Is social status hardwired?

Imagine a conversation between two people: Preston Power, the CEO of a prestigious corporation, and Alan Awkward, the assistant to the assistant to the regional manager. It wouldn’t take very long to pick up on the difference in social status between these two individuals even if you had no information about who they were. Body language, the tendency to interrupt, volume of speech, and a host of other nonverbal behaviors automatically cue us in to who is the alpha dog in this scenario. While these behaviors are often viewed as personal choices that we can control, Fei Wang and colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences suggest that poor Mr. Awkward may not be at fault for his plight—his neurons may be to blame.  Continue reading

Red scare, quite literally

The color red is commonly used to caution us. Used prominently in alerts ranging from stop signs to warning labels, we generally associate red with some kind of threat or danger. Some have even suggested that athletes whose team color is red dominate more than those with other team colors (although having been a Stanford Cardinal during a period of particularly embarrassing athletic performance, I have my doubts).

In any case, the roots of this phenomenon are interesting from an evolutionary psychological perspective—is our association between a color and certain emotions hardwired or culturally based (or a mix of both)? Researchers at Dartmouth have reason to believe the former. Continue reading

Drug use memories and relapse: Can medication provide addiction help?

Originally posted on

About a year ago, while sitting in a lecture on learning and memory, the idea that certain drugs can affect the emotional responses to memory long after the memory itself has been formed came up. As someone interested in addiction research, the implication for treatment immediately came up in my head:

Could we reduce the effect of triggers by giving people a pill?

In one word – Yes! But, the answer is not, in fact, that simple. Even in the studies already done in PTSD patients, the memories have to be re-triggered and the drug given at exactly the right time to be effective. In fact, in humans, some of the best work has been done in PTSD patients immediately after the traumatic event.

Addiction help through relapse prevention

Still, a recent study in animals suggests that the theory is sound. By interfering with the activity of a neurotransmitter important in the formation of memories, researchers were able to stop animals trained to self-administer cocaine from doing so. The animals, which had been trained to push a lever for cocaine when a light went on, reduced, or even stopped responding after a single dose of a substance that blocked memory formation. Essentially, the researchers prevented the animals from relapse. Again, this only worked if the drug was given while the light (as in the drug-trigger) was presented at the same time.

More recent studies, using repeated doses of the drug propranolol, have been shown to have an even more promising effect. Check out my coverage of that research here.

Given the powerful role of triggers in relapse, this avenue of research has some promising possibilities for future treatment of drug addiction.