Already Seen

The mysteries of the human brain are complex and impossibly numerous, especially considering that psychological science is essentially still in it’s infancy.With this in mind, it is easier to understand how a phenomenon such as deja vu has yet to be scientifically explained, despite how well-known and common it is. It is perhaps the uncanniness and mystery of this particular psychological occurrence that has bolstered its presence in the human imagination. Some of the more colorful attempts to explain deja vu include psychic experiences, messages from a higher power, or glimpses of a past life. As outlandish as some of these theories may be, they are still included in the over 40 competing theories on the causes of deja vu that currently exist in the world. This multitude of theories about deja vu can be explained by the difficulties encountered in trying to study the phenomenon. For one thing, deja vu is a completely personal experience, one which cannot be confirmed or refuted by an outside party. As such, it has not traditionally been given much scientific attention, banished instead to the realm of spiritualism and the occult. Also tricky is the timing of deja vu experiences: there is no reliable way to induce a deja vu experience, which is most often very fleeting, or to predict when an individual might experience one. Additionally, deja vu is not universal. According to a 2004 New York Times article, two thirds of surveyed adults reported having the experience, with frequent travelers, younger adults, and the highly educated experiencing it more often.  Here are some of the more popular current theories from the scientific end of the spectrum:

The theory sometimes known as “familiarity without recall” posits that the deja vu experience is triggered when an individual comes across a set of stimuli that resemble, or have some elements of, a past experience. Ordinarily, this would trigger a feeling of familiarity. However, when the given stimuli has been experienced but is not consciously recalled by the individual that the uncanny feeling will arise. Researchers have pointed to evidence that people who travel, dream, and watch movies frequently are more likely to experience deja vu as support for this theory. These activities, which are likely to give an individual a wider range of experiences than those who do not engage in them, increase the chances the chances of encountering a familiar scene without specifically recalling the experience that is making it similar. One scientific experiment attempted to test this theory by giving participants lists of words to memorize, and then presenting them with a test list of cued words. For each word, participants were asked to recall a similar word on the first list, and were also asked, regardless of correct recall, whether the word was familiar or not. It was shown that even when a participant could not recall the actual word, they rated words that were similar to words on the memorized list as more familiar than complete novel words (i.e. HEMLOCK, HAMMOCK). A more recent study attempted to recreate the actual circumstances in which people experience deja vu to test this theory as well. Evidence has shown that places and scenes are the most likely stimuli to invoke deja vu. The researchers created over 100 different scenes which were divided into pairs that shared common layouts, such as chairs or objects in similar places. It was found that scenes that had similar layouts, but were distinctly different from one another in other ways, were the most likely to produce a feeling of deja vu for the study participants.

There is also a strong link between epileptic seizures and deja vu, specifically in patients with medial temporal lobe epilepsy. This region of the brain includes a structure known as the hippocampus, which plays a large role in memory function. A seizure is the result of abnormal electrical impulses in the brain, which leads to random signals being transmitted between neurons. These neuronal misfirings can lead to changes in perception, movement, and behavior in an individual, lasting anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. People with temporal lobe epilepsy in particular often report a feeling of deja vu as a common experience during a seizure. This has led some researchers to believe that deja vu in healthy individuals happens in a similar way: random electrical impulses between neurons can cause a brief and unsettling feeling of familiarity in a novel setting.

Another interesting theory implicates a malfunction of short and long-term memory storage mechanisms for deja vu experiences. This would mean that current sensory input, which is normally stored in our short-term memories before being processed by the brain into long-term memory, may every so often bypass the short-term and end up prematurely in long-term memory processing. This mix-up in memory storage may cause an individual to experience a current situation as if it had happened in a distant memory: deja vu.

Yet another theory points to neurotransmitters such as dopamine as the probable culprit for the deja vu experience. This is partially based on evidence that deja vu is experienced more often in people ages 15-25. Teenagers and young adults tend to have higher levels of dopamine naturally. A case study of a 39-year old man adds possible evidence to this theory. After coming down with the flu, the man was put on amantadine and phenylpropanolamine, medications known to increase dopamine activity in the brain, and after a short time, he was experiencing intense bouts of deja vu. The case study reports that after discontinuing the medication, the deja vu experiences disappeared.

Today, it remains to be seen whether the puzzling origins of deja vu will ever be definitively uncovered. Whether an existing theory holds the answer, or if a future discovery may reveal its cause, for now, it is a benign and delightfully mysterious occurrence that will surely continue to intrigue creatives and kooks the world over. And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a glitch in the Matrix before the end of this article.


Further Reading

http://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/extrasensory-perceptions/deja-vu2.htm


http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/11/081118122146.htm


http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/14/science/14deja.html?pagewanted=1


http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=deja-vu-found-originate-similar-scenes

Believing in Santa: A Developmental Perspective

As one of the most recognizable mythical figures in the world, Santa Claus looms large in the minds of children. According to polls conducted in the past few years, it is estimated that 95% of Americans celebrate Christmas, with 57% of families reporting…

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The Dark Triad: Navigating Malevolent Minds

The dark side of human nature has always held captive audiences, as evidenced by the constant battle between good and evil throughout our folk culture. The divide between these two dichotomies has always been assumed to be a lot murkier in real life; a person cannot truly be labeled as one or the other. Individual personalities are mercurial, acting in ways that are sometimes good, sometimes, evil, or somewhere in the grey areas between. However, certain psychological research over the past decade has raised the question of whether some human personality types may be classified as more malevolent than others. In other words, it is possible that some people are simply born to be bad.

In 2002, two psychology researchers, Delroy Paulhus and Kevin Williams, published a paper identifying a cluster of three personality traits that all shared a common core of social malevolence, lack of empathy, and a willingness to manipulate others. They called this cluster the Dark Triad, a term so alluring that it has inspired over a decade of expanding literature on the topic. The three traits, while they do overlap in key areas, also stand distinct from one another, adding their own unique flavor of badness to the world. This article will give you a brief introduction to each dark triad trait, along with a example of a pop culture character that I think best embodies each.

Narcissism

Evelyn, I’m sorry. I just, uh… you’re not terribly important to me.-Patrick Bateman, American Psycho

The term narcissism arises from an ancient Greek myth in which Narcissus, a young god of exceptional beauty, gazes into a river and falls in love with his reflection. Unable to tear himself away from the image, he stays at the riverbank until he eventually wastes away, and in some versions of the tale, turns into the flower that now bears his name. Narcissism emerged as a mainstream psychological term when Sigmund Freud incorporated it into his conception of the ego, or a person’s sense of self. Today, the term refers to a specific personality type, one marked by grandiosity, dominance, and entitlement. Narcissists are often extremely popular and charming, at least at first impression. They are oftentimes rated as more attractive by other people and have been found to rate themselves similarly, which may be because they are more focused on self-grooming and physical enhancement than the average person. They are extremely self-confident and desire to be the center of attention at all times. Narcissists have large egos and lack remorse, which can serve to buffer them from negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, and self doubt. For example, they are more likely to blame others or external sources for their failures. Some studies have found that narcissism may help those who possess it to rise to top positions in their fields as well.

So far, this all seems great, and narcissists appear to lead charmed lives. The problem, of course, is that like all personality traits, narcissism exists on a continuum. Mild and moderate levels of narcissism may work well for an individual, but the more narcissistic a person is, the more problems they can create. One theory on this subject is that the inflated sense of self that the narcissist exhibits exists on a razor’s edge: narcissists are actually heavily reliant on the opinions of others to perpetuate their personal legacies of self-importance. When the narcissist feels threatened or confronted by anything to contradict their self-perceived grandiosity, their charm and charisma can quickly turn to wrath. Narcissists are prone to temper tantrums and tend to be unable to engage in teamwork. Their self-focus naturally leads to selfishness and lack of regard for the well-being of others, which is a common core of the dark triad traits. The culmination of these negative aspects of narcissism was once a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), which generally refers to a person who is so self-centered and has such an unrealistic view of themselves and their place in the world that they are unable to function effectively in everyday life. However, as of 2013, NPD has been removed from the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), for reasons I will explain later in this article.  

It should be noted that much of the research on narcissism shows that it is more common in men than women. In romantic relationships, narcissists have been shown to be significantly less committed and faithful, and more interested in short-term mating strategies. Those who have been in a relationship with a narcissist report high levels of satisfaction at the beginning of the relationship, spurred most likely by the charm and sexual attractiveness of their partner. However, relationship satisfaction tends to drop quickly and dramatically, as the narcissist reveals themselves to be deceptive, controlling and prone to playing mind games with their partner. Another interesting finding is a pattern of putting their romantic partners on a pedestal of unrealistic perfection. Narcissists tend to seek out romantic partners who are of a high social status or position of power with the intentions of bolstering their own self-image through the pristine image of their partner. When the partner inevitably reveals that they are less than perfect, the narcissist may lash out against them in disappointment. Depending on the level of involvement, a romantic entanglement with a narcissist may leave one disgruntled, crestfallen, or even emotionally damaged.

It is clear from the evidence that narcissists can be a toxic presence to those close to them; in fact, living with a narcissist has sometimes been compared to living with someone in the throes of a drug addiction. They can be callous, self-serving, manipulative and demanding, and their superficial aura of charisma and sex appeal paint the extreme narcissist as something of an interpersonal steel trap that can lure you in and cut deeply once you are vulnerable.The only advice currently available to people with a narcissist in their lives is either: get out of the relationship immediately, or be ready to accept that they will never change and never truly love you. All said, this paints a pretty grim picture for those unfortunate enough to have ever even rubbed shoulders with a narcissist. But to truly flesh out this malevolent personality trait, I believe a case study is in order.

Case Study: Anakin Skywalker- The Narcissist

Disclaimer: I am not a licensed psychologist and have no authority or wish to make a formal diagnosis of any individual, fictional or otherwise. The following paragraphs are purely my opinion and are meant to enhance the reader’s enjoyment and knowledge of this facet of the Dark Triad.

What could be a better example of a Dark Triad personality than the most famous Sith Lord to ever wield the Dark Side of the Force? Ladies and gentleman, I give you Anakin Skywalker, later known as Darth Vader, as our example of the narcissistic personality. Ever since he is taken in by the Jedi as a young boy, Anakin exists in an environment that nurtures an inflated ego. He is told that he is special, destined for greatness, perhaps even the Chosen One of an ancient prophecy that predicts he will be the most powerful Jedi of all time. Couple this with a natural propensity towards arrogance, stubbornness and risk-taking and you’ve got all the ingredients for a narcissist.

Over the course of the Star Wars prequel trilogy we see many examples of Anakin’s inability to be a team player, which, it can be interpreted, is a basic tenant of the Jedi code. Anakin is drawn to the Jedi lifestyle because he is attracted to the power he can wield, but shows little interest in the discipline and humility that Jedis are required to display; in fact, he fails time and again at some of the most basic tenets.  For example, a Jedi will not take revenge, is heavily violated when Anakin wrathfully slaughters an entire village of Tusken raiders for killing his mother. While this may seem a justifiable action, especially in the context of a movie, it is a clear moral travesty by the standards of reality and unforgivable for the Jedi, the guardians of peace and justice throughout the galaxy, who are held to rigid moral standards that include having absolute control over their emotions.

Furthermore, Jedi are not allowed to marry or become romantically involved in order to avoid attachment. Anakin breaks this rule when he secretly marries Padme Amidala, which turns out to be one of the major catalysts for his turn to the Dark Side. These examples, combined with the fact that Anakin has a major issue with listening to Obi-Wan Kenobi, his mentor, or frankly anybody else on the Jedi Council, shows that he is over-confident, self-centered, and incapable of cooperation and teamwork. While many of Anakin’s actions may be optimistically interpreted as impulsive actions meant to protect the welfare of his loved ones, neither the screenwriting or acting in these movies is sufficient to convince that Anakin is not motivated by sheer narcissism. Tired criticisms of the Star Wars prequel trilogy aside, Padme is, after all, a senator and former queen of an entire planet, and as we recall narcissists are drawn towards romantic relationships with people of wealth and status. And what about this exchange from Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (a truly excellent example of both horrible dialogue and narcissism) :

Anakin Skywalker: You are so… beautiful.

Padmé: It’s only because I’m so in love.

Anakin Skywalker: No, it’s because I’m so in love with you.

For my final point endorsing Anakin Skywalker as the ultimate narcissistic hero, I will point out that his very seduction by the dark side of the Force is an example of this aspect of his personality. As he himself says in Revenge of the Sith: “The Sith rely on their passion for their strength. They think inward, only about themselves.” The Sith Order, antagonists to the Jedi and wielders of the dark side of the Force, are obsessed with power and self-reliance and view morality as an obstacle in their quest for dominance and individual glory. They are brutal, callous, and act without conscience. They live only for themselves and are not afraid to do unspeakable things to those who get in their way, including those who are closest to them. They are driven by their narcissistic urges, and the fact that Anakin succumbs to the will of the Sith is symbolic of his inability to suppress his narcissistic nature. He wants and feels he deserves unlimited power, recognition and infamy, and this is ultimately what leads to his transformation into Darth Vader.

Admittedly, looking at Anakin Skywalker through the lens of narcissism adds a perhaps undue layer of depth and sympathy to those who possess these qualities in real life. This, it could be argued, is evidence that he is not truly a narcissist, at least in the clinical sense. Anakin is burdened by his personal flaws, and an honest desire to do good is at the core of this character. However, he is tortured by his past and not strong enough to rise against the temptations of evil. Real-life narcissists, on the other hand, are doing just fine. The people around them are the ones they hurt, not themselves. Proof of this is the fact that narcissist support groups are for people who have a narcissist in their lives, not the actual narcissist. It was a point of contention in the DSM-IV whether Narcissistic Personality Disorder could truly be called a disorder, since it does not seem to fit the criteria of causing personal “distress in social, occupational and other areas,” and as a result it has been omitted from the new edition (DSM-V). By all means, narcissists may be capable of living fulfilled lives, armored by sky-high self-esteem and an ability to blame others or external sources for anything negative in their lives. The trick is identifying them quickly, and keeping them from spreading evil and injustice throughout the galaxy.

Machiavellianism

Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms: greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind. - Gordon Gekko, Wall Street

The term for this dark personality has an interesting origin story. It was coined from the name of Niccolo Machiavelli, a 16th century politician and historian, most well-known for writing The Prince, which outlined his controversial and now infamous political philosophy. In this work, which at it’s essence is a guide to obtaining and maintaining power, Machiavelli endorses a less than austere tactical approach. Some guiding themes of the philosophy include the mandate that lofty or ideal political goals lead to bad rulership; in other words, Machiavelli devalues political idealism as useless and inefficient. The true key to ruling effectively lies in being able to comfortably breach the line of morality when it is necessary. Violence and dishonesty are allowable when they enable a ruler to secure power and eliminate political rivals. Essentially, says Machiavelli, the end justifies the means.

It should be noted that some scholars are of the opinion that The Prince was actually a work of satire, written not as a legitimate code of conduct but rather an example of exactly how not to rule. Since The Prince was published after Machiavelli’s death, there is no way of telling definitively. Nevertheless, Machiavelli is remembered by history as a symbol of political corruption and immorality. The term “Machiavellianism” has reached beyond the political sphere and broken into the lexicon of psychology, which is where it come into play in the dark triad. A person who scores high on measures of Machiavellianism embodies the way of living endorsed, satirically or otherwise, by The Prince. The Machiavellian personality is detached and unemotional, viewing the world, and everyone in it, in terms of how he can manipulate situations to ensure that he comes out on top. The use of “he” in this description is intentional; like narcissism, men are more likely to possess the Machiavellian personality type.

In 1970, psychological researchers Richard Christie and Florence L. Geis published the MACH-IV, a 20-item scale based on Machiavelli’s original writings, to determine how much individual’s agreed or disagreed with his statements. Those who score high in agreements, known as “high Machs” have been found, not surprisingly, to not only agree with the statements, but live their lives according to them. Some items on the scale include “never tell anyone the real reason you did something unless it is useful to do so”, and “it is hard to get ahead without cutting corners now and then.” At their core, high Machs are manipulative, unempathic and have a cynical view of their fellow man.

A key difference between Machiavellianism and the other two points in the dark triad is their self-control. High machs are strategic, intelligent, and more oriented towards long-term goals. Their darkness is tempered by their contextual intuition; they will act on their immoral urges only when they are sure they can get away with it. In this way, high Machs are arguably the most successful dark personality. They are often able to maintain romantic relationships by faking the love they feel for their partners. Though they are prone to infidelity, they are able to remain faithful when it is in their own best interest. They also tend to be successful in the workplace; their need for control and power combined insidious charm and ability to manipulate are a winning combination. In short, they are a rational evil.

Case Study: Petyr Baelish- The High Mach



I am fond of neither Game of Thrones or A Song of Ice and Fire, probably for the very same reasons that I have chosen a character from this roster to embody the Machiavellian side of the dark triad. The world of GoT is cold, brutal, and almost completely devoid of justice. It is a place dominated by dark personalities, so grim and hopeless that it’s not even fun to read about or watch. The characters’ motivations are murky at best, and, as a viewer/reader, it is hard to shake the feeling that even the heroes may be apt to rape or murder at the drop of a hat. Considering this, it was difficult to choose just one person from this world to embody Machiavellianism, but in the end it was Petyr Baelish, also known by the nickname Little Finger, who stood out from the pack. While others act rashly and passionately and end up with their head dripping gorily from a large stick, Baelish is cunning, manipulative and good at gaining the upper hand.

For those not familiar with the series, Baelish starts out as the Master of Coins (essentially, treasurer) of the entire kingdom, and also owns a number of brothels across the land, making him very wealthy, because everyone in this GoT is also a pervert. He is a man from humble beginnings who has worked his way to a position of power purely on his own charisma and wits, and continues to do so throughout the entire series. Also, he really loves betraying people, and is a master of manipulation. For example, his entrance into the story involves a plot line wherein he feigns an alliance with Ned Stark, the newly appointed Hand of the King (advisor, second in command), and then abruptly turns on him after the King’s death, framing Ned for treason which leads to his execution. He convinces a wife to murder her husband, and he also lies about the ownership of a dagger and starts a massive war. It’s quite complicated- needless to say, his calculating and conniving is far above the heads of many of the other characters. He is a political and financial mastermind, and has no conscience to boot. In short, he is a paragon of Machiavellianism.

Psychopathy

I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.- Dr. Sam Loomis, Halloween

The final node of the dark triad is by far the most mysterious, dangerous, and therefore, most fascinating of the three personalities. Psychopathy shares many traits in common with narcissism and Machiavellianism: they have a callous disregard for other people’s feelings, often have a grandiose sense of self, and can be superficially charismatic and persuasive. However, at the core of psychopathy lies a fundamental difference, which changes the commonalities of the other two personalities from socially abrasive to dangerous. This difference is a disturbing diversion from human nature as most people think of it, making this group of people seem almost alien. Psychopaths have a deadened capacity for emotions and empathy. They simply do not experience the world as we do, and are therefore capable of acts that for the common man would be impossible and in some cases, unspeakable.

According to William Hirstein, a psychologist whose scientific interests include psychopathy, the first use of the term psychopath was in the early part of the 19th century, when doctors in mental asylums started describing a certain type of patient that seemed to suffer from “moral insanity”; their actions went against all codes of decency that most people lived by. An important feature unique to psychopathy in the dark triad is the evidence of genetic origins. The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart, a famous longitudinal study started in 1979, showed a strong genetic influence on psychopathy; between identical twins raised apart, results showed that the trait was 60% heritable. Although subsequent studies have provided evidence that this percentage may be lower, there is other evidence that psychopathy is more biological than an environmentally learned way of being. For example, MRI studies of psychopaths have observed weak connections between various structures in the brain that regulate emotional information, such as between the amygdala, which processes emotions, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which interprets the emotional information from the amygdala. The shallowness of emotion that psychopaths feel lead to enormous consequences in terms of their social functioning, which oftentimes seems to work towards their advantage. The psychopath is unhindered by such regulatory emotions such as guilt and shame. The are also unlikely to be affected by fear. In experiments where participants anticipate a mild pain or discomfort such as an electrical shock, psychopaths show far lower indications of fear, such as sweating or specific brain network activation, that control participants do. The same goes for normal feelings of disgust, activated in most people when forced to view images of violence or cruelty; the psychopathic brain is generally unaffected by such images.

The features of psychopathy may seem at first glance to describe a rare and specific kind of character, such as that of Ted Bundy, a clean-cut, handsome and charismatic man that later confessed to thirty homicides, or Charles Manson, the infamous cult leader that manipulated his followers into committing one of the 20th centuries most grisly crimes (as should be no surprise now, men are more likely than women to be psychopaths).While the link between psychopathy and serial killers is undeniably strong, this condition is complex, and it is also quite misunderstood. It is important to realize two things in order to make sense of psychopathy’s place outside of a high security prison: first, that not all psychopaths are violent, and second, that psychopaths are not psychotic.

The non-violent psychopath is perhaps more representative a dark triad psychopath: one of the qualifiers is that the psychopathy must be subclinical. This means essentially that it is not an extreme enough condition to lead to institutionalization, in either a prison or mental health facility. Therefore, dark triad psychopathy is a much more adaptive than the classic violent criminal that the word sometimes brings to mind. Many psychopaths thrive in the cutthroat worlds of business and finance, and it is estimated by some that psychopathy may be overrepresented among CEOs in America. This also demonstrates the difference between psychopaths and psychotics (such as some cases of schizophrenia): psychotics have made a break with reality, whereas psychotics are quite rational, and like Machiavellians, are quite able to strategize, manipulate and deceive.

Although psychopathy is often perceived as an untreatable condition, some psychologists hold out hope that, through behavior modification, psychopaths may be able to function in a more productive and less hurtful way in the world. Similar to work that has been done with autism, a condition which causes individuals to have trouble relating and empathizing with human reasoning and emotion, it is thought that psychopaths can be taught to recognize and respond in prosocial ways to things that they may never experience on an emotional level, such as fear and disgust. While not a “cure”, in the traditional sense, this may help psychopaths to lead more beneficial and satisfying lives.

Case Study- Androids of Blade Runner- The Psychopaths



Any android is a great fictional representation of the hallmarks of psychopathy- they are built to mimic humans in every way, but the fact that they are artificial means that they will never be able to feel emotion as real humans do. Likewise, those with psychopathy have weak emotional pathways in their brain, keeping them from feeling emotion like other humans. In the classic novel that the movie Blade Runner is based off, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? most of humanity has emigrated off-world to Mars after an apocalyptic war on Earth. Simultaneously, androids have been developed to work as a servant class for the colony of humans on Mars. Android technology has rapidly developed, and androids are almost indistinguishable from humans, except for one thing: their ability to feel empathy.

This is the point in the story where the things become ambiguous, because some androids revolt against the role they are manufactured for, which is essentially slavery, and escape from Mars to Earth.  It is clear that although they cannot feel empathy, they do still have emotional lives, for why else would sense the oppression of their current lives and risk the escape? The problem with this, of course, is that in order to escape, these rogue androids always kill their human masters. Because they have no empathy, they have no qualms about killing or maiming others; they are cold, intellectual, and logical. In one part of the book, one of the androids sees a spider for the first time, and is puzzled by the fact that the spider has so many legs. To her logical mind, it seems that the spider would be just as functional with four legs. So she decides to cut off four of the helpless spider’s legs to see what happens. J.R Isidore, a human who has decided to help the androids in their escape, stands by in horror as the android gleefully cuts off leg after leg. She is immune to the pain it might be causing the spider, driven by cerebral curiosity; the human, by contrast, is deeply affected by his empathic experience of pain.

Because of the dangerous nature of these androids, human bounty hunters, such as the main character of the story, Rick Deckard, are employed to hunt down rogue androids and “retire” them: because they are not technically human, bounty hunters avoid the term “kill”. This premise makes for some fascinating moral dilemmas, and I highly recommend this book (the film is good as well, although it deviates from the book in major ways). For example, how can the killing of an android, a highly intelligent organism, be justified by the simple fact that they have been manufactured by people? How is the bounty hunter, who has to ignore the instinctive empathy he feels for the humanoid androids, any better than the androids, who are simply unable to feel, through no fault of their own?

Some similar quandaries arise when dealing with real life psychopaths. In journalist Jon Ronson’s recent book, The Psychopath Test, he interviews a man who has been in a mental institution for many years because of a brutal assault he committed as a young man. The man was intelligent, rational, and charming, yet the hospital refused to release him because of his diagnosis of psychopathy. The man claimed that he had faked the signs of psychopathy to avoid jail time; however, this kind of deceit, coupled with his violent crime, are both signs of a true psychopath, which ultimately led to his diagnosis. Is it morally acceptable to hold a rational human, arguably able to function in the outside world, in a mental hospital for years because of an ambiguous diagnosis based on a lie? A diagnosis of psychopathy today bears heavy consequences, and may even cause the individual to be perceived by society as somehow less than human. Should we have empathy for those who feel none in return?  These are only some of the unanswered questions created by this most troubling of the dark triad traits.

The Dark Triad: Final Notes

Callous, self-centered, unemotional, cruel: we have hit all the corners of the dark triad but the question remains: why do these traits exist? Especially from an evolutionary perspective, it seems that such traits, being inherently antisocial, should have been weeded out long ago. However, although the traits are antisocial, this does not necessarily make them maladaptive. The fact that they have prevailed actually shows that they are quite adaptive. The prevailing theory on the cause of the dark triad’s survival comes from evolutionary psychologists, who suggest that the dark triad cluster developed as a short-term mating strategy. All members of the dark triad are skilled manipulators, prone to short relationships and infidelity, and tend to be very attractive to women, at least on first impression. A male with these traits therefore has a great reproductive advantage, increasing his chances of passing on his malevolence to the next generation. Perhaps this means that members of this dark triad will always be a part of our society. Because they are so adaptive and insidious, we may never know how much of the pain and turmoil in the world may be caused by them. All said, it is quite a compelling argument for the women of the world to educate themselves, trust their intuitions, and think twice before jumping in bed with narcissists, Machiavellians, and psychopaths.


Further Reading


Articles about the Dark Triad

Shedding Light on Psychology’s Dark Triad

Psychology Uncovers Sex Appeal of Dark Personalities

How to Spot a Narcissist

A Field Guide to Narcissism

Narcissist Support Groups

Machiavelli’s The Prince

The MACH-IV Personality Test

What is a Psychopath?

What “Psychopath” Means


Academic Papers about the Dark Triad

Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The Dark Triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.Journal of Research in Personality, 36, 556-563.

Carter, G. L., Campbell, A. C., & Muncer, S. (2014). The Dark Triad personality: Attractiveness to women. Personality and Individual Differences, 56, 57-61. 

Furnham, A., Richards, S. C., & Paulhus, D. L. (2013). The Dark Triad of Personality: A 10 Year Review. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(3), 199-216. 

Jones, D. N., & Weiser, D. A. (2014). Differential infidelity patterns among the Dark Triad. Personality and Individual Differences, 57, 20-24. 

Jonason, P. K., & Krause, L. (2013). The emotional deficits associated with the Dark Triad traits: Cognitive empathy, affective empathy, and alexithymia. Personality and Individual Differences, 55, 532-537. 

Wai, M., & Tiliopoulos, N. (2012). The affective and cognitive empathic nature of the dark triad of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 794-799. 

Martin, R. A., Lastuk, J. M., Jeffery, J., Vernon, P. A., & Veselka, L. (2012). Relationships between the Dark Triad and humor styles: A replication and extension. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 178-182. 

Jonason, P. K., Slomski, S., & Partyka, J. (2012). The Dark Triad at work: How toxic employees get their way. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 449-453. 



High Fructose Corn Syrup: The Never-Ending Controversy


The debate over high fructose corn syrup: whether or not it is bad for people, or to what degree it is bad for people, has been dragging on for over a decade. For the average consumer there is simply no clear answer, and researching the subject can often lead to some confusing contradictions. The reason it is so hard to get a straight answer from any source is that, as might be inferred , there is a significant amount of politics going on behind the scenes. Economics and profit are a huge motivator for government and corporate entities to keep people in the dark about what they are really putting in their own bodies, but, in the spirit of fairness, the misinformation is coming from both sides. In order to unravel the truths of this mysterious product, we must first get down to the very basic, molecular structure of it. What, exactly, is high fructose corn syrup?

First of all, it must be understood that there are several different forms of sugar that can combine and react to form different food products. The first is called glucose, and this is an important carbohydrate that your body uses for energy. It is found in foods such as grains, pastas and vegetables. Another type is called fructose. This is a simple sugar that is much sweeter than glucose and is found in things such as fruit, honey, and flowers. It is important to note that both these forms of sugar are naturally occurring. So is sucrose, a third form of sugar that is a compound, or disaccharide, of fructose and glucose. Sucrose is also another name for what we would know as white table sugar, or what we pour, half-awake, into our coffee in the morning. Glucose and fructose are also the two ingredients that make up high fructose corn syrup. Sucrose is a 50/50 combination of the two, while HFCS is either 45% fructose and 55% glucose, or 55% fructose and 45% glucose. The former, known as HFCS-45, is less sweet than sugar and is generally used in baked goods. HFCS-55, which is sweeter than sugar, is used in products like soft drinks. So on a structural level, HFCS is almost identical to white sugar. The difference is, HFCS does not happen naturally.

In 1957, scientists discovered an enzyme that could convert the naturally-occurring glucose found in corn (not a naturally sweet food) into fructose, resulting in an extremely sweet substance that would then be remixed with glucose to form what we now know as HFCS. This coincided with a serendipitous time in American industry in which corn production was becoming subsidized, meaning that corn farmers were profiting from producing as much corn as possible, regardless of whether their product was actually needed. Before the discovery of the fructose producing enzyme, much of this excess corn was being shipped to food deprived nations in Africa; however, this practice came to a grinding halt after the implications of this new sweetener came to light. HFCS, after its initial development, was cheap to produce; much cheaper than cane or beet sugars, and after sugar became even more expensive because of tariffs implemented in the mid 1970s, HFCS went on the market as a main-stream alternative to traditional sweeteners, and spread like wildfire into a wide variety of food products that include the very obvious, like Coke and Pepsi, to the downright alarming, such as bread and spaghetti sauce. HFCS was an insidious product whose versatility and low cost gained it access into more food products than the public may care to imagine. But after enjoying a few robust decades of industrial success, high fructose corn syrup came up against some quite serious accusations.

For one thing, the time in which HFCS started showing up in everything (the early 1980s) coincided with the beginning of a steady rise in type 2 diabetes and obesity in the US. It is important to note that this is a correlation statistic, and does not necessarily that HFCS was the sole cause of this trend. However, several studies have been conducted whose results add validation to the obesity theory. For example, a 2010 Princeton University study found that male rats who were fed a supplemental diet of HFCS flavored water (in a concentration about half the intensity of normal soft drinks) gained significantly more weight than male rats who were fed a supplement of sucrose-flavored water. In addition to the weight gain, the HFCS rats were also found to have increased levels of triglycerides, a type of blood fat that in humans are linked to a wide variety of health conditions including diabetes, cancer, and coronary artery disease. Pretty soon, links between HFCS and health decline and disease were so prevalent in mainstream media that the product came to be known to the public as nothing short of a toxin, and a menace to the health of Americans, especially young children.

In an attempt to counteract this bad reputation, the Corn Refiners Association launched its “Sweet Surprise” campaign, the focus of which was that HFCS is “made from corn”, “natural”, and “fine in moderation”- which was met, predictably, with outrage from HFCS opponents who called the campaign deceptive, condescending, and downright untrue. Here are some of the most common “facts” or “myths” you may have heard, and the truth behind them.

HFCS is sweeter than regular sugar. This point is often brought up to support the idea that HFCS is harder to stop eating than other sugars, which leads to obesity and other related diseases. Surprisingly, this is not true. In fact, high fructose corn syrup was specifically engineered to be as close to the taste of regular sugar as possible- this way, HFCS would serve as a cheap replacement while still maintaining the flavor that consumers were used to. It is also true that HFCS is structurally almost identical to sucrose, an oft-cited fact from the Corn Refiners to support the idea that there is really no difference between HFCS and “regular sugar.” However, when they go one step further and state that your body cannot tell the difference between the two, this is were the truth may be getting warped. HFCS-55, the kind found in soda among other products, has ten percent more fructose than regular sugar. This may not seem like a big difference, but when the amount of HFCS that the average American consumes is taken into consideration (42 pounds a year) this becomes a considerable addition of fructose to an individual’s diet. Unlike glucose, which can be metabolized by virtually any part of the body, fructose can only be metabolized by the liver, and the liver has a limit on how much fructose it will metabolize. The unmetabolized fructose then gets turned into triglycerides, which as we said previously, is an excess presence of fat in the bloodstream. In short, not good news for your body. So, although HFCS is not that much sweeter, and is almost identical in structure to sucrose, that small percentage more fructose that HFCS possesses does make an unhealthy difference to your body. Furthermore, HFCS has also been linked to insulin resistance, meaning that the signals that your body releases to let you know that you are full and to stop eating are ignored, making it easier for the consumer to overeat.

The argument that HFCS is fine in moderation is all well and good on paper or in a Corn Refiners advertisement. But the prevalence of HFCS in America’s food supply negates this sentiment from the beginning. It may be fine in moderation, but almost no one is eating it that way. Conceivably, the people who are consuming the most HFCS are the most unaware of how much of it they are consuming. It’s in meat as a preservative, in bread to make it browner and more appealing, and in spaghetti sauce to enhance flavor. All this extra fructose is making its way into all of our bodies and bloodstreams. The greatest truth to be learned in the HFCS debate is that we have to be aware as individuals of exactly what we are consuming. The facts are out there, but they take effort to find. High fructose corn syrup may not be poison, but, just like sugar, it isn’t healthy either, and much about it remains uncertain. In the end, when it comes to HFCS, we must simply use our best judgement.


The Power of Observation Part 2

The Decline Effect

In the 1980s, psychologist Jonathan Schooler conducted a study which led to the development of the theory of verbal overshadowing. In the experiment, college students were told to observe a video of a bank robbery, during which the viewers  were given a good look at the robber’s face. Half of the subjects were asked to give a verbal description of the robber immediately after the video was played; half were not. All of the subjects were then asked at a later time to describe the robber. Contrary to popular belief at the time, the test subjects who were initially asked to verbally describe the robber did much worse later on than the ones who did not describe the robber. The scientific community caught on to this idea quickly after its publication, and it has now been cited over 400 times- in short, it is an important and reputable concept in modern psychology. Yet Schooler noticed something troubling in the midst of his success- his experiment was proving impossible to replicate. Each time he tried to replicate the study, the effect size- that is, the number of positive test results- declined dramatically, first by thirty percent, then by another thirty. Schooler was completely baffled by this, as he could find no errors in his experimental methods. This decreasing support for scientific claims over time is known as “the decline effect,” and is actually a common occurrence in experiments across a variety of scientific fields. Faced with this mounting evidence and the frustration of his experimental evidence slipping away from him, Schooler started speculating as to why the decline effect was happening to him, and came up with some pretty radical ideas. Here is quoted from a recent radio interview: “I say this with some trepidation, but I think we can’t rule out the possibility that there could be some way in which the act of observation is actually changing the nature of reality.” That is, by conducting experiments, we are in fact changing the subject of the experiment itself.

This point of view echoes the tone of the first article I read about the decline effect: a piece published back in December in the New Yorker entitled “The Truth Wears Off.” Jonah Lehrer, the author, presents the decline effect as a mysterious and troubling development that calls into question the very nature of scientific pursuit. Is there something wrong with the scientific method? If seemingly solid experimental results gradually fade over time, how are we supposed to discern the difference between truth and falsity? Can we ever really “know” anything? The implications of this decline effect seem to be both disturbing and baffling.

However, Lehrer’s article doesn’t exactly hold up under close examination. In fact, it received an almost immediate backlash from the scientific community, expressing nothing short of outrage at the conclusions drawn in the New Yorker article. Here are some explanations that scientists have given to refute the mysterious and disturbing decline effect that Lehrer presents in his article:

1) Regression to the Mean: this refers to the statistical “averaging out” of data over time. For example, in the case of Schooler’s study, there might have been some factor at play which the experimenter was not aware of, but that nevertheless affected the experimental results; this could be anything from a demographics factor (age, race, gender), to something almost unnoticeable, such as the color of the walls in the room that the subjects were taking the test in. This factor could skew the data a certain way, showing results that seem significant but may simply be an anomaly. But, if this experiment is repeated a number of times after the initial experiment, the skewed data from the first experiment will even itself out, and effectively disappear. This may be a less intriguing, but perhaps more reasonable, explanation for the decline effect as it appears in experiments such as Schooler’s.

2) Publication and Psychological Biases- the apparent decline effect can also be attributed to the fact that not all experimental results have a balanced chance of being brought to public awareness. Science and medical journals are far more likely to publish experiments that have positive results that seem to be groundbreaking than negative ones that seem to rain on the scientific breakthrough parade. Therefore, an experiment that gets a lot of press may not have solid results at all, which would be apparent in any immediate replications of the study. However, these replications may not be publicized, and therefore the shakiness of the initial experiment is not exposed until years later, when it has been thoroughly cemented as scientific “fact”. Also, the experimenters themselves, being human after all, may unintentionally, perhaps even subconsciously, skew their own data to essentially see what they want to see. The availability error is a term describing a human being’s tendency to only see information that is most psychologically available to them. Say you need a car and purchase a Toyota Tercel; suddenly, there seem to be Toyota Tercels everywhere on the road when previously you hardly saw any. This is because, by way of ownership, the Tercel has become more psychologically available: you notice it more. The same can happen, despite their best efforts, to scientists. Say you are looking for evidence to support your theory that animals mate more frequently with members of their species that are symmetrical. You are immediately more inclined to notice animals with symmetry in your study, which means you may end up disregarding evidence you find that doesn’t support your theory. These are biases that only become apparent when they are replicated, perhaps by other scientists, years later.

3) Many rebuttals to Jonah Lehrer’s article have also cited this fact as an example of why the decline effect is intuitive, rather than mysterious: the decline effect does not happen in physics, the area of science that most resides over the hard rules and facts that guide our reality. Instead, it is happening in fields such as psychology, medicine, and ecology. The subjects that these fields study are constantly changing: it is their nature. The generation in which our parents were born are psychologically, and even in some respects physiologically different than our own. How can we expect drugs and pharmaceuticals that were effective fifty years ago to affect the next generation in exactly the same way? In this way, the decline effect is true, but it is not at all baffling when we take the time to think about it. The nature of human beings, and every other organism on this planet, is not to remain static. We are constantly changing and evolving, and science accounts for this. This is why subjects continue to be studied, and why experiments are replicated. Because the world changes, and we are just trying to keep up with it. There is nothing inherently wrong with the decline effect, it is simply part of the scientific process.

So, what does this leave us with? On one hand, we have an interpretation of the decline effect as a mysterious and troubling phenomenon, one that leaves us questioning the very nature of knowledge and reality. On the other, a considerably less seductive explanation whose collective response to Lehrer’s article seemed to be “duh. We know.” But although the decline effect seems to be less mysterious than some may spin it, what certainly remains true is that the world itself is still a mysterious place. Sciences such as ecology and psychology, as we said, run up against the decline effect more often. It does seem plausible that by observing ourselves, and the physical world around us, we are in fact changing what we study in subtle ways. We are, after all, part of what were are observing.  Spooky? Not quite. Fascinating? Definitely.


Read more arguments about the decline effect.

The Power of Observation Part 1

There is a lot about our universe that we can’t explain. Science acts as an opposing force to this fact. Science came into existence and continues to thrive because of the human drive to discover and explain everything in our world that may yet elude us. But sometimes, every so often, science stumbles onto a paradox: some things just cannot be measured and explained. The “why” of this statement may seem a bit esoteric, but stay with me: sometimes, purely through measurement and observation, we actually change what we are trying to observe. How can we conclusively determine anything about an ever-changing experimental subject? In this two part article, I will give you a couple of the most interesting examples of this phenomenon. These subjects are not easy to understand, but they are definitely worth stretching your brain over. First up: quantum physics.
 
Note: I have read numerous explanations of the following experiment (too many) and I have found that any understandable explanation (i.e. those not written by scientists, for scientists) have the annoying tendency to do one of two things. One: explain the experiment as if the reader is too dumb to ever grasp the concept unless they are deliberately talked down to. Two, using too many explanation points, question marks and interjections such as huh, what, or can you even believe it?!  to try and convey the quite obvious fact that this subject is interesting and mind-boggling. I will attempt in the following passage to do neither of these things. You’re welcome.

The Double-Slit Experiment

Before we get into the details of this famous quantum experiment, we will need a brief definition of what quantum physics is: the study of the universe at a subatomic level. This includes of course everything that is smaller than atom, which to us is almost inconceivably tiny. Here’s an example from Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything, of exactly how small of a scale we are talking about: “Atoms are tiny-very tiny indeed…it is a degree of slenderness way beyond the capacity of our imaginations, but you can get some idea of the proportions if you bear in mind that one atom is to the width of a millimeter line as the thickness of a sheet of paper is to the height of the Empire State Building.” This is roughly what a millimeter line looks like: -. Also, we are talking about subatomic particles: object smaller than one ten-millionth of a millimeter. When we get down to such minuscule proportions, we are entering an almost entirely different world than the one that human beings occupy- which may be the very first in a long line of paradoxes that come with the territory: how can objects that we are literally made of occupy a world in which the rules of reality are entirely different? There is no conclusive explanation for this, but we  know one thing for certain: they definitely do.

The double-slit experiment was first conceived of by physicist Thomas Young, who in 1801 used this experiment to show that light acted as a wave. Here is the set-up: a source of light is pointed at a barrier in which there is a single slit that will allow some of the light to pass through and create an impression on the wall behind the barrier. After observing this scenario, a second slit is added to the barrier; there are now two openings for the light to pass through. It is important here to note the difference between a particle and a wave, because the two behave quite differently in this experiment. Particles are objects: things that can be ascribed mass and volume, however tiny the number may be. Waves, on the other hand, are a disturbance that often transfers energy through a substance such as water or air. So, in the single slit scenario, if light consisted of particles, it would look something like a solid band of light where the most particles hit, with some scattered particles to the left and right. However, if light acted as a wave, the band of light that hits the back of the wall looks a bit different:



The light does not just hit the back wall like particles would; the nature of a wave is to radiate outward from its source. Because of this, the band of light on the back wall appears as a straight line in the middle, with dimmer light at each side where it radiates outwards.

The experiment gets a bit more interesting when the second slit is added. In the particle scenario, we get two bands that hit the back wall in a predictable way: as two separate, solid lines:



However when waves are directed at the two slits, this is what shows up on the wall:



Instead of two separate bands of light that radiate outwards, we get multiple, alternating bands of darkness and light. The reason behind this is a property of waves called interference. When two waves meet, they can either cancel each other out or combine to become a stronger wave, depending on where each wave is in its cycle. When light is beamed through each slit, it creates two separate wave patterns that inevitably collide and interfere with each other.This is what creates the alternating bands of light: the dark bands are where the waves have canceled each other out, and the bands of light are where they have combined.



These are the full results of the original Young experiment, but only the beginning of the usefulness of the double-slit scenario. In the 20th century, Albert Einstein proposed the photoelectric effect, which asserted that light can be viewed as particles, which he called photons. The photoelectric effect is real, and photons have been proven to exist. This may seem contradictory, because its seemed that Young had already proved that light was a wave a full century ago. But when it came down to it, there was evidence for both sides; light seemed to act as a wave in some cases, and as particles in others. With the development of much more precise technology, science turned back to the double slit experiment in an attempt to get a firmer grasp on the nature of light.

The 20th Century Double Slit Experiment

This time around, the source of light is much smaller: the experimenters are using a machine so precise that it can literally beam one light particle, or photon, at a time through the slit. The wall in back of the slit barrier is also different: it is a photographic plate that can effectively record the mark that each photon makes on impact. So, they repeat the single slit scenario, one photon at a time, and after a while the familiar single slit pattern starts to emerge on the back wall: a band of light, thick in the middle where more photons have hit it, and thinner on the sides where fewer photons have hit. Since the results for the single slit scenario are very similar for both waves and particles, this scenario doesn’t yield particularly useful information. So next, the double slit is introduced.

In this case, the photons are shot at random at the two slits. Since these are individual photons at work, it takes quite a long time for a pattern to emerge, but eventually, the experimenters are able to discern this pattern:



It is the alternating bands of dark and light that is consistent with the wave. But for all intents and purposes, this pattern makes absolutely no sense. The photons were passing through the slits one at a time: meaning logically, they have nothing to interfere with, and should simply hit the back wall in a straight line like they did with the single slit. Experimenters were baffled. What was causing this seemingly impossible interference pattern?

The next thing they did was set up detectors on each slit. This way, they could record which slit each particle was passing through and hopefully better understand exactly what was going on in the process. The result of this experiment only served to deepen the mystery ten-fold: the interference pattern completely disappeared. They were left with two distinct bands consistent with particle behavior. No matter how many times the experiment was repeated, or what was used to record the particles behavior, the results were the same. When the photons were not measured, they made a wave interference pattern; when they were measured, the interference disappeared. Somehow, the very act of observing the particles changed the way they behaved.

To explain these results, science had to come up with some very new and radical interpretations. The most widely accepted theory was developed by Neils Bohr and is known as the Copenhagen Interpretation. Bohr proposed that what was being fired out of the light source was not really a particle or a wave, but something called a Y wave, or wavefunction. The wavefunction behaves like a wave, radiating outward and causing interference. However, it is not a true wave, but rather a wave of probabilities. The photon is not in any particular place at this stage. It is everywhere, and nowhere, at the same time. It only exists as a probability-until you measure it. In the first round of experiments with no detectors at the slits, the measurement does not take place until the particle hits the photographic plate and is forced to “choose” a position. Consequently, the wavefunction goes through both slits, colliding with itself on the other side and creating an interference pattern of probabilities that makes itself apparent when the particle actually hits the wall. However, when the measurement is taken at the slits, the particle is forced to “choose” earlier, and therefore only goes through one slit. It is no longer a probability, but a particle. It hits the wall with no interference, and therefore, there is no interference pattern.

It is important to note that there are still many unanswered questions here. For example, no one really knows what the wavefunction actually is. Also, what exactly is it about measuring a particle that makes it behave differently? What counts as “measurement” and what does not? Remember, we are dealing with what is essentially an entirely different universe than ours. Things jump in and out of existence, and an object can seem to be in two different places at once. This may all reek of some crackpot theory or science fiction tale, but this is a real phenomenon that is studied by real scientists- it is just that a full understanding of it still lies beyond our grasp, and may never be fully explainable.

Ultra Unstoppable

Diane Van Deren is an ultra runner- a distinction that lives up to its superhuman-sounding name. Ultrarunning is defined as any distance over the standard 26.2 miles of a traditional marathon. She has competed in and won multiple 100-mile trail runs, which can last for days, but this pales in comparison to the Yukon Arctic Ultra, which she won in 2008. This was a race of over 300 miles, in temperatures averaging 30 to 40 degrees below zero, during which she carted 50 lbs of supplies across the tundra for over a week. She has sustained injuries during her races that would have rendered most people unable to walk, but Diane kept running through the pain to the finish line. In short, she is a paragon of endurance; an example of the almost limitless potential of the human body. These accomplishments seem barely attainable by the standards of any human being in the healthiest of conditions, which makes Diane’s story all the more incredible. She is a superhuman athlete whose accomplishments are sharply contrasted by her limitations. For one thing, she has lost a piece of her brain.

When Diane was in her late 20s and pregnant with her third child, she started to suffer from seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy brought on by a grand mal seizure she suffered in early childhood, which resulted in brain damage. She would experience these seizures 3-5 times a week, and for her, there was only one way to combat them: running. Van Deren had always been an athlete, and had started her career as a professional tennis player. She had been a frequent runner as well and occasionally competed in triathlons. But with the onset of her seizures, running took on a whole new meaning for her. Whenever she would feel an aura; a surreal, sometimes tingling sensation that signals the beginning of a seizure, she would put on her running shoes and race out the door. She would run, sometimes for hours, until the threat of seizure felt like it had past. For a while, anyway, Van Deren was able to outrun her seizures.

Eventually though, her epilepsy became a serious threat to her life, and in 1997, when doctors told her that she was eligible for a lobectomy, she agreed to it. A lobectomy is a type of surgery that removes a section of the brain, specifically, in Van Deren’s case, the part that seemed to be the source of her seizures. All in all, a kiwi-sized portion of her right temporal lobe was taken out. She never suffered another seizure again.

Losing any part of the brain cannot be without consequences, and this was certainly true for Diane Van Deren. Her surgery was a turning point that transformed her into the marvel of endurance that she is today. The right temporal lobe, much of which was removed in the operation, is a part of the brain that is thought to control certain aspects of our memory, as well as our spatial and temporal reasoning. Van Deren no longer has a solid grasp on space or time- for example, she can no longer read maps, and seldom completes her races without a wrong turn. In the Yukon Arctic Ultra, her doctor urged her to bring red tape along with her to mark her trail so she wouldn’t get lost. But more important is how she perceives time. She cited this as the one advantage of her brain injury in a recent interview on Radiolab: “I can really get lost in time.” She can run for hours and have no idea how long she has been going for, or what distance she has covered. Her own body and her breathing rhythm is all she focuses on, and this is what has enabled her to become such an accomplished ultrarunner. The constraints of time and distance are the downfall of many athletes, because these are signals to the brain that it is time to stop running. Van Deren is free from these constraints.

It is clear that her brain injury has had an effect on Van Deren’s ability as a professional athlete, but it is difficult to gauge where the injury’s influence ends and Van Deren herself takes control. After all, she was an outstanding athlete even before the seizures or the operation, and had always been incredibly driven and tenacious. In the words of her neurosurgeon, Mark Spitz: “This kind of surgery has been done on thousands of patients worldwide for decades, and there’s only one Diane Van Deren.” (Goldman, 2008)

These are funny, original takes on classic album art. Spruce up your Itunes with them if you dare!

Circle of Life: MTA Edition

New York City’s subway system is unparalleled in many respects: size, complexity, as a never-ending source of frustration for those who use it every day; and there is more going on behind the scenes than most commuters would ever care to imagine. If you happen to live in New York and take the subway regularly, the next time you are on a particularly crowded train, try closing your eyes and picturing an empty car, fully submerged in water on the floor of the ocean. Sea fauna clings to every visible surface, making the subway car almost unrecognizable for its former incarnation. Schools of fish swim back and forth through gaping window frames. This isn’t just a sanity-preserving mental exercise: its a real thing that exists on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, off the coasts of Long Island, New Jersey, and several other East Coast states: the final resting place for many of New York City’s decommissioned subway cars is at a depth of 70 to over 100 feet.

At first glance this seems like a bizarre and harmful form of ocean pollution, but it is actually part of the MTA’s Artificial Reef Project, which, by deploying these structures to the ocean floor, create new habitats for marine life that become beneficial both environmentally and economically. An artificial reef can be made of virtually any kind of large structure; everything from battle tanks to vending machines have been used in the past. How this works: any vertical structure on the flat ocean floor will meet currents which can then create an upwelling full of plankton. This attracts larger fish to the area and the structure becomes a feeding ground. In turn this draws larger predators, which lurk in the hiding places created by the artificial reef. A reef also spells shelter from the open ocean floor for many other creatures. In these ways, the march of time transforms these man-made structures into beautiful blooms of coral, algae and wildlife. Subway cars are particularly ideal for this process because they are too heavy to be moved easily once they are sunk and roomy enough to accommodate a large amount of sea life. It has been estimated that they are durable enough to last for decades underwater.

Since the project began since 2001, NYC transit has donated and sunk 2,500 19 ton subway cars off the coasts of Virginia, Georgia, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and South Carolina, including the famous Redbird subway cars, which ran in New York from 1964 to 2003. The program seems to be proving a great success. In Delaware, for example, it was reported in 2008 that the Redbird Reef had seen a 400-fold increase in the amount of marine life per square foot in the seven years that the subway cars had been in place. However, this project has not been without controversy. When New York first offered 1,300 subway cars to various states a decade ago, many environmental groups voiced concerns over the project being little more than cleverly disguised waste disposal which would turn the ocean floor into a junkyard. Asbestos was also cited as a concern, but many experts have said that asbestos only poses a threat when it is airborne, which cannot occur underwater.

In any case, the subway cars do seem to be providing some much needed refuge and topography for the mid-Atlantic, which has been described in the past as an underwater desert. And they certainly are an eery spectacle to behold.

For more pictures of the Redbird Reef operation, click here

Your Brain V. The Universe

Here are some really staggering numbers for your consideration.

There are around 100 billion neurons (brain cells) currently living in your cerebral cortex. These neurons communicate through electrochemical signals that are transported via synapses, which are structures that serve as the gateway to each neuron

If each of these 100 billion neurons only ever established one synaptic connection with one other neuron, the connections in your brain would easily equal the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

However, our neurons make far more connections than that: an average of between 1,000 and 10,000 synapses exist for each cell. In total, this means that the number of connections in your brain is somewhere in the range of 1000 trillion. Researchers have estimated the number of stars in the universe to be between 10 sextillion and 1 septillion, so for the sake of simplicity, we will say that the number of actual connections in the human brain equals about half of the total stars in the universe.

But the truly astonishing part of this comparison is when we examine the total number of potential connections between neurons in the brain. The example used in this article factors only 1 billion, 1/100th of the actual number of neurons in the brain. According to these calculations, the possible connections total to 3 x 10^5,000,000,000, which is far greater a number than the estimated total mass of the entire universe. In short, there are more potential synaptic connections in your brain than the number of atoms in the universe.