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?

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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.

Life has been good to you, my friend. You’re graduating from college. You’re moving out of your parents’ house. You’re starting a career. It’s all just what you imagined being an adult would feel like. You’re proud to pay your own bills, proud to be working, or looking for work, in your field, proud to be starting your life. Or at least that’s how you know you should feel, and that’s half the battle, right? You definitely know that you shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the choices available to you, terrified that you’re making the wrong decisions, trapped in a lifestyle that you chose only a few years ago. That’s not the adulthood that you signed up for.

A quarter-life crisis is the period around 25 when some people start screaming, “Stop this life, I want to get off!” Just like its counterpart, the mid-life crisis, it’s a time to reevaluate your decisions and figure out where you really want to be in life. Haunted with names like “adultescence,” it stems from the anxiety about achieving your goals and the wide range of opportunities that have to be sifted through before you choose the path that works for you.

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“I’ll either be a doctor, or a filmmaker. Or open a bakery.”

The quarter-life crisis presents itself in five stages:

1. Feeling trapped.

2. Deciding you need to get out of what you’re doing and change your life.

3. Stopping the things in your life that are making you feel trapped and going through a period of finding yourself .

4. Starting over.

5. Finding careers and goals that are better suited to your interests.

This generation of 22- to 30-year-olds may experience the quarter-life crisis more strongly than previous generations, because they grew up in an affluent time with high expectations for what the future would hold–expectations that many are finding difficult to meet. As time goes on, and the difference between what you want to accomplish and what you’re actually accomplishing becomes apparent, you feel the need to right what went wrong and get your life back on track. Remember, quarter-life crises aren’t necessarily negative; in fact, 80% of people who reported going through this period considers it to have been a positive influence in their lives.

If you’re in the midst of the anxiety and frustration of a quarter-life crisis, it sounds like the best advice is to get out, get going, and figure out what you want. You’ve got work to do.

It was a bloody night. The masked serial killer, wielding his weed whacker like a saber, made short work of the teenagers who stumbled into the dilapidated and abandoned cabin. After the last survivor, whose fear for her life made her forget to wear anything but underwear and a torn shirt, ran screaming through the woods, the credits rolled to an eery, instrumental theme. And you left the theater as giddy as a kid who just found his favorite toy under the tree on Christmas morning.

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He may be a killer, but no one can judge his commitment to lawn care maintenance.

I think it’s safe to say that getting hacked to bits by a stranger we picked up on the side of the road is a fantasy few of us share. In fact, our sense of safety occupies the second tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, landing one step above our need for food and sleep. So why do so many people spend their spare cash on vicarious thrills? It may be because of a cross in the fear and pleasure controls in the brain.

When we watch a horror movie, the amygdala, the almond-shaped brain structure located in the temporal lobe, is activated as if the events on screen are really happening to us. The amygdala is in charge of processing emotion, including both fear and pleasure. One theory suggests that when scary scenes trigger the amygdala, it responds with the mixed signals of both fear and enjoyment because of its shared circuitry. As if that wiring weren’t complicated enough, fear is also processed through the nucleus accumbens, or the pleasure center of the brain, releasing hormones that make it possible for you to feel both terrified and exhilarated.

But that doesn’t mean that we feel pleasure when involved in a truly dangerous situation. Fortunately for the audience’s blood pressure, the stimuli on screen are also reaching our prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain that evaluates danger. While the amygdala and nucleus accumbens are working to process the emotional content of the film, the prefrontal cortex is working to make sure you know that the danger isn’t real, and that the axe-wielding maniac is just a character in a movie.

So when you’re sitting in the movie theater, whispering, “Don’t go in the basement!” to the character on screen, just sit back and let your amygdala enjoy the ride. Your prefrontal cortex will make sure you can still sleep that night.

Let’s say that you’ve been learning Spanish for two years now. You’re a dedicated student, and to fully immerse yourself in the language and culture, you’ve spent several months living in Madrid. Upon returning home, you happily try to talk to your friends and family about your excursions in a foreign country. While trying to communicate your recent experiences, such as your flight back, you find yourself inserting Spanish phrases in sentences that you know you meant to say in English and trying desperately to remember the word for “plane.”

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“You know, WHOOSH”

If you’re worried that this word mix-up is a symptom of a brain disorder, you can stop panicking. The deterioration of language skills is called language attrition, and it’s a common phenomenon that comes from immersion in a second language. Second language acquisition can interfere with your first language in several ways, including word substitution (“I never drink leche in the afternoon”), syntactic interference (“If he were at the store yesterday, he would have been buying milk”), and forgotten vocabulary (“He went to the store to buy . . . something”).

Because immersion in a second language can result in partial loss of the first language over time, much of the research on language attrition has focused on the erosion of primary languages in immigrants once they have integrated into new cultures. Though this information may sound bleak, keep in mind that it showcases the mind’s inherent ability to adapt to change. If you are living in a new country, you need to exercise your second language more than you need to recall the details of your first. The brain’s ability to learn this new style of communicating allows people to thrive in different parts of the world.

See? Language attrition is good news, after all.

Imagine sitting in the cool office of a polite yet impassive human resources manager. Your suit is heavy, your throat feels as if you’ve been singing soprano all morning, and your smile is beginning to falter under the weight of its constant enthusiasm. The manager looks up from studying your resume—the twelfth he’s seen that day. You subtly wipe your palms against your pant leg and steel your nerve. You’ve prepared for this moment. You’re ready for anything he can throw at you. The manager tosses you a lowball—“Tell me about yourself.”

And your mind goes completely blank.

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Well, I’m an excellent baker.

If you’re feeling hard on yourself for cracking during a job interview, keep in mind that it may be a sign you have a high working memory capacity. Working memory, which gives you the ability to hold and retrieve information during a long task, is operating on overdrive during an interview. You need to remember information about the company and the person interviewing you, to retrieve the tiny details of your work history, and to juggle the information in a way that paints the best picture of you as a potential employee.

In short, stressful events can overwhelm the working memory. During a high pressure situation, anxiety begins to use up energy that otherwise would be used to recall information. Those invading thoughts about how you are performing take up a portion of your working memory capacity, causing people with high capacities to perform worse than they would under easier circumstances. The pressure doesn’t make people with low working memory capacities perform any worse than they normally would, because they never had the capacity to use in the first place.

From here on out, you can wear your embarrassing interview stories as a badge of pride. You’re not bad at job interviews; you just have a high working memory capacity! You should bring that up to the hiring manager the next time you flub an interview question.

(To learn more about working memory, click on this previous post.)