The Science of Why You Hate Ted Cruz

via Quartz.

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Why Ted Cruz’s Facial Expression Makes Me Uneasy

Note: This piece generated a lot of buzz, even getting me a mention on the Late Late Show with James Corden!

[Cross-posted at The Fallible Mind, my blog at Psychology Today]

What message are the Senator’s atypical facial gestures sending?

Source: Gage Skidmore via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s hard to look at Ted Cruz’s face. He’s said to be a brilliant orator with a sharp legal mind. But his expression unsettles me. I understand that my reaction is visceral and automatic, but as a neurologist it is my business to notice things out of the ordinary and probe them. The Senator’s atypical expressions leave me uneasy.

It’s remarkable how many colleagues and former associates say that they “loathe” Cruz. A Bush alumnus told The New York Times‘ Frank Bruni, “Why do people take such an instant dislike to Ted Cruz? It just saves time.” Former Senate Majority leader Bob Dole says, “Nobody likes him,” while Rep. Peter King sees “malice” behind his visage. According to The Washington Post, screenwriter Craig Mazin, Cruz’s former Princeton roommate, calls him a “huge asshole,” and “creepy.” He’s Tweeted, “Getting emails blaming me for not smothering Ted Cruz in his sleep in 1988.” The distaste for Cruz extends well beyond the US: Germans say Backpfeifengesicht, meaning a face in need of a good punch. Continue reading

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A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age

Here is my review of Daniel Levitin’s “A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age” at the New York Journal of Books:

A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age

Daniel Levitin wants us to eat our spinach, an unsavory chore for an increasingly innumerate society. Yet we need the critical thinking he advocates to cut through the tangle of mistakes, manipulations, and outright lies encountered in everyday life.

“Just because there’s a number doesn’t mean that the number was arrived at properly,” says Daniel Levitin, the prolific musician, neuroscientist, and educator at McGill University. His Field Guide to Lies lays out three kinds of misinformation: numerical, verbal, and scientific. It serves as a kind of Strunk & White for sloppy thinkers.

Learning how to figure probabilities and weigh statistical claims in one’s head may be a slog, but Levitin shows why the effort is worth it. We are easily swayed by first-person accounts rather than evidence. We tend to be pigheaded once we form a belief, and it is hard to let go even when challenged by evidence to the contrary.

The claim that vaccines cause autism, for example, not only proved to be bogus, but the researcher falsified the data to begin with and his medical license was revoked. Despite a thorough debunking, some parents still believe vaccines are dangerous.

“Science and life are not static,” Levitin reminds us, and critical thinking isn’t something you do once and then forget. People lie for a variety of reasons. Circumstances change. There are always alternative explanations. “Solutions that should be scientific or technical” can actually be political. It behooves us to know how to tell.

The book offers an array of plausibility checks. The biggest pitfall is that our brain largely decides based on emotional considerations, which it then seeks to rationalize and justify.

Medical decisions are nervewracking if we do not know how to weigh unfamiliar options and those that don’t have sharply defined answers. A positive test result does not mean you definitely have a particular disease. By working out the actual probabilities Levitin shows how many remedies that look appealing can actually make matters worse.

He explains why a single experiment gives us little useful information, and why it is the collective meta-analysis of aggregate studies that is “the real currency of science.” It is easy to lie with statistics and graphs because few people bother to learn how they work. But statistic are not facts. They are interpretations made by people—and it is people who determine what to count and what to omit.

Commonly misused terms such as “average” can mislead. “On average, humans have one testicle,” is a valid but absurd fact that reminds readers that averages say nothing about the range. The average life expectancy has gone up not because previous generations didn’t make it to old age, but because high childhood mortality skewed the average. True causes can easily be hidden in the numbers.

“Significant” doesn’t mean noteworthy or important (it only shows how easily chance alone can explain an observation). “Probability” can be used to mean different things, assumptions are almost never stated explicitly, and beware of terms that are left undefined (What exactly does “sexually active” mean?).

Beware, too, of pundits, because an expert in one field is not automatically an expert in another. The questions that polls ask are the tiniest slice of those that could have been asked, and the reported results a miniscule sample of respondents’ possible attitudes and experiences. Small samples are rarely if ever representative.

The text gets drier as it expands into topics like bimodal distributions, spurious coincidences, and irrational biases (your chances of being killed on a single flight on a major airline are one in five million, “making it more likely that will be killed doing just about anything else”).

Offering up far more than most readers will likely be able to digest, Levitin’s Field Guide to Lies may come close to Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time in being a book that is more purchased than actually read.

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Muscle Memory—It’s In Your Head, Not Your Limbs

[Cross-posted at The Fallible Mind, my blog at Psychology Today]

Exercise can help you learn, but when you do it affects results.

2016-08-24-1472082126-1914888-PennStateU.jpgIf only we could jack in our brains and download new knowledge and skills the way The Matrix films depict. But learning — whether historical facts, musical mastery, or athletic aptitude — takes effort and time. The long duration of childhood is surely evidence enough of that. So sorry, would-be Einsteins, there are no shortcuts.

But if accelerated learning is the stuff of myth and science fiction, then are there any tricks that actually can help us master new material? There are, and here are four of them.

Repetition is important whether it involves textbook study, mentally going over your notes, or physically perfecting your tennis swing. But it’s not as important as you think. You may have heard Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a given skill. That’s the equivalent of 90 minutes a day for 20 years, an extraordinary burden of time that makes Gladwell’s simplistic popularization suspect.

Professor Anders Ericsson at Florida State University, on whose work Gladwell based his claim, actually stressed that it was the quality of practice that mattered rather than its quantity [1]. Repetition and rote drills have their place but are hardly the whole story. Continue reading

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Good Morning, Midnight: A Novel

Here is my review of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s “Good Morning, Midnight: A Novel” at the New York Journal of Books:

Good Morning, Midnight: A Novel

A debut novel with an intriguing premise. . . . What is left when everything is gone? What does it mean to be alive in the universe and the grandeur of vast emptiness?

Augustine, a 78-year-old astronomer accustomed to remote outposts and solitude, is working at an Arctic research station when catastrophe strikes the planet. Everyone leaves. He remains behind “for the sake of his life’s work.” An enigmatic child then appears, apparently left behind during the hasty evacuation.

Who she is and where she comes from we are not told. She rarely speaks. And yet the hermetic Augustine develops an intensely caring attitude toward her. Questions of loss and identity begin to unfold. Continue reading

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Paradime: A Novel

Here is my review of Alan Glynn’s “Paradime: A Novel” at the New York Journal of Books:

Paradime: A Novel

What a fun book this is. The plot moves. It twists. What we fear will happen does happen. Then unexpected complications set in. And we end up in a place we never could have imagined.

Take this book on a plane. Take it to the beach. But take it with you on a journey that makes you wonder, How much of my life is really mine? Do I control as much of it as I think I do?

The book isn’t about fate or destiny. It isn’t about conspiracies either, although powerful players do conspire in this tale. No, it’s about choices—or failing to make them—and the consequences that follow. It’s about how little, innocuous-seeming actions can set momentous change into motion and challenge us as never before. Do we rise to the occasion with resilience and show our grit? Or do we cave? Continue reading

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The World According to Star Wars

Here is my review of Cass Sunstein’s “The World According to Star Wars” at the New York Journal of Books:

The World According to Star Wars

Why does Star Wars speak to billions? Studio heads hated it. The actors thought it ridiculous. George Lucas feared catastrophe. Yet it became a spectacular success that appealed on many levels.

Star Wars is a modern retelling of The Hero’s Journey, the universal tale of calling and fulfillment described by mythologist Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and later recounted in conversations with Bill Moyers to rapt PBS audiences.

But at the time of the film’s release studio heads had no faith in it. The actors thought it was ridiculous. George Lucas feared catastrophe. And yet Star Wars became a success that appealed on multiple levels to billions worldwide. Continue reading

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Stressed Out? Try Looking at Some Trees

[Cross-posted at The Fallible Mind, my blog at Psychology Today]

The mere sight of greenery will calm your nervous system, guaranteed.

Trees are a natural restorative.

Everyone knows that nature is restorative. But why? New studies suggest that viewing even an image of a tree or a forest canopy bolsters the parasympathetic division of the central nervous system that naturally induces calm. The so–called autonomic nervous system has two parts, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. Both operate outside of conscious control.

The sympathetic division leaps into action during times of fight–or–flight: heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure all increase, adrenaline surges into the bloodstream, pupils dilate, our mouth goes dry, we start to sweat, and our guts switch to standby so that fuel can be diverted to muscle as it turns its stored glycogen into glucose for bursts of quick energy.

By contrast, the parasympathetic division activates the rest–and–digest response: blood pressure eases, pulse rate slows, breathing becomes calm, digestive juices flow, the intestines resume their motility, and the skeletal muscles loosen up. Continue reading

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The Prisoner of Hell Gate: A Novel [Review II]

Here is my review of Dana Wolff’s “The Prisoner of Hell Gate” at the New York Journal of Books:

The Prisoner of Hell Gate

Don’t read this book if you live alone in a remote cabin. Don’t read it if you whistle in the dark to settle your nerves. Its creepiness will unsettle you but good.

Dana Wolff adds a fresh twist to the historical tale of Mary Mallon, the Irish cook better known as “Typhoid Mary” who was the asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever in the early 1900s. Mallon worked for affluent New York families, unwittingly infecting members who subsequently fell sick and died. Finally incarcerated, she spent nearly three decades in permanent quarantine by order of public health officials.

In this suspense thriller, Dana Wolff’s heroine is Karalee Soper, graduate student of public health and great-granddaughter of George Soper, the physician who initially tracked down Mallon and locked her away where she could no longer harm others. Until now, apparently. Continue reading

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Face of a Winner – Washingtonian Magazine, April 2016

Reading candidates’ tics may tell us more than reading their platforms does. A DC neurologist explains.

See article online.



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How Your Lie–Detector Chin Gives Away the Naked Truth

[Cross-posted at The Fallible Mind, my blog at Psychology Today]

Speak what you want, but what’s on your mind plays out on your face.

Earlier posts on the topic of body language and emotional intelligence explored:

So, on to our next question …

During the President’s meeting with Putin. Source: YouTube/silver start NY SITI

How could your chin possibly reveal what’s really on your mind? The answer, as usual in counterintuitive scenarios like this, is that emotion plays out strongly on one’s face. That much is obvious: we read others by reading their expressions and gestures, both of which are driven by emotional circuits over which we have little control. Continue reading

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Bernie and Hillary Naked on Stage

[Cross-posted at The Fallible Mind, my blog at Psychology Today]

My previous post examined Ted Cruz’s odd facial expressions. Now, on to the Dems.

Hillary Clinton palm down

The “Hands-Down” pose implies conviction. Source: Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

One of Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses in her fight for the Democratic nomination is that she does not come off as sincere as Bernie Sanders. Critics point out that she flip–flops often, reversing her stance on issues such as gay marriage, immigration, gun control, and the Iraq war. Clinton answers this charge by saying that her decisions are simply based on the “best information we have available,” although more often than not they follow a shift in public opinion.

The word “conviction” does not come to mind when describing her. Continue reading

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The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups

Here is my review of Erika Christakis’ “The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups” at the New York Journal of Books:

The Importance of Being Little

“What she describes is the end of childhood as we once knew it.”

Early learning is social. And yet little kids are forced to navigate a “system designed by and for adults,” one focused mistakenly on delivery methods rather than the logic of how youngsters learn.

To Erika Christakis, Lecturer in Early Childhood Education affiliated with Yale University’s Child Study Center, schooling and learning are two different things. This matters when three-quarters of preschool children now receive care at facilities and not from their immediate families. Young children are asked to conform to adult timetables for circle time, naptime, feeding, and so on rather than the other way around. In one study she cites in this well-researched book, 25% of Los Angeles kindergarteners were allowed no time at all for free play. Continue reading

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Selfies Kill More People Than Sharks Do

Inattention and a need to show off are the biggest killers of all

[Cross-posted at The Fallible Mind, my blog at Psychology Today]

Concerns for personal safety increasingly outweigh those for self survival. What has changed?

In 2015, nineteen people were killed in selfie-related incidents, and many more injured themselves. During the same period, eight people died of shark attacks.

How did we reach the point where the need to show off on social media outweighs common sense for seeing danger and the instinct for self-preservation?

Self-absorbed selfie shooters have fallen from cliffs, crashed their cars, and electrocuted themselves while posing for their followers atop train cars. Three college students died while trying to snap a selfie in front of an oncoming train. Others have shot and killed themselves while posing with guns. In a spectacular blowout, two Russians in the Urals posed with a hand grenade with the pin pulled out. The photograph survived as evidence of their inattention. A distracted Cessna pilot in Colorado lost control of his plane and killed its occupants. In Portugal a Polish couple fell from a cliff into the ocean after stepping over a safety barrier to take a selfie with their two children, who lived to witness their parents’ death. Seven youths drowned on a lake in India when their boat tipped over as they stood up to pose for pictures. Continue reading

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Memoirs of a Hypnotist: 100 Days

Here is my review of Marcos Lutyens’ “Memoirs of a Hypnotist: 100 Days” at the New York Journal of Books:

Memoirs of a Hypnotist: 100 Days

“An art installation that challenges [and shows] that preconceptions are the enemy of new ideas.”

Some books surprise the reader beyond expectations. This is one such a book. Marcos Lutyens, who inhabits the artistic branch of the famous Lutyens family (the other branches are architecture, music, and literature) is known especially for his installations in the quinquennial documenta exhibits of contemporary art. Continue reading

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