Archive for August, 2012

It’s 7:46, and you’re running late for work. You’re caffeine-deprived and working on six hours of sleep. Your hair is still damp from the shower, and you’re trying to balance a travel mug of coffee in your hands while changing the station on the radio. There’s a crisis at work, again, and it’s waiting for you to be solved when you get to your destination. You’re merging onto the highway, and suddenly, a car cuts you off on the left, coming from nowhere at 78 miles per hour. You, a mature, responsible person, respond the only way that seems appropriate, with a slur of curse words and a laying on of the horn.

Everyone has given in to road rage at some point in their driving careers. What is it about the cushion of the car that turns considerate people into passive-aggressors bent on revenge? It could be that the vehicle provides us with a sense of anonymity that allows us to feel safe expressing our frustration.

Drivers tend to view their vehicles as an extension of themselves. We choose the make and design we want, we decorate them according to our own personalities, we fill them with the miscellanea that make up our day to day lives. When someone cuts us off on the road, we feel that they are wronging us, not our cars. However, unlike when someone acts aggressively toward us in real life, we have an extra 4,000 pounds we can use to assert our dominance. That feeling of power can cause a sense of competition on the road, encouraging drivers to try to maintain control.

If driving a two-ton weapon on wheels wasn’t enough to make us act a little more aggressively than usual, there is also the added factor of anonymity. We feel camouflaged by our vehicles and tinted windows, making it seem as if there will not be personal consequences for our actions. If anyone has ever clicked on the comments thread of a news article, they will be able to tell you that anonymity doesn’t always lead to level-headed responses to anger.

So the next time you’re feeling angry on the road, try to remember that there’s a person in the other car, probably feeling the same way that you do. Unless they’re tailgating you in traffic, of course; then all rules are off.

Do you have any road rage stories that you’ve survived?

Choosing a good wine for a dinner party can be a complicated decision. There are the simple questions, the color (red, white, or blush) that your guests will enjoy and the type of wine (a nice Pinot Noir or Chardonnay) they would prefer. Then there’s information about the vintage and origin of each particular bottle that you consider. Then you need to know if you should chill it beforehand, and exactly how long you should let it breathe before serving it. Or, if that all sounds like too much work, you can always scratch the search and concentrate on your background music.

Our perception is influenced by multiple senses. In the matter of wine, one study has suggested that our perception of flavor can be influenced by the music we listen to as we drink. Researchers asked participants to sample wine while listening to different styles of music, including Tchaikovsky, Orff, and Nouvelle Vague. The songs they played had already been rated on their characteristics by a separate group of participants, who judged the music on scales of “powerful and heavy,” “subtle and refined,” and “zingy and refreshing.” Those who sampled the wine while listening to Tchaikovsky were more likely to judge the wine they were drinking as “subtle and refined,” while those who were listening to Orff and Nouvelle Vague were likely to judge their samples of wine as “powerful and heavy” and “zingy and refreshing.”

After reading about studies like this one, you have to ask the obvious question–what would wine taste like when paired with The Chemical Brothers?

You’re sitting on a beach, the sun beating hot against your back. Your dig your toes into the grainy sand to feel the cool earth beneath the surface. The smell of sunscreen and coconut oil hits your nose, and you listen to the sound of seagulls calling and waves crashing against the shore. An attractive stranger rises from the surf, water flowing down their body, bringing all sorts of possibilities to your mind’s eye. Just as you were losing yourself in your surroundings, “Single Ladies” blares out of your cellphone, jarring you from your romantic reverie. You shut your book with an unwilling sigh and reenter the real world.

When we read a novel, we are transported to another world. Many people think of fiction as an escape from reality, and now there is evidence that phrase isn’t just a metaphor. Researchers have found that when we read a physical description, our brain reacts as if the description on the page  is really happening to us. For instance, in the paragraph above, the words “coconut oil” elicit a response not just from the section of the brain that deals with language, but also the olfactory cortex, the area of the brain that processes smell. Words like “grainy” activate the sensory cortex, which responds to texture. Words involving motion not only activate the motor cortex, but even target the section of it that deals with individual body parts; when you read about digging your toes into the sand, it produces activity in the section of the motor cortex specifically responsible for leg movement.

With the knowledge that our minds blend the difference between fiction and reality, it comes as little surprise to learn that reading novels can impact our social identities. Researchers at University of Buffalo conducted a study where the participants were asked to read a passage from either Twilight or Harry Potter. The researchers then administered a test where participants responded to “me” words (mine, my) and “not me” words (they, theirs), which were linked with “vampire” or “wizard” words on screen. The participants who read the passage from Twilight were more quick to respond to the “me” words when they were associated with “vampire” words, and vice versa. Furthermore, after testing participants’ level of self-identification with those fictional groups, the researchers found that identification with the fictional community provided the same “mood and life satisfaction” as belonging to a real-world group.

I wonder what this research says about the benefits of reading horror stories. Any ideas?

It’s Great Aunt Mimi’s birthday party, and the family is together for the first time in months. Your cousin Susan is a little tipsy, and your straight-laced Uncle Todd has already given his new business cards out to everyone in the room. A couple hours in, everybody is caught up on how everybody is doing, who’s been having health problems, and who got promoted at work. Stalled for topics, your father brings up the coming election to the inward groans of half the room, and the outward groans of the second half. Opinions are stated, laughingly at first, then seriously, then angrily and derisively, and suddenly, it’s Thanksgiving dinner all over again.

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What do you mean, you support healthcare reform? And WHO ATE ALL THE MASHED POTATOES?!

During a political debate, people usually think they’re arguing for the obvious side. That’s because when a topic is ambiguous, people tend to perceive only the information that confirms the opinions they already hold. This filtering of opposing viewpoints isn’t intentional; we think we’re judging the conversation accurately. When evaluating new information, our minds under-emphasize the examples that would make our preconceived notions seem faulty and put greater value on the examples that make our conclusions seem infallible. In fact, when presented with contradictory opinions, the part of our brains that deals with reasoning, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, is suspiciously quiet, while the areas of the brain that are used in the processing of emotion (the orbital frontal cortex), conflict resolution (the anterior cingulate), and moral accountability (the posterior cingulate) become more active.

If that weren’t enough to make talking politics a ripe cause for a family rift, there’s also research to suggest that attitudes polarize in groups (such as political parties). Decisions formed in groups are more extreme than when made by individuals, making the middle ground seem like a dangerous concession to our belief system. On your own, you may be moderate in your opinions on fiscal policy, but as a member of a party, your beliefs jump two miles down the line.

Ironically, this information on confirmation bias could make it easier to dismiss the opinions of the people with whom we’re debating. We’ll think we’re making sound arguments against their extreme opinions, and their minds are just dismissing the information we’re presenting because it doesn’t fit with what they already believe.

Come to think of it, this blog really won’t make political debates any easier. Sorry about that.