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April 19 2013

11:05

Time to get tough on the physiological causes of crime

Bob Holmes, consultant

OBC_OURWAR_0010.jpg

Early intervention could counteract the effect of an abusive childhood (Image: Oscar B. Castillo/Fractures Collective)

In The Anatomy of Violence, Adrian Raine makes a strong case - often based on his own research - that distinct biological traits shape criminal behaviour

SUPPOSE you had to predict which kids in a roomful of 3-year-olds at your local preschool were likely to grow up to be violent criminals. How would you decide?

Most of us would probably round up the usual sociological suspects, and check whether a child comes from a broken or abusive home, is part of a family living below the poverty line, or has a parent who is a convicted criminal. But there's an easier way, says Adrian Raine: just measure their resting heart rate. His research shows that lower heart rates are a better indicator of criminal behaviour than smoking is of lung cancer.

In The Anatomy of Violence Raine, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, uses this and other evidence - much of it unearthed by himself over decades of research - to build a convincing case that violent criminals are biologically different from the rest of us.

violence_cover.jpg

"The seeds of sin are brain-based," he writes. Genetics, accidents of birth or events in early childhood have left criminals' brains and bodies with measurable flaws predisposing them to committing assault, murder and other antisocial acts.

That is good news, he argues, because what's broken can, in theory, be fixed. Indeed, tests have already proven that the right kind of intervention can reduce violent crime dramatically.

Back in the 1970s, when Raine began his career, sociologists believed that criminality was entirely the product of circumstance: factors that affect the less advantaged members of society, such as poverty, neglect and poor education.

Suggesting, as Raine did even then, that some people might have an innate predisposition to violence struck most as misguided or even racist. But the ground has shifted over the past few decades, and Raine spends the first few chapters of the book setting out why.

Identical twins, for example, are now known to be more likely than fraternal twins to share antisocial behaviours - which suggests this is an inherited trait. More detailed studies show that about half of the variability in antisocial behaviour between individuals has a genetic basis. Even identical twins brought up separately show a shared tendency towards criminal behaviour. Part of this can be explained by the few specific genes now known to influence violent behaviour, most notably the "warrior gene", MAOA.

From genes, Raine turns to brains. Back in the 1990s, he led the first study to image the brains of convicted murderers. Using PET scans, he found that their brains showed reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, the region just behind the forehead that controls impulses and is responsible for planning. In other words, the murderers were less able than average to restrain themselves in stressful situations.

The same holds true for less extreme violent crime and conditions associated with it. When Raine scanned the brains of people diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, he found that their prefrontal cortexes had 11 per cent less grey matter than those of individuals who did not have the condition.

Ingeniously, Raine discovered an excellent source of antisocial and psychotic research subjects: temporary employment agencies, which can attract people unable to form stable, long-term commitments. In one study, nearly a third of these agency workers met the standard criteria for being classified as psychotic.

Not all brain differences have a genetic basis, though. Raine presents plenty of evidence that mothers who smoke or drink can change the brains of their developing fetus. Even testosterone levels in the womb can alter the size of the prefrontal cortex - it is smaller in males, which may be part of the reason most violent crimes are committed by men. Complications at birth or abuse in childhood can also damage the brain, and the prefrontal cortex is especially vulnerable.

Many offenders also have impairments in their autonomic nervous system, the system responsible for the edgy, nervous feeling that can come with emotional arousal. This leads to a fearless, risk-taking personality, perhaps to compensate for chronic under-arousal.

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Many convicted criminals, like the Unabomber, have slow heartbeats (Image: NYT/Eyevine)

It also gives them lower heart rates, which explains why heart rate is such a good predictor of criminal tendencies. The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski (above), for example, had a resting heart rate of just 54 beats per minute, which put him in the bottom 3 per cent of the population.

Biology is not destiny, however, and Raine is careful to note that none of these physical differences guarantees a life of crime. Raine himself is a case in point: his resting heart rate is 48 beats per minute, and his brain scans are more similar to those of many murderers than of normal people. Without doubt, environmental factors also play a role in tipping someone towards crime. Indeed, it often takes both bad biology and bad surroundings to induce criminal behaviour.

Even so, it seems clear that biological factors underlie much criminal conduct. If so, Raine argues, we should treat it as a medical condition. "Treating the physical causes will work more quickly and effectively than repairing the complicated social factors that also contribute to criminal behaviour," he argues.

A few successful tests show that this approach can, indeed, work. On the island of Mauritius, for example, Raine and his colleagues provided extra nutrition, exercise and intellectual enrichment to a group of children for two years, beginning at age 3. When they tested them at age 11, they found the children's brains had matured faster than those of kids from comparable backgrounds who had not been part of this programme - and, a decade later, they showed 35 per cent less criminal behaviour.

Up to this point, Raine's book is a masterpiece. He has the research at his fingertips - not surprising, since he carried out much of it - and makes a compelling case that society needs to grapple with the biological underpinnings of violent crime just as vigorously as the social causes, if not more so. And he presents all this in a lively, engaging style, leavened with plenty of case studies of notorious murderers.

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Future police might seek brain scans to prevent crimes occurring (Image: AFP/Getty)

In the final few chapters, however, Raine sets aside his academic cap and tries on a more speculative one, with somewhat less success. Suppose, for instance, that in another 20 years our knowledge has progressed to the point where we can scan someone's brain and predict that they have better-than-even odds of committing a murder in the next few years. What should we do? Raine spins a dystopian fantasy of a future where at-risk individuals are forced into treatment centres and held there until their brains can be modified to reduce the risk.

Pushing the limits even further, he imagines screening and re-educating children, or even requiring prospective parents to prove their knowledge and fitness before being granted a parenting licence. All this is certainly interesting - but Raine sheds his authority when he crosses the line between science and speculation. Back to the lab.

This article appeared in print under the headline "Devil in the DNA"

Book information
The Anatomy of Violence: The biological roots of crime by Adrian Raine
Pantheon
$35

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April 09 2013

11:28

Get off my back! How to reduce your stress levels

Michael Bond, consultant

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Ignoring stress's social background puts the burden of change on the poor (Image: Steve Liss/Polaris/Eyevine)

Two opposing strategies for dealing with the stress of modern life have been put forward by Dana Becker and Marc Shoen, but which is best?

STRESS is the epidemic of our age, or so it seems: a disfiguring consequence of modern life that we all succumb to from time to time. Yet it is hard to know what it really is, other than a miscellany of physical and psychological symptoms covering everything from anxiety to hypertension. The original medical definition, which, as its derivation from mechanics suggests, is concerned specifically with an organism's response to external pressures, has all but vanished from view.

The effect of the external environment is central to some of the most telling scientific studies on stress, such as those exploring links between wealth inequalities and brain development. But this is not how most of us - or indeed most scientists - talk about stress. The focus has now turned inward, from environmental causes to medical solutions and what individuals should do to cope.

The result of this recalibration, initiated partly by the discovery that stressful experiences affect people's immune systems in different ways, is a vast market for biomedical and psychological interventions. In the scramble for drugs and therapy, the social and developmental context of stress and stress-related disease is conveniently ignored. Children with chronic behavioural issues, for example, are diagnosed with "conduct disorder", a label that pathologises their shortcomings and disregards the deficiencies in care and upbringing that are likely to have contributed to them.

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In One Nation Under Stress, Dana Becker argues that the medicalisation of stress and the current infatuation with neurobiology is a disaster for societies, and particularly for women. The problems women face daily in balancing work and family, for example, are so strongly shaped by social attitudes that they have most to lose when social conditions are ignored.

Ignoring the social background to stress, she says, puts the burden of responsibility on vulnerable people to change themselves - to solve their own problems - and it condones the external conditions that lead to their suffering. It allows us to avoid the larger problems. The upshot, writes Becker, is that it becomes "far easier to talk about the 'stressed' African American single mother, say, than to think about the effects of de facto school segregation in our cities, or the effects of discrimination on employment opportunities, or the shortage of affordable childcare".

Becker is a family therapy specialist at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania with a long interest in cultural and historical attitudes to illness. She is a sharp observer of the social and cultural implications of modern attitudes to stress, such as the tendency of researchers and the media to exaggerate the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder among both civilians and soldiers.

One Nation Under Stress reads like a manifesto against the current order, and few areas of medicine emerge unscathed. Becker sounds angry and occasionally bitter, which can make for a difficult read. She is convincing but also frustrating, for she offers few solutions, short of the need to "make substantive structural changes in our society", such as reducing inequalities.

Here, she makes the radical and clever suggestion that poverty should be viewed (by researchers and funders presumably) as a direct cause of illness and death, since it is well established that poverty leads to a greater risk of hypertension, depression, heart disease and other life-threatening conditions. But she fails to show how that could affect how science is carried out. Does she want money diverted from biomedicine to social sciences? Should we just give up on trying to discern individual differences in the way people deal with environmental and social pressures?

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Marc Schoen's Your Survival Instinct is Killing You, on the other hand, offers to "retrain your brain" to better cope with the stresses of modern living. It looks like just the kind of approach Becker hopes to banish.

Schoen is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a strong believer in the ability of the mind to influence the body (he's been hypnotising people since he was 16). He identifies what he perceives as a growing intolerance of discomfort as a major factor behind many disorders from insomnia to obesity. The modern world puts us on edge, which triggers maladaptive behaviours that then become entrenched.

He suggests ways to correct this distorted response to stress. Some make good sense, though are easier said than done: wind down before trying to sleep, stop procrastinating, delay your need for gratification, use a breathing meditation, learn to experience discomfort without reacting to it.

Others, such as "take a technology time out", seem dubious because they are predicated on the notion that modern technologies are bad for us. Where's the evidence that using computers leads to "a lower tolerance for ambiguity" and makes us less inclined to tolerate human imperfections?

Such self-help solutions are alluring for the reasons that grieve Becker most: we have so little control over the things dictating our health that the best we can do is adapt and survive. Her enduring point is this is not a level playing field, since those whose living conditions make them more susceptible to stress have the least access to tools that would help.

She hails a much-needed revolution, but until it arrives (or is at least signposted) people are likely to grab at anything that offers help and researchers will no doubt strive to provide it.

This article appeared in print under the headline "Get off my back!"

Book information
One Nation Under Stress: The trouble with stress as an idea by Dana Becker
Oxford University Press
$35

Your Survival Instinct is Killing You: Retrain your brain to conquer fear, make better decisions, and thrive in the 21st century by Marc Schoen
Hudson Street Press
$25.95

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April 02 2013

16:00

Has technology forced us into a 'present shock'?

Jim Giles, consultant

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It is no longer possible for leaders to control how a political story unfolds (Image: Larry Downing/Reuters)

In Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff says everyday technologies have destroyed our sense of perspective, but his insights need better backup

TOWARDS the end of Present Shock, the media theorist Douglas Rushkoff describes a radio talk show participant called Cheryl. She had phoned in to discuss the white trails that aircraft leave behind as they pass overhead.

Like other followers of the "chemtrail" conspiracy theory, Cheryl argued that these clouds contain chemicals that governments are distributing for some unknown but certainly nefarious purpose. Perhaps, she suggested, the aim was the creation of a planet-wide system for causing earthquakes. "Illuminating," replied the host, apparently in earnest.

Rushkoff knows why people like Cheryl think the way they do. In recent decades, he says, everyday technologies have forced us into a discombobulated state of constant alert. Our phones beep around the clock with news of emails, tweets and text messages. And entertainment networks have largely abandoned long-form narratives in favour of the strobe-like intensity of reality television.

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Changes like these, thinks Rushkoff, have robbed us of the ability to pause and to put events into context. We are afflicted with "present shock". Among other things, it causes some of us, like Cheryl, to see connections where there are none.

Arguments of this nature, which link technology with major cultural and social changes, involve joining up a lot of dots. Rushkoff starts the process at an intriguing point: the invention of the remote control. Once channel-switching became effortless, viewers became less tolerant of character development and the other mechanics of narrative that help build a show up to its climax.

To keep newly impatient audiences locked in, networks had to up the frequency of dramatic events in their shows. Hence the creation, among other new genres, of reality television, where scandals hit the screen so regularly that viewers never hit the remote.

This loss of narrative has had knock-on effects. All disciplines rely on familiar grand narratives - the triumph of the underdog or the comeback of a fallen great in sport, say. But these don't resonate in our "post-narrative" world, says Rushkoff. It is one reason why, he argues, attendance at American football and baseball has declined in recent years.

Something related is also at work in the world of news, he says. Now the audience has no time for narrative, politicians are finding it harder to control the story they attempt to create about themselves. The result is policy-making on the fly.

These are big claims, but Rushkoff doesn't come close to substantiating them. Sometimes he simply gets his facts wrong: baseball attendance, for example, rose over the past two seasons. It is true that crowds thinned for a few years from 2007, but if you had to bet on the cause, would you go for the great recession, which began in 2008, or the death of narrative?

Rushkoff's other examples aren't much more helpful. He uses George W. Bush's so-called "mission accomplished" statement, made years before US forces actually withdrew from Iraq, as an illustration of how it is no longer possible for our leaders to control the way a political story unfolds. Yet Bush was hardly the first ruler to suffer from moments of hubris.

These careless examples irk, but others are almost offensive. At one point, Rushkoff notes the mental burden caused by multitasking - such as simultaneous tweeting, watching of television and talking on the phone - and suggests it may be a cause of teen suicide.

It is a bizarre foray into a complex issue. Mental health specialists have debated numerous causes of suicide in young people, from substance abuse to genetics. Whatever the causes, suicide rates among young people have remained relatively flat in the US during the past two decades.

This use of such loose sourcing and flawed examples has an ironic result: I was left feeling that Rushkoff has identified some interesting and potentially important phenomena, but woven them together so carelessly that the theory he has created disintegrates on close examination. Which, if you think about it, isn't a bad definition of a conspiracy theory.

This article appeared in print under the headline "Big bold claims"

Book information
Present Shock: When everything happens now by Douglas Rushkoff
Penguin
$26.95


March 25 2013

17:22

The promise and perils of a datafied world

Big Data: A revolution that will transform how we live by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier alternates between enthusiasm and apocalyptic caution

IN A former life I was a research assistant. After painstaking weeks spent gathering data, I was tasked with putting the numbers into a statistics application that would help us deduce our trends.

While I was analysing the figures, my boss peered over my shoulder and pointed at a record on the screen. "Get rid of that one," I was told. "Also that one, that one, that one and that one." They were outliers and they were going to mess up the findings. "You're never going to trust science again," said my superior with a rueful laugh.

But if you believe Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, science will be just fine because such practices are about to become as archaic as leeching. Indeed, in Big Data, Cukier, a business writer at The Economist, and Mayer-Schönberger, a professor at the University of Oxford, argue that the big data revolution will save science.

Big data seemed to reach the apex of its hype cycle around 2012, when journalists and experts variously extolled its virtues – or wrung their hands about its implications. And yet, somehow it remained elusive: what exactly was it? This book answers that question.

First, then, a definition. Big data describes the idea that everything can be digitised and "datafied" – thanks to cheaper storage, faster processing and better algorithms. And that really means everything, from your current location or liking for strawberry pop tarts, to your propensity for misspelling and degree of personal compassion. And not just your data: everyone's data.

This changes science, say the authors, by ridding us of biased random samples and the need to massage the resulting data to make it sufficiently representative of a larger population. Could biased sample sets be at the root of many failed attempts to replicate experiments?

Whatever the answer, store everything and the need for proxies disappears. Instead of formulating hypotheses and then looking for confirmation in small, error-prone trials or experiments, scientists now have the storage, processing and algorithmic sifting power to simply trawl through the constellation of all data and spot trends.

Getting rid of the hypothesis would be a staggering change in the scientific method, but both Cukier and Mayer-Schönberger appear convinced it is a step in the right direction, freeing science from the (often unconscious) biases of scientists and increasing the accuracy of its findings.

But there is something even more revolutionary going on here. Reusing data was often nigh-on impossible: data collected for one purpose could rarely be reshuffled to probe it for anything other than the original purpose for which it was generated. This is no longer true – and that promises to have deep, potentially dystopian consequences.

The authors provide a brilliant metaphor for big data in the shape of the new Lytro camera, which uses information from not just one plane of light but which, its makers claim, "captures and processes the entire light field" of a given view. This means that you can focus later, during processing, on any plane you choose. Similarly, the ability to suck up massive amounts of unfiltered data means that any dataset can be used a nearly limitless number of times and for any purpose an algorithm designer can think up.

This opens up extraordinary possibilities. Want to tease out people's route to work from their cellphone data? There's an algorithm for that. Want to look through someone's Twitter feed to predict if they are prone to certain crimes? You can bet an algorithm for that will come along some time soon.

But do you really want every detail of your personal life mined ever more efficiently by every proto-Zuckerberg with an algorithm? I don't, but my phone company may decide to sell my data to start-ups for extra profit. And we would have no easy way to protect ourselves: just reading the terms and conditions of the privacy policies for the hardware, software and apps you already own would take a week and a half, with no breaks for sleeping or eating, and that will only increase.

Worse, is there an algorithm to watch over the algorithms? Where do you turn if some day in the future your love of pop tarts gets you barred from surgery. Or what if you're a prisoner and CCTV gait-analysis software decides you are still an unreformed character – and so you are refused parole?

There is an interesting tension in the book, alternating sometimes between enthusiastic business-speak and apocalyptic caution. This comes across as an ongoing "conversation" between the authors. Since Mayer-Schönberger wrote Delete: The virtue of forgetting in the digital age, I suspect that it is his caution tempering Cukier's evangelism.

This ensures that we have a credible picture of the upside of big data. For example, it could help when inspection systems get overwhelmed – as the 55 inspectors tasked with ensuring the safety of 3500 Gulf oil production platforms a year before the Deepwater Horizon accident certainly did. If every single aspect of the rigs' operational data had been routinely collected, an algorithm could have spotted trouble early enough for action.

Cukier and Mayer-Schönberger have pulled all this together in an elegant and readable primer. The one thing missing is a "next steps" section that doesn't just throw the problem into the laps of policy-makers, who are notorious for sitting on their hands until crises force them to act.

And my former boss may well be doing better research thanks to big data, but what secrets will the records of the lab's students divulge to future data-miners?

Book information
Big Data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work and think by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier
John Murray
£20
81WEOH4yyOL.jpg

Big data seemed to reach the apex of its hype cycle around 2012, when journalists and experts variously extolled its virtues - or wrung their hands about its implications. And yet, somehow it remained elusive: what exactly was it? This book answers that question.

First, then, a definition. Big data describes the idea that everything can be digitised and "datafied" - thanks to cheaper storage, faster processing and better algorithms. And that really means everything, from your current location or liking for strawberry pop tarts, to your propensity for misspelling and degree of personal compassion. And not just your data: everyone's data.

This changes science, say the authors, by ridding us of biased random samples and the need to massage the resulting data to make it sufficiently representative of a larger population. Could biased sample sets be at the root of many failed attempts to replicate experiments?

Whatever the answer, store everything and the need for proxies disappears. Instead of formulating hypotheses and then looking for confirmation in small, error-prone trials or experiments, scientists now have the storage, processing and algorithmic sifting power to simply trawl through the constellation of all data and spot trends.

Getting rid of the hypothesis would be a staggering change in the scientific method, but both Cukier and Mayer-Schönberger appear convinced it is a step in the right direction, freeing science from the (often unconscious) biases of scientists and increasing the accuracy of its findings.

But there is something even more revolutionary going on here. Reusing data was often nigh-on impossible: data collected for one purpose could rarely be reshuffled to probe it for anything other than the original purpose for which it was generated. This is no longer true - and that promises to have deep, potentially dystopian consequences.

The authors provide a brilliant metaphor for big data in the shape of the new Lytro camera, which uses information from not just one plane of light but which, its makers claim, "captures and processes the entire light field" of a given view. This means that you can focus later, during processing, on any plane you choose. Similarly, the ability to suck up massive amounts of unfiltered data means that any dataset can be used a nearly limitless number of times and for any purpose an algorithm designer can think up.

This opens up extraordinary possibilities. Want to tease out people's route to work from their cellphone data? There's an algorithm for that. Want to look through someone's Twitter feed to predict if they are prone to certain crimes? You can bet an algorithm for that will come along some time soon.

But do you really want every detail of your personal life mined ever more efficiently by every proto-Zuckerberg with an algorithm? I don't, but my phone company may decide to sell my data to start-ups for extra profit. And we would have no easy way to protect ourselves: just reading the terms and conditions of the privacy policies for the hardware, software and apps you already own would take a week and a half, with no breaks for sleeping or eating, and that will only increase.

Worse, is there an algorithm to watch over the algorithms? Where do you turn if some day in the future your love of pop tarts gets you barred from surgery. Or what if you're a prisoner and CCTV gait-analysis software decides you are still an unreformed character - and so you are refused parole?

There is an interesting tension in the book, alternating sometimes between enthusiastic business-speak and apocalyptic caution. This comes across as an ongoing "conversation" between the authors. Since Mayer-Schönberger wrote Delete: The virtue of forgetting in the digital age, I suspect that it is his caution tempering Cukier's evangelism.

This ensures that we have a credible picture of the upside of big data. For example, it could help when inspection systems get overwhelmed - as the 55 inspectors tasked with ensuring the safety of 3500 Gulf oil production platforms a year before the Deepwater Horizon accident certainly did. If every single aspect of the rigs' operational data had been routinely collected, an algorithm could have spotted trouble early enough for action.

Cukier and Mayer-Schönberger have pulled all this together in an elegant and readable primer. The one thing missing is a "next steps" section that doesn't just throw the problem into the laps of policy-makers, who are notorious for sitting on their hands until crises force them to act.

And my former boss may well be doing better research thanks to big data, but what secrets will the records of the lab's students divulge to future data-miners?

Book information
Big Data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work and think by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier
John Murray
£20

Follow @CultureLabNS on Twitter

Like us on Facebook



July 27 2012

12:00

Why a dogged virus simply won't go away

Rob Dunn, contributor

Though we have a vaccine, rabies remains a challenge to eradicate or treat, explain Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy in Rabid, a sweeping history of the disease

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IT CAN come out of the dark, frothy-mouthed and deadly. If it gets into your blood, it will travel up your nerves, heading with freight-train-like inevitability towards your brain. More than most other diseases, rabies specialises in striking terror. And so it has been for more than 4000 years.

In Rabid, veterinary surgeon Monica Murphy and Wired senior editor Bill Wasik tell the sweeping tale of the disease, one that begins in the earliest days of medicine and seems to intersect with nearly every major epoch of history. As the authors relate in compelling (and sometimes graphic) detail, rabies has affected dukes, saints and ordinary folks alike. Anyone is susceptible; all it takes is a bite from an infected animal.

Rabies was once far more common: abandoned dogs roamed cities like ghosts, infecting one another and bringing the virus into our homes. Then, as now, nearly all human rabies cases started with dog bites.

Yet after Louis Pasteur and Emile Roux began investigating the disease in their effort to better understand germs, the reach of rabies soon diminished. The pair went on to develop a vaccine to protect against the virus; it was first used successfully on a 9-year-old boy in 1885. Before long, the vaccine was being given to people - at least in countries with the means and the will to do so. It was also used to bring the disease under control in dogs and cats. Today, the likelihood of contracting rabies is slim in most parts of the world.

But the virus is still out there. Short of vaccinating every wild mammal in which the virus can survive, there is no definitive way to eradicate rabies. Raccoons in the eastern US, many types of bat and, of course, stray dogs continue to carry rabies.

That is worrying because in humans who exhibit symptoms, such as hallucinations or aggressive behaviour, the prognosis has not changed since the first recorded cases: if you are bitten by a rabid animal and do not receive the vaccine before symptoms develop, you will almost certainly die. The treatment at this late stage involves putting the patient into a coma, but of 35 people treated in this way, just four have survived.

Until I read this book, I thought little about rabies - beyond remembering to keep my cat's vaccination current. But Murphy and Wasik give life, context and understanding to the terrifying disease. Like the virus itself, this fascinating book moves quickly, exploring both the marginalised status and deadly nature of the virus. And as the authors trace the influence of rabies through history, Rabid becomes nearly impossible to put down.

Rob Dunn is a biologist and writer at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. His most recent book is The Wild Life of Our Bodies (HarperCollins)

Book information
Rabid: A cultural history of the world’s most diabolical virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy
Viking
$25.95


False memories, false convictions

Moheb Costandi, contributor

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EVERY day, innocent people are wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit, while real offenders are falsely acquitted. The error rate in the US has been estimated at 3 to 4 per cent, but it could be much higher. Sometimes mistakes are only revealed years later, when technologies such as DNA fingerprinting are employed. These, while not infallible, have so far exonerated hundreds of falsely convicted people.

In In Doubt, Dan Simon, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Southern California, puts the criminal justice system on trial, revealing the many flaws in how it operates. In his comprehensive look at the underlying cognitive science, he highlights the many potential pitfalls that might trip up the people involved at each stage of the judicial process.

Simon shows, for example, how police investigations can be skewed by biases, how interrogation techniques can promote false confessions and how eyewitnesses can wrongly identify criminal suspects. He also analyses case studies of criminal investigations, laying out recommendations for how they could be improved.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the book is devoted to memory, which plays a central role in criminal investigations but is also the biggest source of potential errors. Simon tells how psychologist Frederic Bartlett's work in the 1920s showed that our memories are highly error-prone, and how, more recently, cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has shown that memory can be influenced, unintentionally or otherwise, by leading questions and other techniques.

If In Doubt leaves you certain of anything, it is that assessing guilt should not be left to memory alone.

Book Information
In Doubt: The psychology of the criminal justice process by Dan Simon
Harvard University Press
£33.95/$45

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July 12 2012

10:23

The evolutionary mysteries of religion and orgasms

Kate Douglas, contributor

Homo-Mysterious.jpgThere are some thorny mysteries in the evolution of female sexuality. Is there a purpose to the female orgasm? What about menopause, menstruation and prominent breasts? Evolutionary psychologist David Barash jumps bravely into exploring these and other conundrums of human evolution in his new book, Homo Mysterious.

In searching for the "why" behind these unexplained oddities, Barash provides a wide-ranging survey of the territory, and he is at his most entertaining when describing his own ideas.

His handicap theory of female breasts is rather clever. He suggests that, like the peacock's tail, a permanently voluptuous bosom might be a woman's way of signalling her fitness by showing that she can thrive despite depositing so much valuable fat into cumbersome and mostly decorative appendages of a sort found nowhere else in nature.

Equally appealing is his favoured explanation for concealed ovulation - the fact that women's increased fertility is not broadcast. Barash suggests that once females became intelligent enough to link sex with babies - and babies with hard work - they could have tried to limit their birth rates. Those whose cycle was least discernible to themselves would have been least successful at avoiding pregnancy, so women with concealed ovulation gradually became more common.

But why are evolutionary mysteries of female sexuality far more numerous and prominent than their male counterparts? Barash remains disappointingly silent on this, although he does scrutinise some manly mysteries, such as why men are the more dowdy sex when sexual selection usually produces showy males, and why they tend not to live as long as women. There is also a very cogent chapter on homosexuality - although while Barash notes recent evidence pointing to its having different genetic underpinnings in men and women, he fails to consider that homosexuality might therefore have separate adaptive rationales in the two sexes.

Barash also takes on the weighty topics of religion, art and human intelligence. There is plenty here to inform and entertain, but he doesn't always marshal his eclectic material effectively. The chapters on religion make particularly frustrating reading, often just noodling around the subject instead of asking why this particular primate and no other evolved strong tendencies to spiritual thinking. No distinction is drawn between traditional, small-scale religions and today's predominant world religions. And Barash leaves a rather grudging explanation of evolutionary group selection until last, so that readers are not provided with a sufficient theoretical framework in which to assess some frankly iffy ideas from Freud and the like.

No mysteries were solved in the writing of this book. Instead, Barash argues that wisdom comes from learning about what we don't know. I agree, but I am not convinced, as he is, that these evolutionary puzzles are ultimately solvable.

We can use new insights from genetics, psychology, palaeoanthropology and archaeology to hone our ideas, but when it comes to human evolution there will always be an element of mystery.

Book Information
Homo Mysterious
by David P. Barash
Published by: Oxford University Press
£18.99/$27.95


February 21 2012

16:47

Are you mad to love city living?

Andrew Purcell, online producer

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What does living in a city do to your brain? It was with a slight sense of foreboding that I agreed to attend last night’s discussion event aiming to answer that question.

The reason for my unease was simple: having recently traded the snow-capped mountains and crystalline lakes of a small village in southern Germany for the skyscrapers and concrete skies of central London, I was nervous that the evening’s discussion would cast doubt upon the wisdom of my decision to head for the city. Steeling myself, I dodged through the rush-hour traffic and packed myself, accompanied by my ever-growing sense of trepidation, into the tangled web of sweaty armpits and flailing limbs of a packed underground carriage.

The choice of The Assembly, a small east London venue, for the discussion heightened my trepidation: the building is disquietingly close to the site of Bethlem Royal Hospital, popularly known as Bedlam - the world’s first and most notorious mental institution.

Novelist Will Self, one of the evening’s two main speakers, gave the audience a whistle-stop tour of Bedlam’s 800-year history.

There were a variety of “conditions” that could land someone in Bedlam, he told us, including giving birth to a child out of wedlock, harbouring socialist sympathies, or simply being poor. If you were unlucky enough to land up in the notorious institution, you could look forward to treatments ranging from lobotomies and electro-shock therapy, to infection with malaria, to induced insulin comas, to the ancient art of whipping and restraint.

Bringing things up-to-date, Self suggested that London's fetish for CCTV cameras, despite their ability to prevent crime being entirely unproven, is a symptom of paranoia. And those people walking along the city’s streets chatting into small hands-free microphones certainly give the outward appearance of being insane. “A Victorian mental patient released today would feel right at home,” he joked.

But does living in the urban environment change your brain? The evening’s second speaker, science writer Alok Jha, toured through the current research on the topic. A recent paper published in Nature looked into some of the differences in brain activity found between city dwellers and those living in rural areas. The researchers, based at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, found that activity in regions of the brain involved in the regulation of anxiety and emotion was higher for those living in urban areas. They speculate that this could be one of the reasons for the higher prevalence of mental disorders in city dwellers.

"There’s a 39 per cent increase in mood disorders, a 21 per cent increase in anxiety disorders and people in cities have double the rate of schizophrenia," explained Jha.

Researchers from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, argue that a perceived lack of control over one’s daily life may be the reason some people feel more stressed in urban environments. Jha explained how simple urban planning techniques and the use of green spaces could easily dramatically improve the quality of life in cities such as London.  And, with almost 70 per cent of the world’s population expected to live in urban areas by 2050, investment in such techniques is increasingly worthwhile.

Alongside the excellent talks, themed food and drinks were on offer from the Blanch & Shock food design team, who were behind one of the courses at this month’s Eat Rich or Die Trying event at London’s Kemistry gallery. Among the treats on offer were a rich chocolate cake, representing the one of the many addictions of modern urbanites, and a cocktail appropriately named "lunacy".

While Self and Jha highlighted the stress and mental difficulties of daily London life, I left happy with my decision to join the world’s ever-growing number of urbanites. At  least living in the city means that there are great events like this to keep you entertained on a Monday night.

What does living in London do to your brain? was the first in The Assembly and Container’s Monday Club 2012 series of events.



January 19 2012

19:06

Glenn Wilson: The Pursuit of Happiness

Glenn Wilson: The Pursuit of Happiness
What makes us happy? Is it a genetic trait that we are stuck with, or a product of events unfolding in our living? Does it help to be rich? What can be done to overcome set-backs and and improve our sense of well being?
Date: Tue, 01 Nov 2011 11:00:00 -0700
Location: London, England, Museum of London, Gresham College
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/11/01/Glenn_Wilson_The_Pursuit_of_Happiness

January 17 2012

21:15

The Better Angels of our Nature

The Better Angels of our Nature
Steven Pinker, one of the world's most exciting public thinkers, presents a radical re-assessment of human progress.

In 'The Better Angels of our Nature', Pinker traces a history of progress that reveals the historical circumstances and civilising forces, from commerce to cosmopolitanism, that have brought us to the most peaceful era humankind has yet experienced.

Date: Tue, 01 Nov 2011 05:57:00 -0700
Location: London, England, The RSA, RSA
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/11/01/The_Better_Angels_of_our_Nature

December 15 2011

21:54

Glenn Wilson: Soothing the Savage Breast

Glenn Wilson: Soothing the Savage Breast
Can music heal? For centuries its therapeutic virtues have been extolled. The various uses to which it is put are described and the scientific studies that evaluate its benefits. The possibility of music having socially damaging effects is also considered.

For transcript and downloadable versions of this lecture, please visit the event's page on the Gresham College website: Soothing the Savage Breast.
Date: Tue, 04 Oct 2011 10:00:00 -0700
Location: London, Museum of London, Gresham College
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/10/04/Glenn_Wilson_Soothing_the_Savage_Breast

December 07 2011

01:03

David Brooks Speaks with Daniel Kahneman

David Brooks Speaks with Daniel Kahneman
New York Times columnist David Brooks will speak with the Nobel Laureate and psychologist Daniel Kahneman about the latters influential career and his new book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

A Nobel laureate in economics (one of the only non-economists to earn this honor) and a research psychologist world-renowned for his seminal work on judgment, decision making, happiness, and well-being, Kahneman is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Princeton University and Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs Emeritus at Princetons Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. David Brooks's column on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times started in September 2003.

He has been a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly, and he is currently a commentator on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer. He is the author of Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense.
Date: Mon, 28 Nov 2011 02:00:00 -0800
Location: New York, NY, Prohansky Auditorium, CUNY
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/11/28/David_Brooks_Speaks_with_Daniel_Kahneman

November 24 2011

14:45

Bias rules the way we judge the world

Liz Else, associate editor

129821558.jpg(Image: Tono Labra/age fotostock/Getty)

Do biases - some of them dangerous - creep into every strategic choice we make? After a lifetime of research, Daniel Kahneman, the man touted as the world’s most influential psychologist, is convinced that they do.

But to judge by some of the questions and comments at the end of his lecture at the Royal Institution in London last week, the capacity crowd he addressed seemed to have a bit of trouble with Kahneman’s arguments - namely, his key notions of fast and slow thinking - and the potential for distortions in judgment that arise from not recognising the biases these two modes can let us fall into.

According to Kahneman, fast thinking is intuitive and runs most of the show: associations, impressions, feelings, intentions, and preparations for action all flow seamlessly. It produces a representation of the world around us and lets us walk and avoid obstacles while thinking about something else. It’s the mode we’re in when we play football, chat down the pub, or take a shower. It’s all about doing, not reflecting.

Then there is the slow-thinking mode. This monitors, reflects, helps us fill in tax forms or learn to cook. We call on this mode when the stakes are high, when we detect an error - or when we need some rule-based thinking.

Perhaps the unease in the crowd reflected the fact that Kahneman’s fast and slow thinking are just the tip of a cognitive iceberg - recognising what lies beneath means learning to live with unsettling and counterintuitive ideas about how our brains work.

Take a statement as simple as, “Ann approached the bank”, one of Kahneman’s favourite examples. Has she got a loan on her mind? Was she walking down the high street?

It’s only when you know that the preceding sentence had been: “They were floating gently down the river”, that all becomes clear. Sense-making is sensitive to context, it turns out, and it’s very complicated because it depends not only on visual cues, memories, and associations, but also on goals, anxieties, and other inputs.

Then you have to take into account the many other biases and errors you may have heard of already. Confirmation bias, for instance, leads us to ignore evidence that contradicts our preconceived notions - deeply dangerous that one, and luckily something to which we now alert scientists and doctors.

And there’s the more obscure non-regressive prediction, discovered and named by Francis Galton in the 19th century. When we are predicting non-regressively, we are predicting as if we knew everything - something Kahneman calls what-you-see-is-all-there-is (WYSIATI). This describes the phenomenon that we tend to make judgements that completely ignore the fact that we don’t have all the information we would need to make that judgement correctly.

Unfortunately, more methodical slow thinking doesn’t necessarily bail us out of all these errors either. As Kahneman puts it, it can be “lazy”.

He offers a puzzle to illustrate this. You aren’t supposed to try to solve it, just rely on your intuition:

A bat and ball cost $1.10
The bat costs $1 more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?

For some people, the answer that immediately comes to mind is 10¢. For others, the correct answer would have popped into their minds - 5¢ - but been suppressed in favour of the former. So just how closely was our slow thinking mode monitoring the show for those who knew the correct answer but overrode it with intuition? And even among those who gave the intuitive but incorrect answer straight away, why did the slow thinking mode allow them to miss the social clue - of wondering why they would be given such an obvious answer?

(Just so you feel better, if you did get the wrong answer, so did more than half of students at MIT, Harvard, and Princeton.)

All of which goes to show that unless we really understand that our thinking is riddled with biases, we could end up creating all sorts of messes - especially in a world where we face increasingly complex decisions every day and on every level from personal to global.

Kahneman is hopeful that understanding our different modes of thinking will help organisations learn to make better judgements. He reckons that organisations are much more likely to find this kind of thinking useful by establishing systems that focus on the likely mistakes and aim to avoid them. Also, organisations are quite good at imposing or creating organisational plans in their culture, and part of that culture is language. If the language of thinking and decision-making is more sophisticated, we could avoid some mistakes. In fact, Kahneman is sufficiently convinced of this that in June this year in an article he wrote for the Harvard Business Review he provided a checklist to help decision-makers at least be alert to their biases.

As for individuals, Kahneman is less convinced we can be trained to avoid these errors. He told New Scientist that, even after 40 years working on the problem, his own intuitive thinking hadn’t improved.

If we can have the right “language” with which to think about the problem - and at least recognise situations in which we are more likely to make mistakes - that may be as good as it gets.

Read the New Scientist interview with Daniel Kahneman.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is published by Penguin.

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September 14 2011

15:45

Rewriting the stories we tell ourselves

Mark Freeman, contributor

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(Image: Suzanne Dechillo/The New York Times/Redux/eyevine)

Do you think that airing your feelings right away will help you through trauma? Are you persuaded that bringing kids to prisons will scare them straight? Convinced that costly, intensive long-term interventions are needed to close the achievement gap in education, curb alcohol abuse and reduce teen pregnancies?

Think again, says psychologist Timothy Wilson. At the heart of his book Redirect: The surprising new science of psychological change is the conviction that many favoured approaches to changing behaviour are akin to "bloodletting" and may do more harm than good. Armed with the tools of experimental social psychology, he argues we can move beyond these untested, "common-sense" views and begin to make some real progress.

Central to Wilson's perspective is the idea that our interpretations of the world are rooted in largely unconscious "narratives" - stories we use to frame the world and that shape our sense of identity - and that these too often leave us unhealthy and unhappy. The good news, he says, is that there is a way to redirect these interpretations "that is quick, does not require one-on-one sessions, and can address a wide array of personal and social problems". Wilson calls this new way "story editing", and in his view it carries enormous potential for efficiently producing lasting positive change.

It is unclear why Wilson relies on the language of narrative to advance his perspective. There is little in the book that is actually about narrative and little attention to the question of why narrative occupies the privileged position it ostensibly does in redirecting our views of what we're all about. More substantively, it is also unclear whether this comparatively "quick" approach to psychological change has the reach and staying power Wilson attributes to it.

For those, like Wilson, who delight in upending cherished nostrums about human behaviour and who find in social psychology a viable vehicle for leading us more surely on the path towards what is true, right and good, Redirect is likely to be a stimulating, valuable read. But those who are sceptical of quick psychological fixes and who seek somewhat heartier intellectual fare may wish to redirect their attention to the vast body of work - in psychology and beyond - that more fully acknowledges just how tortuous this path truly is.

Redirect: The surprising new science of psychological change
by Timothy D. Wilson
Published by: Penguin /Little Brown & Co
£14.99/$25.9

Mark Freeman is a professor of psychology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts



July 29 2011

00:37

Glenn WIlson: What Is This Thing Called Love?

Glenn WIlson: What Is This Thing Called Love?
How do hormones, pheromones and bonding chemicals connect with the experiences of sexual arousal and romantic love? To what extent are we victims of our brain chemistry and neural processes? What are the evolutionary origins and adaptive values of "falling in love"?
Date: Tue, 29 Mar 2011 18:00:00 -0700
Location: London, Museum of London, Gresham College
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/03/29/Glenn_WIlson_What_Is_This_Thing_Called_Love

July 26 2011

11:52

Is reading fiction good for you?

Michael Bond, consultant

Reading600.jpg

Reading fiction can shape our personalities (Image: Gavin Rodgers/Rex Features)

IF YOU'VE ever been in a book club or enjoy discussing books with friends, you will know that people often interpret stories in different ways, reflecting their own experiences, inclinations and views of the world. Take Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. While some readers may have little trouble forgiving Mr Darcy's conceit once he starts to show affection for Elizabeth, others might question whether he is really capable of change.

This is one of the ways fiction seduces us: no matter how tight the narrative structure, or how well-defined the characters, we can always follow our own imaginings. In the technological era, this idea is evident in the nonlinear plot sequences of video games that let players decide for themselves how a storyline progresses. A similar device was used in the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books, hugely popular with adolescents in the 1980s and 1990s.

The idea that fiction is not just the writer's creation, but a co-conspiracy between writer and reader, is a central theme in Such Stuff As Dreams. Written by novelist and cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley, the book covers a lot of ground, from the evolution of language and the origins of creativity to the mechanics of empathy and theory of mind. Oatley goes to great lengths to build a psychological theory of fiction - delving into the effects of fiction on the minds of readers and authors, how we identify with characters, the way that stories move us, how they can change the way we see ourselves and how they might even improve our social skills.

such-stuff-as-dreams.jpg

Unfortunately for Oatley's theory, Such Stuff As Dreams reads less like a work of psychology than one of literary criticism. It is no less impressive for that. Much of the discussion is compelling, and this book could well change the way you read. The psychology, however, sometimes feels a little flat, largely because there is a lack of convincing evidence to back his main hypothesis - that reading novels significantly improves people's capacity to navigate their social world, and that fiction is therefore "good for you".

Still, his writing is entertaining and he's tapping into a rich vein, and I hope he will explore the subject further. It would be interesting to know, for example, how recent psychological findings about the slipperiness of personality might find their way into fiction or affect the way we understand the concept of character - up to now considered an immutable quality in both the real and imagined world.

Spare a thought for Mr Darcy's immaculate friend Mr Bingley, described in Austen's novel (which Oatley extensively mines) as "sensible, good humoured, lively... handsome... with such perfect good-breeding... His character is thereby complete". Today's social psychologists may beg to differ.


Book Information
Such Stuff As Dreams: The psychology of fiction
by Keith Oatley
Wiley-Blackwell
£16.99


June 27 2011

23:59

Dorothy Rowe: Why We Lie

Dorothy Rowe: Why We Lie
Do you tell the occasional white lie? Well psychologist Dorothy Rowe believes you could be doing more harm than good.

At the 2011 Perth Writers Festival, Dorothy Rowe sits down with fellow psychologist Leah Giarratano to talk about why we lie. This conversation ranges from the everyday lies, to the lies global leaders tell that have devastating global impacts. Parents, religious institutions, Tony Blair, Muammar Gaddafi all go under Dorothy's microscope in this fascinating talk.

Dr Dorothy Rowe, born in 1930, is an Australian born clinical psychologist who lives in England. From 1972 until 1986 she was head of the North Lincolnshire Department of Clinical Psychology. She has written several books on psychology and mental health including Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison, and Why We Lie: The Source of Our Disasters was published in 2010.

Dr Leah Giarratano is a clinical psychologist and crime writer. Leah is an expert in psychological trauma, sex offenses and psychopathology. Her books include, Black Ice, Voodoo Doll and her Watch the World Burn.
Date: Tue, 29 Mar 2011 11:00:00 -0700
Location: Perth, Australia, Perth Writers Festival, Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/03/29/Dorothy_Rowe_Why_We_Lie

April 13 2011

17:22

How to be happy: The optimist manifesto

Michael Bond, consultant

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(Image: Gutam Singh/AP/PA)

Psychology can and should do more than reduce mental suffering, argues positive psychology guru Martin Seligman in his persuasive book Flourish

I FIND relentless optimists a real pain, but there is no denying they are better off when it comes to health and well-being. They are, for example, less likely to get cardiovascular disease or to catch flu, and are at less risk of dying from any cause.

Martin Seligman, founding father of the discipline of positive psychology, is a relentless optimist and as such should be a healthy man indeed. I expected to find him annoying in the preacherly way of many behavioural gurus, but I finished his new book, Flourish, a convert, at least to his core message that changing certain psychological attitudes can have a transformative effect on people's lives, and that well-being amounts to more than just positive emotion: relationships, meaning and a sense of accomplishment are just as important, he says.

For Seligman is a rational optimist, in the sense that his recipes for increasing well-being are founded on empirical tests. So when he asks you to set aside 10 minutes in the evening to write down three things that went well that day, you sense it might be worthwhile.

While he offers plenty of advice, Flourish is not a cookbook for a better life so much as a personal witness to what psychology can achieve beyond reducing suffering. If you can get through the somewhat pedestrian first chapter, you will find how he came to realise that focusing exclusively on pathology can be, well, depressing. "Once in a while I would help a patient get rid of all his anger and anxiety and sadness. I thought I would then get a happy patient. But I never did. I got an empty patient."

You will also learn that he nearly become a professional bridge player, has seven children and a huge regard for the US army ("the force that stood between me and the Nazi gas chambers"). None of this is directly relevant, yet it gives context to Seligman's calling, which is less an academic or therapeutic enterprise than a game-changing crusade. He wants well-being taught in schools as part of a "revolution in world education". In 2005 he started teaching the first master of applied positive psychology programme at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, to professionals seeking to apply the skills in their workplaces. And he has been assessing the psychological fitness of the entire US army and designing courses to improve soldiers' mental resilience.

Occasionally, Seligman's enthusiasm gets the better of him. At one point he doesn't seem to register the absurdity of his observation that people who have been through an awful event such as rape or torture score higher on his well-being scale than those who haven't. He is making a point about human resilience, but this is the psychological equivalent of GDP rising after an earthquake, and it illustrates the dangers of relying on well-being scores as a tool of policy-making.


Book Information
Flourish
by Martin Seligman
Free Press (US)
$26


March 11 2011

23:55

Glenn Wilson: Sex Wars

Glenn Wilson: Sex Wars
Why do the "selfish genes" of men and women sometimes create conflict? How do monogamy, polygamy and infidelity stack up in terms of adaptive value? Is sex addiction a real disease or just an excuse for bad behaviour? The distinction between explanation and moral justification. Reconciling the discrepancy between male and female instincts.
Date: Tue, 22 Feb 2011 00:00:00 -0800
Location: London, UK, Museum of London, Gresham College
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/02/22/Glenn_Wilson_Sex_Wars

March 08 2011

02:17

February 25 2011

23:19

Steven Pinker: Language as a Window into Human Nature

Steven Pinker: Language as a Window into Human Nature
This animate was adapted from a talk given at the RSA by Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist and author of popular science writings. Pinker shows us how the mind turns the finite building blocks of language into infinite meanings. Taken from the RSA's free public events program: http://www.thersa.org/events/.
Date: Fri, 04 Feb 2011 00:00:00 -0800
Location: London, The RSA, RSA
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/02/04/Steven_Pinker_Language_as_a_Window_into_Human_Nature
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