dinsdag 17 april 2018

Friends have similar brains

Another interesting psychological study, as summarized in the NY Times ("You Share Everything With Your Bestie. Even Brain Waves"). They asked a class of students how closely they felt connected to each of their fellow students. And then they showed them film fragments and measured how their brains reacted to them. Similarity proved to be a good guide to who were friends and how close. Of course one shouldn't put too much in this research. They found correlation. But that doesn't mean that that there can't be exceptions. So one might investigate whether there are people who are similar who are not friends - and why. One might also look whether all kinds of traits worked similarly: does having the same sense of humor work the same as being interested in the same fields of science?

donderdag 1 februari 2018

The power of collaboration

The article "In this group challenge, kindergartners beat the MBAs every time" by Daniel Coyle discusses an experiment where a group needs to build a tower as high as the can with the following material: Twenty pieces of uncooked spaghetti, One yard of transparent tape, One yard of string, One standard-size marshmallow. The marshmallow must come at the top. In dozens of trials, kindergartners built structures that averaged twenty-six inches tall, while business school students built structures that averaged less than ten inches. (Teams of kindergartners also defeated teams of lawyers [who built towers that averaged fifteen inches] as well as teams of CEOs [twenty-two inches]). The explanation of the article is that children are really collaborating while the adults are secretly also competing for status and navigating the resulting social minefield.

zondag 7 januari 2018

Is Your Child Lying to You? That’s Good

In the category counter-intuitive articles this one may not miss: Is Your Child Lying to You? That’s Good. Professor Lewis has found that toddlers who lie about peeking at the toy have higher verbal I.Q.s than those who don’t, by as much as 10 points. (Children who don’t peek at the toy in the first place are actually the smartest of all, but they are a rarity.) Other research has shown that the children who lie have better “executive functioning skills” (an array of faculties that enable us to control our impulses and remain focused on a task) as well as a heightened ability to see the world through other people’s eyes, a crucial indicator of cognitive development known as “theory of mind.” (Tellingly, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which is characterized by weaker executive functioning, and those with spectrum disorders such as autism, which are characterized by deficits in theory of mind, have trouble with lying.) Young liars are even more socially adept and well adjusted, according to recent studies of preschoolers.

zondag 31 december 2017

The marshmallow test and gratitude

The Marshmallow test is a famous psychological experiment where children were given the choice between one marshmallow now or two after an hour. Children to chose the latter tended to do better later in life. I mentioned before that the marshmallow test has become somewhat controversial. Children who are less inclined to wait for bigger rewards later tend to have also a background where such behavior makes sense. And if you have parents who tend not to keep their promises that will impact your future also in other ways. Now a NY Times article (The Only Way to Keep Your Resolutions) puts the subject into a new perspective by discussing studies the important role that social bounds play in our ability to makes sacrifices now in favor of wins in the future. Pride, gratitude and compassion are important motivators to better yourself. In one experiment - for example - people were induced to feel neutral, happy or grateful. The latter did best on a kind of marshmallow test.

donderdag 3 maart 2016

The danger of concussions

It is becoming increasingly clear that concussions have long term effects - and not only for boxers. The Economist (Bang to rights: Science is taking big steps toward understanding the impact of concussion) gives an overview. In recent years the underlying biology has started to become apparent. Mostly, this relates to the release of certain chemicals when axons, the filamentous connections between nerve cells, are damaged. Concussion is different from blunt-force trauma, such as that which results from getting hit on the head by a rapidly delivered cricket ball. Then, the injury is caused by directly transmitted shock from the impact. Concussion, by contrast, is caused by the internal movement and distortion of the brain as it bounces around inside the cranium after an impact. This bouncing, research has shown, stretches and deforms bundles of axons that connect different regions of the brain. The deformation shears some axons directly, releasing their protein contents, including tau, which with time can form abnormal tangles similar to those found in Alzheimer’s disease. It also causes abnormal inflows of sodium and calcium ions in unsevered but damaged axons. These, in turn, trigger a process which releases protein-breaking enzymes that destroy the axon, further disrupting the brain’s internal communications. Concussive injury also damages the blood-brain barrier. This is a system of tightly joined cells surrounding the capillaries that service the brain. Its purpose is to control what enters and leaves the central nervous system. One consequence of damaging it is to release into general circulation a brain protein called S100B. The body mounts an immune response against this protein, and the antibodies it generates can find their way back into the brain and harm healthy brain cells. Researchers propose that repeated damage could set the stage for a continuous autoimmune-type attack on the brain. But the long term effects are still unclear. There are efforts to develop a blood test with which you could measure the seriousness of a concussion - by measuring one of chemicals involved. Finally the harm caused by concussions with children is discussed: Yet it has been clear since a study published in 2012 by Andrew Mayer at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque that subtle brain changes in children who have sustained a concussion persist for months after the injury, even when there are no longer any obvious symptoms. Work published last December by Charles Hillman of the University of Illinois found that children who had sustained a single sports-related concussion still had impaired brain function two years later. Ten-year-olds with a history of concussion performed worse on tests of working memory, attention and impulse control than did uninjured confrères. Among the children with a history of concussion, those who were injured earlier in life had larger deficits. This study was small (it involved 15 injured participants) but if subsequent research confirms it, that will be great cause for concern.

zaterdag 27 februari 2016

What makes teams successful

An interesting article ("What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team") analyzes what makes teams successful. The article discusses research at Google on what makes teams successful. It starts with the conclusion that many things - like the composition of the group - don't seem to have influence. Then it turns to group norms. Here it becomes interesting. To accomplish this, the researchers recruited 699 people, divided them into small groups and gave each a series of assignments that required different kinds of cooperation. One assignment, for instance, asked participants to brainstorm possible uses for a brick. Some teams came up with dozens of clever uses; others kept describing the same ideas in different words. Another had the groups plan a shopping trip and gave each teammate a different list of groceries. The only way to maximize the group’s score was for each person to sacrifice an item they really wanted for something the team needed. Some groups easily divvied up the buying; others couldn’t fill their shopping carts because no one was willing to compromise. What interested the researchers most, however, was that teams that did well on one assignment usually did well on all the others. Conversely, teams that failed at one thing seemed to fail at everything. The researchers eventually concluded that what distinguished the ‘‘good’’ teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another. The right norms, in other words, could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if, individually, all the members were exceptionally bright. They found some common themes in successful teams: - on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’’ Woolley said. ‘‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’ - the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. One of the easiest ways to gauge social sensitivity is to show someone photos of people’s eyes and ask him or her to describe what the people are thinking or feeling — an exam known as the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. People on the more successful teams in Woolley’s experiment scored above average on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. They seemed to know when someone was feeling upset or left out. People on the ineffective teams, in contrast, scored below average. They seemed, as a group, to have less sensitivity toward their colleagues. -- There were other behaviors that seemed important as well — like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work. Together these two concept are called "psychological safety", a group culture that the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

zondag 31 januari 2016

The social life of trees

According to a very popular book by Peter Wohlleben (Das geheime Leben der Baüme) trees have a social life too: the news — long known to biologists — that trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots. [] Reading up on the behavior of trees — a topic he learned little about in forestry school — he found that, in nature, trees operate less like individuals and more as communal beings. Working together in networks and sharing resources, they increase their resistance. By artificially spacing out trees, the plantation forests that make up most of Germany’s woods ensure that trees get more sunlight and grow faster. But, naturalists say, creating too much space between trees can disconnect them from their networks, stymieing some of their inborn resilience mechanisms. Intrigued, Mr. Wohlleben began investigating alternate approaches to forestry. Visiting a handful of private forests in Switzerland and Germany, he was impressed. “They had really thick, old trees,” he said. “They treated their forest much more lovingly, and the wood they produced was more valuable. In one forest, they said, when they wanted to buy a car, they cut two trees. For us, at the time, two trees would buy you a pizza.”