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David Eagleman: The human brain runs on conflict

This article was taken from the May 2011 issue of Wired magazine. Be the first to read Wired's articles in print before they're posted online, and get your hands on loads of additional content by subscribing online. Throughout the 60s, pioneers in artificial intelligence worked late nights trying to build simple robotic programs capable of finding, fetching and stacking small wooden blocks in patterns. It was one of those apparently simple problems that turn out to be exceptionally difficult, and it led AI scientists to think: perhaps the robot could solve the problem by distributing the work among specialised subagents -- small computer programs that each bite off a piece of the problem. One computer program could be in charge of finding, another could fetch, another could solve stacking. The society-of-mind framework was a breakthrough, but, despite initial excitement, a collection of experts with divided labour has never yielded the properties of the human brain.

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Most brain imaging papers fail to provide enough methodological detail to allow replication Amidst recent fraud scandals in social psychology and other sciences, leading academics are calling for a greater emphasis to be placed on the replicability of research. "Replication is our best friend because it keeps us honest," wrote the psychologists Chris Chambers and Petroc Sumner recently. For replication to be possible, scientists need to provide sufficient methodological detail in their papers for other labs to copy their procedures. Focusing specifically on fMRI-based brain imaging research (a field that's no stranger to controversy), University of Michigan psychology grad student Joshua Carp has reported a worrying observation - the vast majority of papers he sampled failed to provide enough methodological detail to allow other labs to replicate their work. Carp searched the literature from 2007 to 2011 looking for open-access human studies that mentioned "fMRI" and "brain" in their abstracts.

The Neuroscience of Looking on the Bright Side Ask a bride before walking down the aisle “How likely are you to get divorced?” and most will respond “Not a chance!” Tell her that the average divorce rate is close to 50 percent, and ask again. Would she change her mind? Unlikely. Everyday Stress Can Shut Down the Brain's Chief Command Center The entrance exam to medical school consists of a five-hour fusillade of hundreds of questions that, even with the best preparation, often leaves the test taker discombobulated and anxious. For some would-be physicians, the relentless pressure causes their reasoning abilities to slow and even shut down entirely. The experience—known variously as choking, brain freeze, nerves, jitters, folding, blanking out, the yips or a dozen other descriptive terms—is all too familiar to virtually anyone who has flubbed a speech, bumped up against writer’s block or struggled through a lengthy exam.

Why We May Never Beat Stigma When public figures want to display penitence for their bad choices—see under "Woods, Tiger" and "Gibson, Mel"—they go to rehab. Whether the problem is extramarital affairs, plagiarism or even racism, crying addiction has become an all-purpose excuse. This month saw the “Lying Dutchman”—a top social psychologist who was found to have published over 55 fraudulent academic papers, including one in the prestigious journal Science—release a memoir calling his data fakery an addiction. At the same time, another columnist went as far as to blame conflicts of interest in medical research on doctors’ “addiction” to taking money from Big Pharma.

The neuroscience of happiness They say money can’t buy happiness. But can a better understanding of your brain? As recent breakthroughs in cognitive science break new ground in the study of consciousness — and its relationship to the physical body — the mysteries of the mind are rapidly becoming less mysterious. Recognize these emotions The Passion and Reason 15 The book Passion and Reason provides clear definitions and descriptions of 15 separate emotions. These are: Anger — Conspecific threat, trespass, loss attributed to an agent, unjust insult, thwarted goals, plea for justice Envy — Desiring other's stature objects Jealousy — Threat to sexual access. Fright — Concern for a future specific unpleasant event. Anxiety — Concern for an unidentified unpleasant event.

Research finds 'US effect' exaggerates results in human behaviour studies Scientists who study human behaviour are more likely than average to report exaggerated or eye-catching results if they are based in the United States, according to an analysis of more than 1,000 research papers in psychiatry and genetics. This bias could be due to the research culture in the US, authors of the analysis said, which tends to preferentially reward scientists for the novelty and immediate impact of a piece of work over the quality or its long-term contribution to the field. Daniele Fanelli, University of Edinburgh, one of the authors of the latest analysis, said that there was intense competition in the US for research funds and, subsequently, pressure to report novel findings in prestigious, high-impact scientific journals. "We don't know what causes the US effect but we think the most likely explanation is that it's about the research environment in the US," he says. Fanelli worked with John Ioannidis of Stanford University on the study.

The Upside of Pessimism The theory of defensive pessimism suggests that imagining—and planning for—worst-case scenarios can be more effective than trying to think positively. I have pretty low expectations for this article. Oh sure, I spent a lot of time on it, and I personally think it’s a great read. But I’m kind of worried that you will hate it. Worse yet, I’m afraid you’ll hate me for writing it.

Understanding Stress: Symptoms, Signs, Causes, and Effects What is stress? The Body’s Stress Response When you perceive a threat, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones rouse the body for emergency action. Journal Impact Factors Every summer my e-mail is enlivened by people and organizations writing about the latest journal impact factors (IF). Because I chair the APS Publications Committee, I have always done my best to feign deep interest about IFs. I know many people take them very seriously, but the truth is, I have never cared about them too much, although I do look at them. I certainly take citations seriously; they indicate at least to some degree the impact and worth of a paper.

U.S. researchers map emotional intelligence of the brain We tend to think of reason and emotion as being two different things, but it turns out that there may not be a choice between the heart and the head. A University of Illinois team, led by neuroscience professor Aron Barbey, has made the first detailed 3D map of emotional and general intelligence in the brain, that shows a strong overlap of general and emotional intelligence. Reason and emotions aren’t opposites, but rather two types of intelligence or, perhaps, two aspects of one intelligence. Reason comes under the heading of general intelligence. 18 Behaviors of Emotionally Intelligent People When emotional intelligence (EQ) first appeared to the masses, it served as the missing link in a peculiar finding: people with average IQs outperform those with the highest IQs 70 percent of the time. This anomaly threw a massive wrench into the broadly held assumption that IQ was the sole source of success. Decades of research now point to emotional intelligence as being the critical factor that sets star performers apart from the rest of the pack. The connection is so strong that 90 percent of top performers have high emotional intelligence.

Trendspotter: The brain-scan job interview A few years back, it became fashionable to test yourself against the questions that candidates are asked at interview when they go for a job at Google. “How many piano tuners are there in the world?” “How many golf balls can fit into a jumbo jet?” Why Emotion Will Usually Outweigh Logic In The Audience’s Brains Many people like to think that business is all about logic, and that customers behave having rationally analysed all available data, considered the various pros and cons of different courses of action and come to a logical conclusion. Although it’s very difficult for very logical people to understand (e.g. accountants, engineers, IT professionals), this could not be further from the truth, as the quote above from Buck Rogers of IBM demonstrates (and he was talking about mainframe computers!). The reality is that a high percentage of the time people make decisions based purely on emotion.