Thursday, December 11, 2008

Stocking stuffer?

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (publishers of Science magazine, among other things) just announced us as a top book for young adults. That's great - though we think the book's of interest to regular adults too.

And, just in time - the paperback's coming out on December 23rd. If you pre-order on Amazon, it will show up on your doorstep on that day. Just in time for Christmas, Hannukah, and Festivus!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

How - and why - to write about the brain

The event at the Society for Neuroscience meeting last week was great fun. Dan Levitin is a great guy, funny and down-to-earth. A few days later we were together again, in a panel discussion (along with Michael Gazzaniga, Carl Zimmer, and Rebecca Saxe) at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on the brain, so we had several chances to chat. If you have a chance to meet Dan in person, go! Just don't request "Freebird."

At the SfN meeting we got into the topic of how - and why - to write about the brain for nonscientists. Dan comes at it from a different direction than Sandra and me. He started out as a musician, then came to neuroscience. So he has a natural, music-based sensibility. Sandra and I are more into the stuff that happens in our brains during in everyday life. Two different takes, both fun!

We talked about why one would write for a general audience. Too often, scientists are oblivious to the relevance of their work for everyone else - and to the importance of talking or writing about it. For those of you who study the brain for a living, here are some points I made:

1) Research is very rewarding, but it takes years to pay off. When you write for people who don't know much about neuroscience, the payoff can be immediate. It's rewarding to give them something useful to people that can even (sometimes) change their lives.

2) These days there's often a large gap between science and public policy. It's important to open a dialogue about what current research has to say about issues that people care about: autism, schizophrenia, moral reasoning, anything involving the brain. In addition to the good you can do, you also create goodwill for our field - which can be important when the question arises of how much the government should support research.

3) You can recruit people into the field! Potentially, you can reach many times more people than you can in a career of research or teaching. Stephen Jay Gould did this in spades. Counterintuitively, you might have a large impact on your field by telling a general audience how exciting it is.

Of course, all of the above pertain not just to writing, but also to public outreach - visiting schools and so on. If you're interested, the Dana Foundation provides resources that can help you. Take a look!

Monday, November 24, 2008

"Don't think this is some dreary textbook"

In Cogito, a magazine for gifted kids, we're reviewed by Keerthana Krosuri, a student. She writes:

Aamodt and Wang are both neuroscientists, so they know what they’re talking about, but don’t think this is some dreary textbook. The authors go to great lengths to make Welcome to Your Brain easy-to-understand and fun to read.

Instead of getting into the details of the review, let's compare her review with that of Steven Hyman, provost of Harvard Medical School. I never thought we'd get reviews from two such different sources in the space of a month, very cool.

They both liked the myth-busting, as well as the treatment of autism. Keerthana liked many parts, and pointed out that the child and teen development parts might appeal to parents (a key demographic that she might be closer to than Steve Hyman). She found the "wacky" illustrations to be quite funny - but Hyman wanted more diagrams showing actual brain regions. They did share one reservation: they both wanted a reference list for further reading. We didn't originally include one, which just goes to show how un-textbooky the book is.

Well, Provost Hyman and Ms. Krosuri, we heard your call. The paperback will have a full reference list! You can also download it here. The paperback also has other new material, for which you'll need to consult a fine bookseller near you in late December.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Off to Washington DC!

I'm off for the Society for Neuroscience meeting! This is the big annual meeting for our field - basically Carnival for brain geeks. This year it's in Washington, D.C. and will have around 25,000 people. It's a week of posters, talks, and technical exhibits. It was also in Washington in 1986, the first one I ever attended. It's where I first got to see the whole sweep of neuroscience research.

In addition to the research, this year I'm co-hosting a discussion on Sunday evening on "How To Write About Brain Science For The Public." With me will be Dan Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain On Music. The event is open to everyone, not just scientists. Come join Dan and me!

Where: Renaissance Washington DC Hotel, Washington DC - Main Auditorium
When: Sunday, November 16th - 6:30 pm
Here's the postcard.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The undecided brain on WNYC, with Josh!

Tomorrow afternoon at 1:20pm Eastern, Josh Gold and I will be on the Leonard Lopate Show to talk about the neuroscience of being undecided. I'm told there will also be someone from the Pew Center to talk about polling. Tune in - WNYC, 93.9 FM, 820 AM, and online streaming audio.

Josh has very kindly parachuted in on this topic. He works on perceptual decision-making, just one facet of an exciting modern research area, the neural basis of making decisions. He's not quite Sandra, who is off in the South Pacific. But he has a better jump shot!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Brain science for the novice

We've been reviewed in Nature Neuroscience by Steven Hyman, provost of the Harvard Medical School and former director of the National Institute of Mental Health. Among other things, he wrote:
"[Welcome To Your Brain is] a remarkably ambitious book that is aimed at sophisticated general readers...a superb general overview of brain science for the non-neurobiologist...Welcome to Your Brain explains a great deal with elegance, clear prose and a welcome sophistication."
The review is a comprehensive summary of what we did, from the point of view of a leading neuroscientist. More is available here.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The undecided brain

In the New York Times I have an op-ed on the neuroscience of being an undecided voter. I wrote it with fellow neuroscientist Josh Gold. Full text, with scientific references:

As we enter the final week of a seemingly endless election campaign, opinion polls continue to identify a substantial fraction of voters who consider themselves "undecided." Although their numbers are dwindling, they could still determine the outcome of the race in some states. Comedians and other commentators have portrayed these people as fools, unable to choose even when confronted with the starkest of contrasts.

Recent research in neuroscience and psychology, however, suggests that most undecided voters may be smarter than you think. They’re not indifferent or unable to make clear comparisons between the candidates. They may be more willing than others to take their time — or else just unaware that they have essentially already made a choice.

Neuroscientists have begun to tease out the brain systems that make some simple decisions. Even when it takes a second or less, decision-making is thought to involve two parts, gathering evidence and committing to a choice. In tasks as simple as deciding whether a shifting pattern of dots is moving to the left or to the right, brain activity in the parietal cortex rises as evidence is gathered, eventually reaching a tipping point of choice - though it is not yet known what brain regions drive the final choice.

Inherent to this kind of process is a trade-off between speed and accuracy. Commit early and you can get on with your life. Take more time and you might make a wiser or more accurate decision. Since a commitment to John McCain or Barack Obama is not required until Nov. 4, for the greatest accuracy, one should gather evidence until that date. So then why aren’t there even more undecided voters? For simpler decisions, after there is enough evidence to reach a decision threshold, the brain tends to ignore further input even when it might improve accuracy. The brain goes ahead and decides, freeing up mental resources to deal with other problems.

This logic suggests that undecided voters might simply require a higher degree of confidence before they commit. Pollsters know this, and so push "uncommitted" voters to state a preference. Although this approach may seem heavy-handed, it gives a fairly accurate reading of a candidate’s support. In psychological studies, people who describe themselves as undecided often reveal a pronounced preference when they are forced to choose. When someone reports being only “moderately sure” of a decision like whether to accept a new job, his eventual choice is all but certain.

Still, the person may not be aware of that internal commitment. In one study, people were asked to play a gambling game in which they could choose cards from several decks, some of which were secretly stacked against them. After losing repeatedly, most subjects began to nervously avoid the less favorable decks but were unable to say why until after much further play. People with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lack this intuition, and so they take inordinate time to make decisions in general.

Of course, undecided voters aren’t suffering from brain damage, it’s just that their brains may require an especially long amount of time to develop confidence in or awareness of a choice. In these cases, hidden commitments can be queried in creative ways. In a recent study, 33 residents of an Italian town initially told interviewers that they were undecided about their attitude toward a controversial expansion of a nearby American military base. But researchers found that those people’s opinions could be predicted by measuring how quickly they made automatic associations between photographs of the military base with positive or negative words.

If decisions are lurking somewhere in the brains of undecided voters, could brain imaging methods reveal their inclinations? Not yet. Recent research has shown that when undecided voters looked at images of candidates, their brains’ emotional centers were often activated. But this reveals little information about the content of their thoughts. This type of research serves mainly to demonstrate how difficult it is for scientists to physically trace complex concepts like preference.

It is more effective to pose indirect questions. Pollsters can learn which way “undecided” voters lean by using questions they already ask that are likely to correlate with support for either candidate: Who do you think understands your problems better? Are you more concerned about the economy or terrorism? Which candidate has the better temperament? The answers of decided voters could be used to predict the final choice of undecideds.

No matter how deeply they delve into people’s thought processes, however, polls will never be perfect predictors of election results. Like the brain of an undecided voter, the electorate as a whole may lean toward one candidate or another, but until the ballots are cast on Nov. 4, it remains undecided.

Sam Wang, an associate professor of neuroscience at Princeton, is a co-author of “Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life.” Joshua Gold is an assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The neuroscience of being "undecided"

In this year's presidential race, current campaign trends indicate that "undecided" voters make up a similar fraction to the difference in support between Barack Obama and John McCain. How many of them are really undecided? Based on psychology and neuroscience research, maybe not many.

In a recent study (news story), 129 residents of an Italian town were asked about their attitude toward a controversial expansion of a nearby U.S. military base. Researchers found that the opinions of 33 "undecideds" could be predicted a week in advance by a series of questions relevant to the issue. This result raises the possibility that decisions exist in an internal form before people can report them.

The work is reminiscent of neuroscience research by Antonio Damasio and colleagues, who found a way to measure the gap between hunch and recognition. People were asked to play a pretend gambling game in which they could choose cards from several decks. Without the participants' knowledge, some of the decks were stacked against them. After losing repeatedly, they began to choose the more favorable decks but were unable to say why until after much further play.

So even when we claim to be undecided, we may have strong preferences that we cannot report to a questioner. This creates a major problem in interpreting the answers to opinion polls. There may not be many undecided voters out there at all.

(Cross-posted from the Princeton Election Consortium)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Big in Amsterdam?

Our book's coming out this week in the Netherlands: Het Geheim van je Brein, via Kosmos Uitgevers. Here's an article in Spits, a paper with a circulation of several million. Let me know if it's positive.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Neuroscience and political campaigns

In June, Sandra and I wrote an article about how lies live and grow in the brain - and how we can be manipulated by other people into having false beliefs. At the time there were a few examples in Presidential politics: rumors about Senator Barack Obama's religion, or about Senator John McCain fathering a mixed-race child.

Saturday I spoke to an audience on the subject of how to prevent false belief formation. The slides I showed can be downloaded as PowerPoint and PDF. The image mentioned in the talk is available as a PDF.

Brain myths - and more juvenile delights

There are several articles in Sunday's Chicago Tribune containing fun brain facts from our book: "10 things you might not know about your brain" and "How fit is your brain?" by Julie Deardorff.

One piece also has some sillier stuff - like how to prevent "brain freeze" after eating ice cream so quickly. That's not in our book - I think it's from Why You Shouldn't Eat Your Boogers. What an honor to share the stage with that book...

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The neuroscience of magic

What do magicians know about the brain? A lot, it turns out.

Our everyday experience of life is deeply colored by the way our brains work, quirks and all. Magic is a great example that brings this principle home. Two visual neuroscientists and a number of magicians, including Teller and James Randi, have collaborated to write a fun article about the neuroscience of magic. It's in the August issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience and is entitled "Attention and awareness in stage magic: turning tricks into research." Also read coverage here and here.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Stopping false beliefs - Four principles for journalists

In June, we wrote for the New York Times about how our brains lie to us, allowing the formation of false beliefs. Examples of false beliefs include rumors about Barack Obama's religion, or about John McCain fathering a mixed-race child. We didn't realize at the time just how relevant our topic would be in this year's mud-filled Presidential campaign.

Dan Froomkin asked us if brain science has any practical lessons for journalists in how to prevent false belief formation. The answer is yes. So we wrote an article for Nieman Watchdog. It says, among other things:
The human brain...does not save information permanently, as do computer drives and printed pages. Recent research suggests that every time the brain recalls a piece of information, it is "written" down again and often modified in the process. Along the way, the fact is gradually separated from its original context. For example, most people don't remember how they know that the capital of Massachusetts is Boston.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, leads people to forget over time where they heard a statement - and whether it is true. A statement that is initially not believed can gain credibility during the months that it takes to reprocess memories from short-term to longer-term storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications may gain strength.
And here's the corresponding lesson for journalists:
1. State the facts without reinforcing the falsehood. Repeating a false rumor can inadvertently make it stronger. In covering the controversy over a New Yorker cover caricaturing Barack and Michelle Obama, many journalists repeated the charges against the candidate - often citing polling data on how many Americans believe them - before noting that the beliefs were false. Particularly damaging is the common practice of replaying parts of an ad before debunking its content.
To find out what the other three lessons are, read the whole thing.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The science behind the book

Many readers have asked for the scientific literature behind our book. So we've put a list here [here's an alternate download site] containing nearly 250 references.

The references are just part of what will be in the paperback version, which will also contain new material. Watch for it next year!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

How to evaluate marketing claims for medical treatments

We live in an age of celebrity spokespersons. In April I wrote about Jenny McCarthy's new status as an advocate for a fabled connection between vaccines and autism. That triggered a thoughtful email from Tim, who wrote:
You were kind in your description of Jenny McCarthy's credentials. She is very similar to my wife and me. We know what we have read, we know what we have seen happen to our family and in the life of our son - but for most of us that produces at best a great deal of passion. Not a great deal of factual knowledge. So our headlines seem full of people speaking on topics that I can't figure out why we are listening to them. 'Nuff said!

My question is this. How do scientists (and pharma in general) respond to the suspicion that many parents feel when we are told that this med or that med is safe and find out later it really wasn't. Point in case is the same issue of USA Today that your comments appeared. On the front page the headline reads: "Reports: Data on Vioxx misused; Documents suggest risk was downplayed."

How do we keep trusting big pharma, our governmental regulatory agencies and science when those headlines are more and more commonplace?

This was a great question. Here's my reply, which I hope is useful to our other readers.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Friday, August 1, 2008

On Here & Now today

My interview for Here & Now on false beliefs will air today at 12:35PM, Eastern Time. The NPR stations that broadcast it are listed here. Near Princeton it will air on WHYY, 90.9 FM. Or listen online. Check it out!

Recent examples of false beliefs include the rash of rumors about Barack Obama, old rumors about John McCain, and the popular misconception that vaccination causes autism. False beliefs are everywhere...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Brain Who Mistook A Joke For A Fact

I've got a new piece at the American Academy of Political and Social Science blog on how our brains form false beliefs. As examples I use the recent New Yorker cover and a false belief about John McCain. I also talk about the larger question of how current journalistic practices can be improved to reduce such problems. An interesting question!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Coming soon on Here And Now

Today I did an interview with Robin Young of WBUR Boston. She's the terrific and charming host of Here And Now, an NPR program that's broadcast nationally. [find affiliate] It will probably air next week - I'll post the exact date soon.

We talked about false beliefs, with the current example being rumors about Barack Obama. As many of you know, we had a recent NYT editorial about false beliefs. Of course, this week's new example is the now-infamous cover of this week's New Yorker.

I'm only reproducing the caricature of Michelle Obama. Generally, repeating an image like this would only increase the possibility that you'll recall the falsehood as being true. Dan Gilbert and colleagues have shown that if people aren't given enough time to think, they tend to automatically accept a statement as being true. And what's more immediate than a caricature?

Monday, July 14, 2008

European translations of Welcome To Your Brain

The US and UK edition have been out for a few months. Now we're starting to talk about the book in Europe - not just the English-language version, but translations in Spanish, Italian, German, and Dutch, all of which are available now. And in Asia, Chinese (Complex)!

In interviews I often talk about current events in the US: the neuroscience of false beliefs and of left-handed presidents. Today I'm on Radio 1, Italian national radio. Last week I was on the BBC World Service NewsHour and Radio Europe Mediteranneo with Maurice Boland. In the near future I'll be on Radio Free Europe.

There are many more translations planned: Albanian, Bulgarian, Chinese (Simplified), Greek, Hebrew, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese (in Brazil and Portugal), and Swedish. Tag so mycket!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Southpaw presidents - and their brains

In today's Washington Post we have a piece on left-handed presidents. [Original article as PDF] The next president will be left-handed, since Barack Obama and John McCain are both southpaws. They are the latest in a long run. Since 1945, five of twelve presidents have been left-handed: Truman, Ford, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton. Yet only one in 10 people in the general population is left-handed. We wrote about the question of whether there's something about the brains of left-handers that qualifies them for leadership. The answer is maybe - and in a way that may help explain Barack Obama's way with words.

The piece was condensed quite a bit - partly to accommodate a picture of Ned Flanders's Leftorium. If you're interested in a fuller version, complete with links to PDFs of supporting literature, it's here.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

You'll be the hit of the party!

"If you've ever been at a loss for small talk, Welcome to Your Brain offers a wealth of information that might make you the hit of the party." That's from the latest review, which appeared yesterday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

We've found this to be the case as well. We often have a great time slipping people nuggets of information. A few months ago I got to sit in the cockpit of a Boeing 767 on takeoff - great fun. I was just about to leave, but the pilots and I started talking. I ended up staying an hour. It turns out their tricks for fighting jet lag are quite similar to ours.

Some more reviews can be found here.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A false belief about John McCain

We have encountered some resistance to the ideas in the Times editorial from readers who took issue with our focus on the Obama example. They felt that this was one-sided.

After some asking around, we now recall that there was a false belief about John McCain, dating to the 2000 Presidential primary campaign. He was doing well until the South Carolina primary, at which time rumors surfaced about a mixed-race child that he had allegedly fathered. Apparently, this did not play well with Southern voters. Shortly thereafter, his candidacy faltered.

On that note: ideas often have staying power if they evoke a strong emotional reaction. Here is a study suggesting that feelings of disgust make an idea memorable.

I hope the focus on one example doesn't deter readers from considering the ideas in the article carefully. This would be ironic, considering that a major point is that we tend to discount statements that contradict our worldview.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The neuroscience behind Swift-boating

In Friday's New York Times, we have an editorial on the brain science of why people form false beliefs. It's timely because of the rash of rumors that have sprung up around Presidential candidate Barack Obama - for instance, the false idea that he is a Muslim.

The Times editorial format doesn't allow links to supporting literature. So we thought we'd provide the text here, complete with embedded links to key papers.

Update, Sunday 3:00pm: The story was most-emailed over the last 24 hours, for 2 days running. At this writing it's #5 most-emailed over the last 7 days.

Also, it's #2 most-blogged-about over the last 3 days. That's a close second to the story about the kids who all changed their middle name to Barack Obama's out of solidarity.

Your brain lies to you

False beliefs are everywhere. Eighteen percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth, one poll has found. Thus it seems slightly less egregious that, according to another poll, 10 percent of us think that Senator Barack Obama, a Christian, is instead a Muslim. The Obama campaign has created a Web site to dispel misinformation. But this effort may be more difficult than it seems, thanks to the quirky way in which our brains store memories — and mislead us along the way.

The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer’s hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain about the size and shape of a fat man’s curled pinkie finger. But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.

With time, this misremembering only gets worse. A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength. This could explain why, during the 2004 presidential campaign, it took some weeks for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Senator John Kerry to have an effect on his standings in the polls. [Note: see Sam's meta-analysis of polls from 2004.]

Even if they do not understand the neuroscience behind source amnesia, campaign strategists can exploit it to spread misinformation. They know that if their message is initially memorable, its impression will persist long after it is debunked. In repeating a falsehood, someone may back it up with an opening line like “I think I read somewhere” or even with a reference to a specific source.

In one study, a group of Stanford students was exposed repeatedly to an unsubstantiated claim taken from a Web site that Coca-Cola is an effective paint thinner. Students who read the statement five times were nearly one-third more likely than those who read it only twice to attribute it to Consumer Reports (rather than The National Enquirer, their other choice), giving it a gloss of credibility.

Adding to this innate tendency to mold information we recall is the way our brains fit facts into established mental frameworks. We tend to remember news that accords with our worldview, and discount statements that contradict it.

In another Stanford study, 48 students, half of whom said they favored capital punishment and half of whom said they opposed it, were presented with two pieces of evidence, one supporting and one contradicting the claim that capital punishment deters crime. Both groups were more convinced by the evidence that supported their initial position.

Psychologists have suggested that legends propagate by striking an emotional chord. In the same way, ideas can spread by emotional selection, rather than by their factual merits, encouraging the persistence of falsehoods about Coke — or about a presidential candidate.

Journalists and campaign workers may think they are acting to counter misinformation by pointing out that it is false. But by repeating a false rumor, they may inadvertently make it stronger. In its concerted effort to “stop the smears,” the Obama campaign may want to keep this in mind. Rather than emphasize that he is not a Muslim, for instance, it may be more effective to stress his discovery of Christianity in his twenties.

Consumers of news, for their part, are prone to selectively accept and remember statements that reinforce beliefs they already hold. In a follow-up to the study of students’ impressions of evidence about the death penalty, researchers found that even when subjects were given a specific instruction to be objective, they were still inclined to reject evidence that disagreed with their beliefs.

In the same study, however, when subjects were asked to imagine their reaction if the evidence had pointed to the opposite conclusion, they were more open-minded to information that contradicted their beliefs. Apparently, it pays for consumers of controversial news to take a moment and consider that the opposite interpretation may be true.

In 1919, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the Supreme Court wrote that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” Holmes erroneously assumed that ideas are more likely to spread if they are honest. Our brains do not naturally obey this admirable dictum, but by better understanding the mechanisms of memory perhaps we can move closer to Holmes’s ideal.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Big in Catalonia (with some loss in translation)

For speakers of Catalan, a Romance language spoken in Spain: here's a television interview (requires registration) with me on TV3, a major Catalonian station. The production values are excellent - I want the flashing neuron video in the background! I am overdubbed; the English is audible underneath.

At least one analogy didn't translate well. In the book we point out that the brain is more like a busy Chinese restaurant than a computer. People tend to talk about brains as if they were a sort of biological computer, with pink mushy "hardware" and life-experience-generated "software." But actions in computers occur according to an overall plan and in a logical order. The brain, on the other hand, is crowded and chaotic, and people are running around to no apparent purpose, but somehow everything gets done in the end. Computers mostly process information sequentially, while the brain handles multiple channels of information in parallel. Because biological systems developed through natural selection, they have layers of systems that arose for one purpose and then were adopted for another, even though they don’t work quite right.

Interviewer after interviewer asked us about this analogy in a friendly but puzzled manner. We finally figured out why in Barcelona, when we passed by a Chinese restaurant. It was deserted. Naturally, we had to regroup. In the next interview I said the brain was more like...a crowded tapas bar. The host smiled and everybody liked it. Whew!

If you prefer your interviews in English, here we are on National Public Radio and in person at Google. There are more interviews on our book's website,

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Building Better (?) Brains

I've been interviewed by SETI Radio. That's right, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. They do a science program called Are We Alone. Despite its name, the show covers all kinds of earth-bound subjects, including neuroscience. This episode's on neuroplasticity, and will be available Tuesday.

The host Seth Shostak and I had fun. We talked about neural prosthetics, a very lively area of research. He had questions about a recent paper describing a monkey that operated a robot arm through neural signals transmitted through a brain implant. This technology might someday be useful for humans with damage to their spinal cord, arms, or legs.

One interesting point: one monkey started treating the robot arm like its own, to the point of licking it. This illustrates how the brain can be fooled into extending its body image beyond the actual body. It's a case of your brain telling you a white lie in order to keep things running smoothly. Brain lies are a major theme of our book. This is an excellent example.

The rest of the program is focused on "brain gyms," a recent fad. We are very skeptical. We have found that the claims about the effectiveness of these games are not well supported by scientific studies, especially considering that the effect of physical exercise on brain function is much larger. Read what we had to say about it here. Then go out and get some real exercise!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

We're on All Things Considered

Welcome To Your Brain will be featured today on All Things Considered. Rick Kleffel, a book reviewer for NPR and for his own Trashotron, is doing the story. It will air in the second hour of the show. Here that's 5-6 pm. [Update: you can listen to it here or read the transcript here.]

If you haven't read our book already, it should give a flavor for what we wrote. If you have read it...we'd love to get your impressions, here or on Amazon.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Fighting jet lag

Greetings from Madrid! Sandra and I are here promoting the Spanish translation, Entra en tu cerebro. We're doing a media blitz, two days here and one day in Barcelona - television, radio, magazines, and newspapers. The Spanish like brain books! It's also a chance for us to put our knowledge of jet lag into practice.

Your brain has a clock in a region called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN for short). This region sets the circadian rhythm, a time-of-day signal that is sent to the rest of the brain and your other organs. The SCN gets its signals from the eye, and is gradually set by changes in the light-dark cycle. In the morning, a dose of light will make you get up earlier the next day ("phase advancing"). Conversely, evening light will make you get up later ("phase delaying"). This suggests several principles.

Sleep while you can. Physical activity does not affect the circadian rhythm. Therefore there's no point in forcing yourself to stay awake at your destination. It will just make you sleep-deprived. If you feel tired, sleep. In addition to natural sleep, I take Ambien to force myself to sleep when it's nighttime.

Get afternoon light. When it's afternoon here in Madrid, it's morning back in Princeton (and early morning in California, where Sandra lives). Light at this time will advance our clocks, getting us up a little earlier tomorrow. Tomorrow, we'll be shifted toward local time by several hours. Then the best time to get light will be mid-day, and so on.

When we go back home, the best time to get light is still afternoon. Why? Because our SCNs will think it's evening, and evening light will cause us to get up later the next day - exactly what we want when we are traveling west.

Melatonin and exercise. Your brain secretes melatonin near bedtime, and melatonin helps you sleep. You can take melatonin. Or, if you don't have any handy, get some exercise. Exercise triggers melatonin secretion. So a workout in the evening may help you drift off.

Now pardon me while I go hydrate (another good thing to do) and take a little nap.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

We're #1 - again

Our second New York Times op-ed has hit the top of the charts - just like the first one. We recently hit #1 most-emailed article of the last 30 days. We were waiting for some older piece to drop off the charts. What was that piece about? Oh, yes, Barack Obama's speech on race in America. Well...all right, maybe that's more important.

At the same time, my recent article on autism in USA Today has inspired a lot of reaction, both positive and negative. A response to those comments is called for, and I'll get to it quite soon.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Myths about autism

I've got a new editorial in Wednesday's USA Today on the subject of the autism-vaccine myth. Check it out, complete with a photo of Jenny McCarthy, myth purveyor. She's telegenic and appealing, but not exactly a go-to person for brain science. So look at her - but then read my article.

Many brain myths are harmless, such as the idea that we only use 10 percent of our brains. But the false idea that vaccines cause autism is actively harmful to children! I am particularly motivated because I am a recent father. I don't want my daughter to get any diseases. Vaccination, both for her and for everyone she meets, is an essential way to keep her safe.

If you are interested in more myths and truths about autism, read these pieces about whether the incidence of autism is increasing (also see this and this), why parents may be prone to believing these ideas, and some interesting truths about autism.

In addition, the vaccine hypothesis has, by now, been thoroughly tested - in the US, the UK, Denmark, Sweden, and Japan - with overwhelmingly negative results. It's time to spend research dollars on other ideas, where they can do the most good.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Winds of change

As of this week, I'm unemployed...or as my husband says, retired. I've left my editorial job to go on sabbatical for the experience of a lifetime. We'll be leaving in June to take our sailboat to the South Pacific islands and New Zealand for 15 months.

I celebrated my freedom by flying south to appear at The Book Works in Del Mar on Monday night, which was tremendous fun. Owner Lisa Stefanacci and her husband Tom Albright are card-carrying neuroscientists, and they run a Brain-Mind series of lectures with a very sophisticated and enthusiastic audience. I got great questions, including a few that I haven't been asked before on the lecture circuit.

My favorite (from a high school senior) was "Do our genes influence how we learn from our environment?" You bet they do - and it gets even more complicated than that. Our genes give us behavioral tendencies that lead us to seek out particular experiences, which in turn can change the way our genes affect brain development. For example, a baby who is naturally cautious may be born into the same family as a child who is enthusiastic about new experiences, but the two children will not have the same environment because their behavior will cause the adults in their lives to treat them differently. As we say in the book, nature versus nurture is the wrong way to look at it. Your genes and environment interact throughout life to make you a particular person.

Tuesday morning, I spoke with David Shipley about our willpower op-ed for the New York Times op-ed podcast, which was posted today. Then I flew home to start getting ready for the sailing trip.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Media buzz and this week's Monday appearances

We recently had an op-ed in the New York Times on willpower training. Like our previous piece on exercise and the brain, it's risen quickly on the most e-mailed list for the last 7 days and for the last 30 days.

Hot on the heels of that, we have a busy Monday:

If you're in the San Diego area, you have a chance to meet Sandra in person at The Book Works in Del Mar, California. She'll be appearing at 7:00pm.

Sam will be on XM Satellite Radio, on Oprah and Friends, in a taped interview by Dr. Mehmet and Lisa Oz. Tune in to XM 156 at 1:00am, 7:00am, or 6:00pm (all times Eastern). We'll be talking about the entire book.

In the afternoon, Sam is scheduled to be on National Public Radio's Talk Of The Nation. We'll be talking about the willpower article. Air time is uncertain: either 2:40pm or 3:40 to 4:00pm Eastern. There will be call-in! Update: if you missed it, here's the audio and transcript.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A look inside the book

Today our editor Ben Adams sent us a widget of the book. It's a searchable object that lets you look inside. Give it a try!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Source amnesia and political rumors

Sam and I didn't know whether to be disappointed or impressed when we saw a piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine this week on the way that a particular problem with human memory - called source amnesia - helps political rumors to spread. We had been considering writing an op-ed on this topic ourselves, but Farhad Manjoo beat us to it. We all experience source amnesia, the tendency to forget where we heard something, and the problem gets worse as we get older. An unfortunate side effect is that repeating myths or rumors, even to debunk them, tends to plant the false idea even more firmly in people's heads. People remember that they've heard the idea, but don't remember that they've heard it was false. Such confusion may have led to John McCain's recent loose talk about the cause of autism - another myth we address in our book.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

We're coming to Princeton, New York, and Washington...

The first six weeks after a book launches are said to be the busiest for authors. Luckily there are two of us! Yesterday I was in Manhattan recording the XM Satellite program Oprah And Friends with Mehmet and Lisa Oz. Those two are great fun. It's a pleasure to be interviewed by Dr. Mehmet Oz, whose You: The Owner's Manual was in many ways a model to us as we were writing our book. The show will air in a few weeks; I'll post the date when I know it. Update: Our air date is Monday, April 7. Tune in to XM 156!

Coming up, Sandra and I have a few events in Princeton, New York, and Washington DC:

This afternoon at 5:30pm, I'll be appearing in Princeton at the new Labyrinth Books.
I'll talk about the book, of course, and there will be a reception afterward.

On Monday evening (March 10th) we're both coming to the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. On stage with us is Grammy award-winning Broadway and film director Julie Taymor, whose movie Across The Universe came out last year. This should be fun, and I imagine some unexpected topics will come up. It's part of the Brainwave series, running through June.

On Tuesday March 11th we're both speaking at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. That one's a straight-up lecture, mythbusting and all. We're hoping for lots of discussion.

Come meet us at one of these events!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Spirit possession and religious experiences

One question that stumped me while on Coast to Coast AM was a caller who said that as a young seminarian, he had attended an exorcism. He asked what was happening in the brain. I pulled a blank, possibly due to the late hour. Later on, Sandra reminded me of two likely possibilities: epilepsy and schizophrenia.

Epilepsy has long been associated with holy (or unholy) status. In the book we describe how temporal lobe seizures often result in intense religious experiences, including feeling the presence of God, feeling that one is in heaven, and seeing emanations of light from the sky, from objects, and even from body parts. Famous epileptics who had religious visions include Saint Teresa of Ávila and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Seizure-induced visions may also lead to religious conversion. On the flip side, mental illness has been seen as a sign of not only holy status, but of demonic possession. Exorcism has been used as a means of casting out demons, but it can be a horrible - and dangerous - experience for the person "possessed," who is probably suffering from a neurological disorder.

Oddly enough, one category of people in which similar phenomena occur, but without a spiritual component, is mountaineers who go above an altitude of 2500 meters (about 8000 feet). Why? There's a good story there, and it's in our book.

Feel free to use this post to ask more questions.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Call with your question

Late Monday night/early Tuesday morning, I'll be interviewed by George Noory for his syndicated nighttime show, Coast To Coast AM. Call me with your question! Coast to Coast is very unusual, and has guests ranging from Buzz Aldrin to Pamela Anderson to Michael Shermer. Here on the East Coast it airs from 2 to 5 AM (!). To find an AM radio affiliate near you, click here. The show broadcasts all over the US and Canada.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Keeping your brain fit

Christine Larson wrote a very nice story for US News and World Report summarizing the latest research on brain aging and what you can do about it. Yes, I'm quoted, but that's not the main reason I liked it. She did an excellent job of summarizing a lot of confusing research without oversimplifying. Take-home messages: participate in a lot of different activities, including some that are difficult and some you really enjoy, especially socializing with other people. Oh, and don't forget to exercise...but you knew that already.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"...[a] short, snappy tour of the nervous system"

Another review! This one from Mary Ann Hughes for Library Journal in the upcoming February 1 issue. She writes that we "have written a highly engaging little introduction to the latest in brain science, designed to entice the casual reader who knows little about the subject....recommended for all public and school libraries."

Hughes also liked the cute cartoons. We agree that these are excellent. We were lucky to work with a terrific illustrator, Lisa Haney, whose work can be seen here. We'll soon post a few of her images in rotation in the sidebar. (Update: done.) Thank you, Lisa!

Another note: the LJ reviewer expressed a desire for a bibliography. We are working on a way to present references to scientific literature on this website. This has the advantage that we can provide the latest information that we find on a topic.