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

Perceptual Learning: Applications to Education

My lab at UCLA has been in the news twice recently, which is very exciting for us! You may have seen this article in the NYTimes last week or this interview on CBS’ The Early Show this morning. Both stories are about perceptual learning and its applications to education. I thought in this post I would expand on those ideas to give you a deeper sense of what perceptual learning is, why we study it, and what its limitations are.

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Emotional Control: Strategies we use for regulating our emotions

Emotions are a central component of the human experience.  They facilitate social interactions, allow us to both appreciate and create powerful works in arts and literature, and guide us in achieving personal goals.  These are only a few of the myriad ways that demonstrate the important role emotions play in our lives.  In a letter to his brother Theodore, Vincent Van Gogh (1889) advised him not to forget that “emotions are the captains of our lives, and we obey them without realizing it.”  Given the source, we might not be inclined to trust such an insight on affect from someone who’s life was plagued by severe emotional distress, but common experience forces us to acknowledge a certain amount of truth to his words: there exist times in each of our lives where we have found ourselves fallen under the sway of an intense emotional experience without even realizing it (at first at least).  Perhaps we were propelled to an angry outburst at a reckless driver, or could not hold back the tears while watching a sad movie.  Indeed, much research has been carried out investigating the ways in which emotions influence our cognitive abilities such as our attention, memory, and decision-making of which we might not even be consciously aware (Dolan 2002). Continue reading

Alcohol blackouts: What to remember to remember?

Do you remember what you did last night? Have you ever not remembered what you did after drinking? Drinking alcohol over a long time period can affect the brain and cause lasting damage including, but not limited to, slips in memory. These memory slips can be due to lack of blood flow to brain areas that are important for memory consolidation and are more commonly known as blackouts. Contrary to what most people seem to believe, blackouts often occur in social drinkers and are don’t seem to be related to age or level of alcohol dependency. Continue reading

Should we blame the media?

The NY Times using nearly all anecdotal evidence based on one child, says the media may be responsible for poor grades and lack of focus.

Don Tapscott rebutes this argument and cites much research.

This is such an interesting example of how even a respected newspaper like the NY Times can flame the fire.  I can’t say agree with everything that Tapscott says, for example he says that ” Time spent online is not coming at the expense of less time hanging out with friends; it’s less time watching television.” and this is not factual.  Indeed, children spend more time watching TV than anything other media according to Kaiser and Nielsen, it’s just they watch it on many different platforms.  But he does make some really interesting and important points.

First posted on parenting in the digital age.

Digital Media Are a Tool

A recent article by James Fallows in the Atlantic reminded me that digital media are a tool and not an entirely new state of being and behavior.   The article says:

  • “Technology, to them, is neither a sedative that dulls our alarm nor a rocket ship that will spirit us away from our problems; it is a pick—one fairly humble tool among many, including changing human behavior to increase conservation—with which we can hack our way toward a solution.”

As a student of developmental psychology, I examine human behavior and the variables that may affect how humans develop.  One of the biggest changes in the world in the last ten to fifteen years is the explosion of digital media and the ability for many more people on a global level to connect to the Internet.  At times, this rapid advance in technology seems to have changed people in ways that are profound and possibly irreversible.  But extant research has shown that children are using digital media to explore many of the issues that they have always explored, such as identity development, intimacy and social learning.   Even cyber bullying is most often done by kids who know each other from their offline lives.

Yet perhaps the more things stay the same, the more they change (I know this is the reverse of the saying).  Indeed, digital media give children tools that may amplify and actually influence their developmental pathways.  For example, in the case of cyberbullying, now children who are bullied are no longer safe once they leave the school yard, as texting and social networking sites allow 24/7 access.  Nintendo DSIs come with double-sided cameras, so that children not only take pictures to reflect the world outside of them, they also can take many pictures of themselves, perhaps increasing a focus on self.

How will these tools influence human’s behavior?  Could they even change the brain?   Dr. Gary Small , the author of the IBrain who lectured at our forum yesterday, pointed out that scientists believe that the human brain and body changed as the result of the realization that a sharpened stick could be a tool to kill animals.  Once this tool was created, the beginning of the evolution of the brain towards a larger frontal cortex may have begun.  In that case, could digital media, everywhere in our environment, indeed affect and change our brains?  How might digital tools change the practices of the digital natives, and will these practices eventually lead to changes in our bodies and brains?  It’s a fascinating and important question.
Originally posted on parenting in the digital age.

Pre-Maternity Leave Requested!

The upcoming article by Christine Dunkel Schetter outlines a number of difficulties that may negatively impact the infant’s birth weight and duration of the pregnancy. The sources of stressors outlined in the article are broad, including financial stressors, problems in ones romantic relationships, family responsibilities, employment conditions, and pregnancy-related concerns. Both episodic and chronic stressors appear to have such a strong negative impact on the infant’s development and health. This may put parents in a difficult position, as many parents may want to take on extra work in preparation for a maternity leave or get the house in order for the new arrival. This may not necessary be stressful for all people, but it is likely that general concerns about pregnancy coupled with extra work in the home and in one’s career can add up to be quite a stressful experience. Women have made tremendous gains in establishing work outside of the home, which has led to increased commitments to one’s career and many women hold positions of power within their work organization. Focus on these roles during pregnancy may lead to increased stressors – and perhaps could be detrimental to the health of the developing infant.

While I am not suggesting that the solution is for women to cease all activities during pregnancy, it is clear that stress reduction should be a goal. From a policy perspective, it would be ideal for the pregnancy period to be treated more generously by employers. This crucial time in infant development appears to have gone largely overlooked in terms of legal intervention providing a standard for individuals during this phase. We applaud countries and companies that provide generous programs for mothers (and fathers) following the birth of a child. Many U.S. organizations have programs to support employees who are parents with maternity or paternity leave (although many do not), but rarely is the same level of focus placed on pre-birth care. It appears that the nine months prior to the birth merit consideration in terms of workload reduction.

I fear, though, that if such a movement were to happen, women would lose as well as gain. Potential “reasonable” arguments could be made against hiring women based on the potential loss of productivity both during and after pregnancy. Employers may understandably want the most productive workforce available, and hiring practices may further result in biases against female employees. Treating women differently, even while pregnant, may subtly reinforce the stereotype that women are weak. This issue appears complex, although merits much further consideration and discussion. In lieu of a complete overall of employment regulations, perhaps stress reduction or group therapy could be emphasized an essential pregnancy companion. Group therapy targeting pregnancy anxiety may be a worthwhile public health initiative, especially in high-risk groups.