have to support that. There is a sleep scientist named Stephen Laberge, who has done studies on lucid dreaming. In a series of studies that he did, he would interrogate these lucid dreamers on their experiences. I don't remember all the methodology but the basic conclusion he found was this: in a dream it was impossible for one to look at a sign with text on it, look away and look back at the sign, and have the sign say the same thing. In reality what enables us to look at a sign and look back and have it say the same thing is the reality. The sign anchors the experience. The sign carries the information. But the human brain on its own isn't good at storing information—if you look away, it's just impossible to see the same thing when you look back in a dream because in a dream you are responsible for all of that.

Our ordinary experience, the kind of richness, the texture, the stability of waking experience, can only be achieved for an organism that is actually locked into the environment in a certain kind of way. If you change the environment or take away the environment, you would alter human consciousness. This points in a very profound way to this basic point I keep making, that the idea that you are your brain or that the brain is alone sufficient for consciousness is really just a mantra, and that there is no reason to believe it.

David DiSalvo - Ten Psychology Studies from 2010 Worth Knowing About

David DiSalvo writes the Neuronarrative blog (Musings on the complicated business of thinking) for Psychology Today. In this post he summarizes ten of the more interesting psychology studies from this past year.

Surveying the top 10 psychology studies from 2010

image: Donald Wilson Bush

Around this time of year, I like to take a tour of psychology studies from the last twelve months and pick out those that I think are really worth knowing about. There are, of course, several others that deserve mention, but the ten below are those that struck me as especially intriguing, with the added benefit of also being useful.

1. Most of Us are Space Cadets Nearly Half the Time

Have you ever wondered just how many of your waking hours are dedicated to day dreaming? A 2,250-person study co-authored by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert (author of the book, Stumbling on Happiness) has answered the question: 46.9%. Just about half of the average person's time is spent "mind wandering" -- defined as a state in which we're not focused on any particular task or anything in the outside world. Instead, we are lost in our thoughts.

Unfortunately, the study concludes, mind wandering doesn't make us happy, nor does resting, working or using a computer. All of those choices ranked lowest on the happiness scale in this study, while making love, exercising and chit chatting ranked highest. Here's the kicker: participants also said that their mind wanders no less than 30% of the time even while they are doing something else, with the notable exception of having sex. Seems that your brain would rather check out than focus in, unless the focus is really, really engaging.

2. When Heading into a Negotiation, Come Heavy and Sit Hard

Ever heard the term "embodied cognition"? It's the psychological hypothesis that bodily perceptions--like touch--strongly influence how we think. More and more studies are providing evidence for this hypothesis, and one was published in 2010 that did an especially nice job of bearing it out. Researchers from MIT, Harvard and Yale performed six experiments exploring whether the hardness, weight, shape and texture of certain objects affect our decisions about totally unrelated situations. For example, the study shows that when you're negotiating a deal, it's better to sit in a hard, sturdy chair--doing so may lead you to negotiate harder than you otherwise would. And when you go for a job interview, be sure to carry your resume in a weighty, well constructed padfolio; according to the study, job candidates appear more important when they are associated with heavy objects. And when you invite your date over for dinner, keep the setting "smooth"--objects with a rough texture make social interactions seem more difficult than they really are. So put away those glasses with the beveled edges and your evening will stand a better chance of success.

3. Excuse Me, Your Sweat is Making Me Feel....Risky

People are obsessed with managing their sweat, mainly because we think it's embarrassing (the dreaded underarm pancakes). But a study from 2010 suggests that there's far more to our sweat than meets the eye; indeed, the sweat of others may be influencing us in ways we don't realize. Researchers collected sweat samples from people who completed a high-rope obstacle course and placed the samples in odorless tea bags, which were then placed under the noses of people about to gamble. Other gamblers were outfitted with sweat samples from people who had just finished riding an exercise bike. Gamblers sniffing the high-ropers' sweat took longer to make decisions, but eventually took significantly larger gambling risks compared to the bike-sweat-sniffing gamblers. Since there was no difference in how the sweat in either group smelled (everyone said the teabags smelled equally horrible), it appears that anxiety-laced sweat influences riskier behavior than normal sweat. No one is quite sure why this is the case, but since the animal world is full of chemical-influence examples (think of ants and bees, for instance), it's not hard to believe that humans also send signals in ways that seemingly defy the senses.

4. Making an Impression Changes Your Perception

Remember this the next time you are about to meet someone new: the impression you're trying to give influences how you evaluate the other person. That's the finding of a study that included hundreds of participants who watched a short film and then discussed it with another participant. Half the participants were given an "impression management goal" to appear introverted, extraverted, smart, confident or happy. After the discussions, participants rated themselves and the person they had chatted with across several personality traits. Those with an impression management goal rated their conversation partner significantly lower on the trait they were trying to show in themselves, but not on other personality traits. This seems to happen because when we focus on embellishing a particular trait in ourselves, we unconsciously increase the standard for that trait in others--and they usually fall short. So just because someone you're trying to impress doesn't seem as outgoing, gregarious or confident as you are, don't assume that they truly aren't. It could just be that how you're trying to come across has changed the game.

5. We're Happier When Busy, but Wired to be Lazy

If you ever watched the show "Fraggle Rock" from the 80s, you'll remember that the Doozers were little creatures who spent all of their time building things. Unfortunately for them, the Fraggles--a far lazier critter--loved to eat the Doozers' buildings (though not the Doozers themselves) and summarily crushed the product of the little creatures' hard work anytime they wanted a snack. But the Doozers never seemed the least bit frustrated by this and just kept right on building. A study from this year tells us that we're better off being like the Doozers, though we're wired more like the Fraggles.

Participants were offered an identical reward (a chocolate candy bar) for either delivering a completed questionnaire to a location that was a 15-minute walk away, or delivering it just outside the room they were in and then waiting 15 minutes. 68% chose to deliver it just outside the room and wait. When the reward was changed to a slightly different chocolate candy bar, 59% chose to walk 15 minutes to deliver the questionnaire (and this held true even though both types of candy bars were rated as equally appealing by all participants). Afterwards, participants who took the walk rated themselves as feeling significantly happier than those who sat it out. It appears that our first instinct is for idleness, but when given an excuse to be busy (even a meaningless one), we're liable to act on it and consequently feel happier. But before you go looking for busy work, remember that our evolutionary vestige to conserve energy is tough to overcome. Believe it or not, laziness, in marginal doses, serves a purpose.

6. You're Not Imagining It, the Rich Really are Different

Ah, the ridiculously rich, oh how we'd love to be them. But a study from 2010 suggests that being "them" would also require seeing other people differently, to say the least. In a series of experiments, researchers tested whether people from low or high socioeconomic backgrounds were better at reading emotions on peoples' faces. Turns out, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are significantly better at accurately reading emotion--a key component of expressing empathy. Study co-author Dacher Keltner (author of the book, Born to be Good), attributes this effect to the difficult circumstances those in lower socioeconomic environments face, causing them to develop adaptive strategies like learning to expertly read emotion in peoples' faces and body language. In an earlier study, Keltner found that members of lower socioeconomic groups are typically also more supportive of each other and tend to build stronger alliances than their wealthy counterparts. What this all suggests is that many among the wealthy lack empathy simply because, in the world in which they live, developing it isn't all that important.

7. Religion Makes People Happier, Beliefs Aside

A 2010 study (in this case equal parts sociology and psychology) indicates that religious folks are indeed a bit happier than those without religious beliefs--but it also seems that the beliefs themselves have little to do with why. Instead, the reason is that organized religions provide social networks that enhance a sense of connectedness between people who would otherwise not interact, and this is true regardless of the doctrines espoused by those religions. The study focused on Catholics and those in mainline and evangelical Protestant sects, so it can't necessarily be applied to other religious groups, at least not yet. But if similar social network principles are involved, there's no reason to believe the same isn't true of other groups that congregate and foster social interaction between believers.

8. Another Advantage for Beautiful People: We Understand Them Better

At least when it comes to human books, we judge beautiful covers more closely and accurately than others. So suggests a study from 2010 that investigated whether physically attractive people were judged more in line with their unique, self-reported traits. Researchers used a "round robin" format in which participants met each other for brief intervals and took away a certain impression of the other. Turns out, the more physically attractive someone was, the more accurately the other person read them. At least up to a point--the study also found that when we evaluate an attractive person, we're more likely to judge them favorably. To the extent that an attractive person believes about her/himself what we also want to believe about her/him, we may just be under the irrationally compelling spell of physical attraction. Keep that in mind before you head out to the bars tonight.

9. The Power of Posing, it's a Biochemical Thing

Let's say that you're about to discuss a difficult issue with your manager that you're convinced you are right about. You can either go in with a firm, confident physical posture, ready to make your points with a strong voice and imposing hand gestures; or you can go in with your arms folded, your head bowed and your voice low. The option you choose is more than a matter of interpersonal politics--it will also affect your biochemical reaction. Researchers in a recent study wanted to know if body gestures like those I just mentioned actually alter levels of testosterone (associated with assertiveness and risk-taking) and cortisol (associated with anxiety and fear). In other words, does "power posing" confer a biochemical advantage that increases feelings of power and tolerance of risk? According to this study, it definitely does. High power posers gained a testosterone boost and cortisol drop; low power posers experienced the exact opposite effect. But which comes first, the biochemical chicken or the behavioral egg? This study indicates that behavioral choice punches up the biochemical reactions, suggesting that even a typically understated person can get a big boost by doing a little power posing. Said another way: personality is hardly destiny.

10. If You Want to Stop Procrastinating, Give Yourself a Break

Most of us inveterate procrastinators are also world-class self punishers. You miss a deadline because you put something off for too long and your mind instantly turns into the Grand Inquisitor, complete with a studded whip to flog you into self-induced terror. But a study of the past year tells us that we've got this all wrong. If you want to get yourself out of the procrastination trap, stop beating yourself up and try a little self forgiveness instead. Researchers followed first year college students through their first and second midterm exams with an eye toward tracking the effects of procrastination and self forgiveness. They found that students who procrastinated before the first midterm were significantly less likely to do so before their second midterm if they gave themselves a break.

This runs counter to the conventional assumption that letting ourselves off easy will foster more procrastination, but the result actually makes a lot of sense for a very practical reason: self-forgiveness allows you to get past your mistake and concentrate energy on correcting your behavior. When you punish yourself, you're also draining energy, sapping focus and taking on too much mental baggage. Not to mention, you also make trying to do whatever you failed at the first time a horrible experience because of its association with self punishment. Instead, acknowledge your procrastiantion and its ill-effects, forgive yourself for screwing up, and get on with the tasks at hand.

~ My 2009 picks can be found here.

David DiSalvo - Copyright 2010