Posts Tagged ‘ evolution ’

Why I Love and Hate “Game”

Yes, it’s that special time of year again – time for flamboyant bouquets and chalky candy to appear at office desks – time for Facebook pages to drown in cloying iconography – time for self-labeled “forever aloners” to dredge the back alleys of OKCupid in last-ditch desperation – and time for me to load up my trusty gatling crossbow with oxytocin-tipped darts and hit the streets.

Valentine's Day also means it's time to enjoy the traditional dish of Earlobe.

Oh, and it’s time for everyone to complain about how misogynistic all this “Game” stuff is.

So, while I guess I could write about, say, a new study that says cutting your romantic partner some slack can make him or her more capable of actual change, or this one that says love and chocolate are good for cardiovascular health, I think it’ll be much more interesting to talk about what’s really on most of our minds today:

What does science have to say about “getting the girl” (or guy) of your dreams? And what do actual girls (and guys) think about it?

Let’s start with some full disclosure: about this time last year, I decided to see what all the fuss was about, and I read The Game for myself – and then I read some of the other works it cites, too. And I started talking to my friends (both male and female) about what they thought of the ideas in those books – and I tested a lot of the ideas I read, the same way I’d test any hypothesis: I wrote down the predictions various authors made, and checked how well those predictions lined up with my own real-world experiences.

In short, I went Full Geek on the topic.

What I learned is that, on the spectrum of scientific rigorousness – a scale from, say, astrology (0) to molecular chemistry (10) – most of this stuff falls somewhere in the 4-to-6 range: It tends to be more evidence-based than, say, ghost-hunting; but it still falls firmly into the realm of the “softer” sciences, like psychotherapy and so on.

The reason for this is that – as many pick-up artists freely admit – their craft is at least as much an artistic pursuit as a scientific one. Much like, say, Aristotle and Hobbes and Descartes, PUAs do their best to ground their conclusions logically in real-world data that anyone is free to test and refute – but at the same time, like those great philosophers of old, PUAs tend to be more intent on constructing elaborate thought systems than on presenting their “ugly” raw data for independent labs to crunch through.

This means pick-up manuals tend to read more like philosophical treatises than scientific papers.

And I think it’s this very feature of pick-up art that explains why it’s such a polarizing topic – why many women (and plenty of men) find the very concept insulting and distasteful, while other men swear that it’s transformed them from self-loathing losers into sexually fulfilled alpha males.

See, many women will tell you in no uncertain terms that pickup “tricks” don’t work on someone as intelligent and experienced as them; and that even if such tricks did work, they don’t want to be “picked up” –  instead, they want to fall in love (or at least in lust) with a man who’s honest about his real self and his real feelings. Many men, too, would agree that crafty seduction techniques somehow cheapen the process – that it’s better to be “forever alone” than to be surrounded by adoring women who were manipulated into their romantic feelings.

Meanwhile, men who’ve had “success” (however they choose to define it) as a result of a pick-up system’s techniques will often defend that system to the death – much like how a person who’s found inner peace thanks to, say, Buddhism will often defend it passionately against anti-Buddhist viewpoints.

What I’m arguing here, though, is that none of these reactions pertain directly to the underlying process of seduction at all – rather, they’re reactions to the (often sleazy-sounding) thought-systems that various writers have constructed around their experiences with that process.

Because – let’s get right down to it – in all our interactions with other humans, we’re hoping to manipulate the outcome somehow. Double entendres, pop-cultural references, stylish clothes and makeup, kind gestures, subtle dishonesty – even honesty itself – all these are tools and techniques that we hope will garner us a certain response.

For example, if you choose to callously manipulate the people around you, you may get a lot more sex than you would otherwise – but you’ll also end up with a lot of shallow relationships, which you’ll probably come to regret eventually. If you choose to be completely honest all the time, you may repel some people – but you’ll probably also find that those who stick around end up respecting you for who you really are.

It’s Game Theory 101: Players who “win” are those who understand the rules, risks and rewards of the game – and play accordingly. All the sleazy lingo and tricks – all the elaborate systems – are just various people’s attempts to explain these dynamics as they play out in gender relations, and to sell their vision of the process to a demographic of sex-starved men, whose desires they understand quite well.

But still – the underlying process itself is no more and no less sleazy than the mind of the person using it.

In other words, when you read between the lines of these PUA systems, most of them turn out to be geared toward the same premises: That to grow as a person, you need to 1) be fully honest with yourself about what you want from the people around you, 2) acknowledge the personal changes that need to be made in order to achieve those results, and 3) steadily work to make those changes in yourself.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective, it’s hard for me to see how that’s inherently more “cheap” than, say, a woman learning how to dress and speak seductively in order to get what she wants.

Yes, there are a lot of sleazy men out there who objectify women and sweet-talk them into one-night stands. There are also plenty of sweet-talking women out there who milk men for the contents of their wallets, then move on. And so we label each other “douchebags” and “bitches,” and keep engaging in the same defensive behaviors, and no one’s really happy.

And I hate that Game. I despise it.

At the same time, though, it’s clear that we humans, like many other animals, have evolved to play competitive social games – there’s no getting around that fact. But unlike many animals, we don’t have to play the game exactly as our instincts tell us to – we’re metacognitive, so we can learn to play using strategies that don’t result in zero-sum outcomes: We can develop tactics that help both sides get more of what they want. We can harness our evolutionary drives to mutually-beneficial behavior patterns.

Doesn’t that make you want to learn to play more creatively, instead of trying not to play at all?

I mean, at the end of the day, it kinda fills me with love for the Game.

What do you think?

Digital Friendships

Those of us who have loads of Facebook friends tend to have greater development in several specific brain regions, says a new study.

"Guys, guys - I just felt my entorhinal cortex triple in size!"

Researchers have found a strong correlation between large numbers of Facebook connections and increased development of gray matter – tissue containing neuron cell bodies, where dense communication occurs – in several regions crucial for social interaction: the amygdala, the right superior temporal sulcus (STS), the left middle temporal gyrus (MTG), and the right entorhinal cortex (EC).

Intriguingly, the size of some of these regions seems to correlate only with the size of people’s online social networks – not their real-world ones. It’s not clear yet, though, which factor is cause and which is effect – whether increased development in these regions enables people to develop larger online social networks, or vice versa. Even so, this is one of the first studies to directly link neuroanatomical data with online behavior.

As the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B reports, a team led by Geraint Rees at University College London (UCL) performed MRI scans of the brains of 125 university students, and correlated this data with information on the size of these students’ Facebook friend groups:

The number of social contacts declared publicly on a major web-based social networking site was strongly associated with the structure of focal regions of the human brain. Specifically, we found that variation in the number of friends on Facebook strongly and significantly predicted grey matter volume in left MTG, right STS and right entorhinal cortex.

The exact links between these regions and online communication remain to be studied – but many of them have been correlated with social interaction in other studies.

The amygdala helps us process negative emotions like fear and sadness, both in ourselves and others – and people with larger amygdalas tend to have larger social networks overall, both online and otherwise.

Though no studies so far have correlated the size of the right STS with social network size, this structure is known to be involved in our ability to think of some objects as alive, as well as in helping us understand what others are looking at, and what emotions they’re expressing. A malfunctioning STS is thought to be a major factor in autism.

The exact role of the left MTG isn’t precisely understood, but many neuroscientists think this structure is involved in our ability to recognize familiar faces, and to process the semantic associations (i.e., meanings) of words.

The right EC works closely with the hippocampus to help us form and consolidate explicit/declarative memories – i.e., memories of specific facts and events, and specific associations between them (e.g., “kitties and bunnies are both mammals”). The EC is also one of the first areas attacked by Alzheimer’s. The researchers found that this region correlated especially strongly with online friend group size, but not particularly with real-world friend group size:

The right entorhinal cortex is implicated in associative memory formation for pairs of items including pairs of names and faces. Such memory capacity for name–face associates would constitute an important function for maintaining a large social network as observed in social network websites.

In short, the ability to mentally “tag” photos and posts with the correct associations is a central skill for maintaining digital friendships.

It’s easy to see how all the brain regions above could play central roles in a person’s ability to maintain a wide-ranging network of online friends. What’s especially interesting, though, is that all of them deal with features of social interaction that port from the real world to the online interaction space in straightforward ways – social hierarchies, facial expressions, repeatable facts, and so on – but that many other vital aspects of real-world social interaction – such as body language, and tone of voice – don’t appear to be nearly as crucial in an online social network. It’s enough to make you wonder what natural selection may have in store for our brains.

I don’t know about you, but I’m picturing a future where men compete in flame-wars for the right to woo attractive females. So while you my competitors are out hitting the bars and clubs this weekend, I’ll be – ah – honing my skills on 4chan and Reddit. Which is basically what I’d be doing this weekend anyway.

Doubling Up

Our big brains may be the result of a doubled gene that lets brain cells migrate to new areas, says a new study.

SRGAP2 seems to have a lot to do with the human "inflate-o-brain."

The gene, known as SRGAP2, has been duplicated in our genomes at least twice in the four million years since our ancestors diverged from those of the other great apes. It codes for a certain protein that interferes with filopodia – tiny molecular structures that shape the growth of neurons in a developing brain. Researchers think that as SRGAP’s protein disrupted the “normal” growth of our ancestors’ filopodia, millions of their neurons migrated outward to thicken the cerebral cortex – the outer “rind” of the cerebrum where many of our most advanced cognitive functions are processed.

This SRGAP2 duplication isn’t just common – it’s universal: every human being alive today shares it. In fact, it’s one of 23 duplicated genes that are shared by every person’s genome, but aren’t shared with chimps, gorillas, and orangutans. Thus, geneticists think these 23 genes may be crucial parts of the instructions for building a full-fledged Homo sapiens.

A team led by Megan Dennis at the University of Washington examined SRGAP2 in more than 150 million people, and discovered that this duplication story has an interesting twist: it seems that about 3.4 million years ago, SRGAP2 was partially duplicated – and this partial duplication is missing in some people. But then, about 2.4 million years ago, a copy of that partial copy was created and added to chromosome 1. That copied copy is common to the genetic code of every human being alive today.

Dennis and her team studied the effects of this duplicated duplicate, and found that the version of SRGAP2 we all carry interferes with neurons’ ability to make filopodia. Since our great ape cousins don’t share this duplication, it seems reasonable to think that this filopodia “defect” played a major part in shaping the modern human brain.

This research is still in the pretty early stages (I’ve found plenty of popular-press reportage on it; but unless I’m missing something, there’s no peer-reviewed journal paper yet) but it still provides some exciting clues as to why our brains might be so different from those of our closest genetic relatives. I’m pretty interested to see what future studies on SRGAP2 will reveal about the structure of the human cerebral cortex – especially the prefrontal cortex (PFC). As I hear more news, I’ll keep you posted.

But for now, it’s off to kill some brain cells in the hope of making myself smarter. It’ll totally work – Science says so!

The Roots of Consciousness

The origins of subjective consciousness probably lie in an introspective brain network common to most mammals, says a new study.

What's going on in that furry little head of yours?! TALK!

When we “zone out” and let our minds wander, a functional (as opposed to structural) brain network known as the default mode network (DMN) becomes active. The DMN links our frontal lobe – an area associated with planning and abstract thought – with areas of the temporal and parietal lobes that help us associate memories with ideas and emotions. In short, this network allows us to become “lost” in thought, rather than occupied with our environment, or with a specific goal.

Since goal-directed behavior – say, hunting for food or a mate – seems to be more crucial for a species’s survival than mind-wandering is, the discovery of the DMN (which, like most new discoveries in neuroscience, has seen its share of controversy) prompted scientists to ask what purpose the DMN’s ancestors might have originally served.

Now, researchers are zoning in on the origins of zoning out, by mapping what they think is a primitive version of the DMN in rat brains. By comparing fMRI scans of rats’ brains when the animals were at rest with scans of those same rats’ brains when the animals received a mild electric shock, a team led by Yihong Yang at the US National Institute on Drug Abuse has identified a rat brain network that corresponds to non-goal-directed behavior – in short, a proto-DMN.

Though rats don’t seem to have much capacity for abstract thought, it’s likely that this network allows them to review their memories:

“[The rats could be] thinking about their past, mind wandering, and this kind of passive brain activity might be important for memory in the rat,” Yang says.

Whether rats have what we’d consider a sense of self is a more complicated question. The rat brain does include a more primitive version of our prefrontal cortex (PFC), but exactly what this region does for the rat remains an open question:

“The activity in frontal areas [could suggest] the notion of a sense of self in the rat,” says Michael Greicius of the Stanford University School of Medicine. “I’ve got to believe it’s different from humans, but it’s certainly provocative.”

Some other new findings make this question even more intriguing: a recent paper described a close analog of the DMN in monkey brains, and a 2009 study found that while the DMN is active in human patients suffering from locked-in syndrome, it seems to be disrupted in vegetative patients. But, since recent research demonstrates that vegetative patients can respond to questions by thinking certain thoughts for “yes” and others for “no,” it seems that what we call “consciousness” may be much more multi-layered than we think.

If so, it may be that rats possess some of the abilities we associate with consciousness – such as mind-wandering and memories – but that they still lack a true concept of “I.” It may be that their minds lack abstract concepts altogether, or that “abstract concepts” are a more complex phenomenon than we’re assuming. That’s the tough thing about analyzing consciousness: nothing else remotely like it seems to exist in nature, and our minds seem to be poorly adapted for understanding what exactly it is.

Still, discoveries like these are helping us inch closer to that understanding – even if it’s in tiny little mouse steps.

Cooler Heads

Yawning may be a reflex for cooling our brains off, a new study suggests.

Yawning, or acting out an outrageous Native American stereotype? Sometimes it's hard to tell.

People are less likely to yawn when their own body temperature is lower than that of the surrounding environment, the research shows – in fact, a person’s tendency to yawn actually varies with theseasons, becoming more frequent in winter and less frequent in summer.

Scientists have debated the cause(s) of yawning for centuries. Some have explained it as a sort of reflexive muscle stretch, because it often occurs along with other stretching behavior. Others have suggested that yawns may help increase alertness, and that contagious yawning might help signal members of a social group to become more alert.

The theory that yawning helps regulate brain temperature dates back at least to 2007 – but as the journal Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience reports, a team led by Princeton’s Andrew Gallup was the first to measure seasonal variations in this reflex. Back in 2010, Gallup confirmed that when rats yawn, their brain temperature cools slightly, so he was eager to see if the same held true for humans.

To find out, Gallup and his team documented the yawning frequency of 80 people in the winter, and another 80 in the summer:

The proportion of pedestrians who yawned in response to seeing pictures of people yawning differed significantly between [winter and summer]. Across conditions yawning occurred at lower ambient temperatures, and the tendency to yawn during each season was associated with the length of time spent outside prior to being tested.

In other words, the longer people spent outside in cold weather, the more likely they were to yawn in response to a picture of a person yawning – and by contrast, the more time they spent outside in warm weather, the less likely they were to respond with a yawn:

Nearly 40 percent of participants yawned within the first five minutes outside, but the percentage of summertime yawners dropped to less than 10 percent thereafter. An inverse effect was observed in the winter, but the proportion of people who yawned increased only slightly for those who spent more than five minutes outdoors.

Though this study didn’t record other factors that might have played a part in people’s tendency to yawn – such as how much sleep they’d gotten, how bored they were, or how close they were to bedtime – it does provide a clear correlation between seasonal variation and yawniness. Whether that variation depends on temperature alone, or on other factors as well, remains to be seen.

It’s also worth noting that yawning may have more than one cause – for example, it might’ve originally evolved to cool off animals’ brains, but its tendency to increase alertness might’ve helped it get exapted for use as an in-group “stay alert” signal.

Anyway, the next time someone catches you yawning in a meeting, just tell ‘em, “Can’t help it – my brain’s hot.”

Overconfidence Advantages

Fortune favors the bold1 – and sometimes even the unreasonably overconfident, a new study says.

The rarely photographed ritual by which penguins impress their potential mates.

Using a mathematical model of simulated competitors, researchers found that while overconfident strategies don’t always win, their wins tend to be bigger than those of more cautious opponents. The total rewards they reap often make up for their losses – and then some.

The researchers think this may have to do with differing responses to novel situations, and the risks vs. payoffs they carry. In short, they suggest that when encountering a new and potentially dangerous scenario, the best strategy may be to simply march in with the assumption that you’re going to win, until you’re proven wrong.

As the journal Nature reports, the University of Edinburgh’s Dominic D. P. Johnson and UCSD’s James H. Fowler tested this concept by constructing a mathematical model of simplified resource competition, in which pairs of individuals endowed with different competitive strategies battle it out over limited resources:

If neither individual claims [a] resource, then no fitness is gained. If only one individual makes a claim, then it acquires the resource and gains fitness and the other individual gains nothing. If both individuals claim the resource, then both individuals pay a cost due to the conflict between them, but the individual with the higher initial endowment will win the conflict and also obtain fitness for acquiring [the resource].

In other words, conflict creates cost, but that may be a risk worth taking, because the payoff for a win is so high.

Intriguingly, the researchers found that the usefulness of overconfidence depends on how many resources are around, compared with how high the cost of competition is:

Overconfidence maximizes individual fitness and populations tend to become overconfident, as long as benefits from contested resources are sufficiently large compared with the cost of competition. In contrast, unbiased strategies are only stable under limited conditions.

This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, the researchers say, because overconfident animals – if they live long enough to produce offspring – may be more likely to have lots of children; and they’re also likely to end up with an overabundance of resources to help ensure those children’s survival.

Though this is all quite a bit of a leap from the actual data, it does provide an interesting perspective on conquerors like Genghis Khan, whose living descendants number in the millions. Clearly, from an evolutionary perspective, the guy was doing something right.


1. This famous quote, from the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, actually has another layer of meaning – in Latin, the phrase is “Fortes Fortuna adiuvat,” and it literally means that Fortuna, the goddess of luck, helps and supports brave people when they leap into action. So, as unscientific as it may be, it’s still kinda cool to think that when you take risks, a goddess is flying to your aid. Then again, Pliny supposedly said these words right before sailing toward the erupting Mount Vesuvius and suffocating to death on poisonous fumes – so, you know, there’s that.

Desirable Memories

Women seem to remember information better if they hear it in a low-pitched male voice, a new study suggests.

ProTip: A deep voice can also help you remember your secret royal heritage.

But the conclusions drawn from the study’s data – namely, that women’s memories are attuned to the voices of sexually desirable men – are a bit shakier. Let’s break this research down and see what it’s really all about.

As the journal Memory & Cognition reports, a team led by David Smith at the University of Aberdeen started by selecting a group of 45 female volunteers. The women were shown pictures of objects, while they listened to manipulated recordings of high- and low-pitched male and female voices speaking the names of the objects.

The volunteers were then asked which voice they preferred, and tested on their recall for the objects they were shown. As it turned out, most strongly preferred the low-pitched male voice – and objects paired with that voice were the ones they were best at remembering.

For a second set of experiments, the team selected another 46 women, and ran through the same picture-and-voice sequence – only this time, they added real male and female voices to the mix as well. Again, the results were clear: women tended to prefer low-pitched male voices, and they best remembered pictures associated with those voices:

Women’s visual object memory is significantly enhanced when an object’s name is spoken during encoding in a masculinised (i.e., lower-pitch) versus feminised (i.e., higher-pitch) male voice, but that no analogous effect occurs when women listen to other women’s voices. Additionally, … lowering and raising male voice pitch enhanced and impaired women’s memory, respectively, relative to a baseline (i.e., unmanipulated) voice condition.

In other words, women respond more strongly to male voices with low pitch than to any other gender/pitch combination the researchers tried.

Here’s how the researchers interpret their results:

We think this is evidence that evolution has shaped women’s ability to remember information associated with desirable men. Good memory for specific encounters with desirable men allows women to compare and evaluate men according to how they might behave in different relationship contexts, [and] this would help women to pick a suitable partner.

In other words, women have evolved to remember information more strongly if it’s associated with sexually desirable masculine sensory stimuli.

So, what can we say about these results? Well, although the study definitely demonstrates that, for at least some women, visual memory for an object is strengthened by hearing that object’s name in a low-pitched male voice, it doesn’t explore how a woman’s memory responds to low-pitched sounds in general – or to other types of sensory data (like smell and touch) that might evoke a sexually attractive male.

This study also doesn’t tell us anything about how men respond to voices of various genders and types – data on that might strengthen the researchers’ hypothesis about memory and sexual attractiveness, or such data might cast the whole discussion in a new light. It’s hard to say at this point.

What the study does tell us is that our memories are composed of multi-sensory data, and can be strengthened or weakened by playing with various associated sensory “settings.”

It also might help explain why Morgan Freeman can sound awesome while saying literally anything.


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