Wednesday, August 2, 2006

I want one of those!

Watching Rocketboom(2.0) the other day, I was intrigued about a new device that must be debuting at Siggraph in Boston right now. It's kind of like a pair of roller skates that can be used in immersive virtual environments. One current limitation to IVET is that people are confined to walking the dimensions of the physical room in which the technology resides. Until now, the best solution has been to have people move to a treadmill to walk the distances, but this isn't very natural and limits the direction where one wants to go. While I was at the New Scientist article about the Japanese skates, I also found a link to a large virtual reality lab in Switzerland. This place is cool...

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Explaining the Middle East

Dan Gilbert, a social psychologist at Harvard, had an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times yesterday. Using the childhood example of punching his brother in the backseat, Gilbert hypothesized about two basic principles of retaliatory behavior. First, in a typical hit-for-tat, the number of hits should be an even number (e.g., you hit me three times, so I hit you three times). Second, as Gilbert puts it, "an even-numbered punch may be no more forceful than the odd-numbered punch that preceded it." However, people often ignore this second principle. He illustrates this point by reporting the results of a study by Shergill et al. (2003) in Science. Titled "Two Eyes for an Eye: The Neuroscience of Force Escalation," in this study twelve participants took turns applying pressure to a partner's finger. They were instructed to apply the same pressure that their partner gave them, but an analysis of the force pressure they produced showed otherwise. Soon the pair would escalate the pressure each member would give the other, apparently believing that they were exerting less force than they actually were (as an aside, I wonder what makes this a "neuroscience" study--I guess it's just a sexy word that Science can't resist). Gilbert applies this finding to explain why Israel (and I guess, Hezbollah) has responded "disproportionately" with its heavy bombing. Of course, real world situations are far more complicated that the controlled conditions of a laboratory, but I appreciate Gilbert's attempt to show the relevance of social psychological thinking to current events.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Virtual Life

OK, I confess. I watch "Big Brother" on CBS every summer. And with this summer's "All-Star" edition, I won't be giving up this nasty little habit this year either. I always tell my students that it's the perfect environment for a social psychologist--people trapped together for several days with only miminal contact from the outside world. Occasionally something interesting happens on the show that is unpredictable and not under the control of the producers. My colleagues in behavioral neuroscience get to do this kind of thing with their rats and hamsters all the time. In addition, I like reading the TVClubhouse bulletin board, in which fans of the show discuss every aspect of the social drama going on inside the house. (By the way, I'm rooting for Chicken George, who is from one of my hometowns).

The relatively controlled social environment of shows like this is also what attracts me to new developments in virtual environments and other computer simulations. That's why PhD student Alecks Krotoski's Social Sim blog is right up my alley. Among his activities, Alecks is collecting data about social networks formed in Second Life. What is Second Life? A good answer is posted at the website: "Second Life is a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents. Since opening to the public in 2003, it has grown explosively and today is inhabited by 321,127 people from around the globe." I have spent a couple of hours on Second Life, but have severely limited my time on there (after all, I already waste three hours a week watching "BB," right?). It's really the next Big Thing in social interaction, and it's ripe with interesting questions to study as a social scientist. It certainly has the capacity to create experimental situations that could be manipulated with random assignment. Someone just has to figure out how to get informed consent from subjects and, of course, IRB approval.

In the meantime my lab group is starting a program of research in immersive virtual environment technology (IVET). Jim Blascovich at UCSB ran an NSF-sponsored summer training program in IVET for three years at his RecVEB, sowing the seeds for what could be an exciting chapter in social psychology. For some great examples of what can be done with this, check out Jeremy Bailenson's lab at Stanford. I'll be reporting on our own lab's work with IVET as it progresses, or you can check out our lab's web site throughout the next few months.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Sex in Social Neuroscience Sells Too

As one of my earlier posts pointed out, "social neuroscience" is as sexy to some social scientists as Amanda Congdon is to some vlogophiles. Personally, I've been studying the relationship of human social behavior to bodily processes since the days when Martha Quinn was the hottest VJ on MTV. The topic was sexy then, but it was all about using Grass polygraphs in the laboratory to measure cardiac activity, EEG, and facial EMG. Those were heady days in Cacioppo's lab at the University of Iowa, which even included getting our Apple II protocols to run on IBM PCs. I still think the research of that era had more scientific bang for the buck than today's expensive fMRI studies.

With two journals now devoted exclusively to social neuroscience (or "social cognitive neuroscience" as the Lieberman crowd likes to call it!), and still plenty of other prestigious outlets (e.g., Nature Neuroscience, JPSP, Science, etc.) available, can our plucky little field really produce enough good research to fill all those pages? Of course not. But that doesn't stop people from putting out a press release each time they conduct a study with blinking lights and powerful magnets. Some researchers are especially notorious for their press releases, so I was relieved to see that there are bloggers out there ready to give those flashy studies a thorough review (even if the journal's reviewers did not!). A great recent example is the critique by Chris at Mixing Memory of a new study on person perception by Jason Mitchell, Neil Macrae and Mahzarin Banaji in the May issue of Neuron. I have to admit that I have not read the study yet, but this critique makes some excellent points that could apply to other human imaging studies in social psychology as well (a new study from Susan Fiske's lab at Princeton comes to mind!). You should also read the discussion of this study in BRAINETHICS as well. When I get a chance to read the Mitchell et al. study, I'll write an update. This post is simply to express my gratitude for the development of science blogs and the willingness of intelligent bloggers to write such critiques.

Friday, July 7, 2006


See that blur there?! That's the newest addition to our family! I have maintained acquariums on and off since I was a teen, but have never successfully bred and raised a fish. Most of the time I can't tell when a fish is pregnant (let alone what sex it is!), and therefore the "fry" are usually eaten up by the time I discover anything happened. Well, this time I was lucky. One of the fry must have been sucked up the filtering tube and was living in the external filter basket where I discovered him on a recent cleaning. He's a little zebrafish (Danio rerio) now living safely in a breeding container that floats at the top of the aquarium. As far as I can tell, it looks like he'll have to be there about a month. There are three possible parents in the tank. None appears ready for parenthood.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Seduction of Social Neuroscience has an interesting story about Elizabeth Gould at Princeton University. Her work with marmosets suggests that poverty and stress cause such profound changes during neurogenesis that the brain doesn’t have much of a chance to recover later in life. Of course, one should be careful not to overinterpret this kind of work as far humans go, but it is thought-provoking nevertheless.

In a more recent Seed article, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom writes about how fMRI images are seducing scientists, grant committees, and the public. On why fMRI is so seductive, Bloom writes, “It has all the trappings of work with great lab-cred: big, expensive, and potentially dangerous machines, hospitals and medical centers, and a lot of people in white coats.“ He also mentions a study by one of his graduate students, Deena Skolnick, who found that both neuroscience novices and cognitive neuroscientists rated otherwise bad scientific explanations as more satisfactory when a little neuroscience jargon was thrown in. Bloom sounds like such a sensible guy, and I noticed that he's recently written a book with an intriguing title: Descartes' baby: How the science of child development explains what makes us human (New York: Basic Books). He also mentions that his approach to social cognition assumes that humans are natural dualists...seeing the world the way Descartes did (i.e., bodies are physical things separate from souls). I must look for more of his stuff.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Dan Rather and MOG

This past Saturday the New York Times ran a sad story about Dan Rather. It seems that Dan, the millionaire anchor for CBS news for over two decades, now spends his days going to movies by himself and reminiscing about the glory days of news. Today CBS announced that it was releasing him from his contract six months early. Dan will most likely end up on some sort of HDTV network this fall with just a mere tens of thousands of viewers. I always thought Dan was just a little over the top with his hyperbolic and folksy off-the-cuff insights, but he was my favorite anchor after Grandpa Walter retired. The beginning of the end of Dan's career was with that National Guard story on "60 Minutes II." Dan's leaving CBS is like having a favorite restaurant close. I guess it's just another reminder that all things do pass.

Between Will's micro-naps, I registered on today. I am pretty addicted to music, and even with 18GB's (17.8 days) worth of files on my iPod and iTunes, I am still looking for the next new fix. Mog is a free service that uploads the listings of your music library to the site and then allows you to search for "matches" with other people with similar music tastes. I remember a few years ago talking to my friend Scott about how we ought to develop a way to assess musical tastes as a sort of personality profile. This is the closest thing I've seen to that idea. My computer has already spent over 12 hours MOGifying my music files, and it's still not finished. I'm looking forward to discovering the musical tastes of others who can introduce me to a few good artists. You can check out my MOG profile at

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Hot Summer in the City

Last week I finally finished teaching my fourth course since January. It was a three-week, intensive course in social psychology. I actually enjoy teaching it, but it always seems to come at me when I'm feeling the most exhausted.

Vikki and I are currently working out a nice tag-team schedule with the baby. On most days I go to GSU early in the morning, returning mid-afternoon. V. then heads off to the practice to see some patients until after 7. On Tuesdays (today), I spend the entire day at home with Will, and Thursdays V. does the same so that I can spend the day at work. I get absolutely NOTHING done when I'm taking care of Will by myself. He's really a great baby--never really cries, unless he's hungry or tired. It's just that he does need interaction. After about 10 minutes alone on the playmat or the bouncy chair he's had enough!

I turn in my first packet of tenure materials this week. This will comprise a packet that is sent to six external reviews who will comment on my career to date. I turn in the full "dossier" in September.

Well, just as I get started on this blog again, I can hear Will waking up from his nap!


Thursday, March 9, 2006

The Red Crab

We are in the midst of spring break at GSU, which means that I am getting to spend a lot more time with our son this week. Last night he was awake from 11 to 2, trying his mother's patience, until I moved him into the bed next to me. Despite the risk of SIDS, he sleeps a lot better pressed up against one of us, so we do indulge in this practice from time to time. Anyway, he then slept until 7, when I fed him, changed his diapers a couple of times, and kept him entertained for the rest of the morning. V. fed him at 11, and then I took care of him until about 3:30 while she and her mother went off shopping at the International Farmer's Market. Well, during that time, little Will just wasn't satisfied with anything that I offered him. I used a variety of tricks that I have been collecting, but none would do the job of calming him for more than a few minutes, including giving him a bottle that he wolfed down in no time flat. Finally, his mother fed him again when she returned home and that did the trick. I then took a nap for three hours!

In the midst of all this, I was surprised by my own reactions. Strangely, I don't get upset with him when he gets upset. I feel a little frustrated that I can't help him find relief right away, but an overwhelming sense of caring and fatherly love are really what characterizes my emotions--even in his most difficult moments. I was rewarded for this patience today when I watched Will "discover" a red crab that is part of the apparatus (his grandma bought him) that hangs on the side of his crib. His hand happened to hit it once accidentally, causing the crab to spin. He seemed to notice that. In fact, for the next few minutes he continued hitting the crab, clearly intending to keep it spinning. That was an utterly wonderful moment. Such a simple thing, but it's a rare instance when I was able to witness another person becoming aware of his environment.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Four Weeks That Changed My Life

Yes, it was four weeks ago tomorrow that our son arrived. I feel like I haven't done much in the past month except drink lots of coffee, hold our little baby, and try to figure out what I need to lecture about next. I'm poorly functioning in all spheres of my life--as a researcher, teacher, husband, son, and friend. Most of this is due to sleep deprivation, but it doesn't help that I'm not exercising and I'm consuming way too much caffeine.

I have made a couple of important decisions: (1) I'm going to delay applying tenure for another year, and (2) I'm going to take a family leave during the fall semester, which means I won't have to teach. I'll use that time to spend with Will, but I'll also travel to some meetings and working on grant proposals with my grad students. This means that I just have to make it to early June, and then I'll have about six months away from having to teach--my longest break in nearly 14 years!

Monday, February 6, 2006

He's Finally Here

In his crib on Sunday
Originally uploaded by The Prof.
Our son William was born last Monday, Jan. 30, at 11:02 p.m.

He's simply amazing.

He's utterly beautiful.

I love just holding him for as long as possible and staring into his face.

The importance of everything else now pales in comparison. How will I ever get any work done?!

Monday, January 30, 2006

My Fair Lady Long Ago?

My brother has been in touch with one of my high school friends, Tim Maculan, who is an accomplished film and TV actor. In fact, in the past few weeks Tim has been flying back and forth from New York to be on the set of the next "Spiderman" movie. In the nearly 25 years since we graduated from high school, I have only seen Tim once, when I happened to go to a taping of "Cybil" in Hollywood in 1995. I didn't watch that show much, so I didn't realize that he had a recurring role as the snooty waiter. He happened to be appearing in the episode that I was watching, when I suddenly realized who he was. During a break I called him over, we had a friendly reunion that lasted three minutes, and he gave me his phone number. Alas, I soon lost that number, moved away from LA, and never got in touch with him again.

Well, Tim's recent contact with my brother has resulted in my transferring the video of our high school production of "My Fair Lady" to DVD so that he can give it to Tim. The tape was made in March 1981, and is in poor quality, but it's still fun to see. The photo here comes from a series of stills that cast members could purchase from a professional photographer. That's Tim as Col. Pickering on the left, Lisa Jackson (now Lisa Nemeth) as Eliza Doolittle, and me on the right as a very young looking Prof. Higgins. Tim and Lisa ended up winning the best actor and actress awards at our high school that year, and it's clear in the video how truly great they were. And it's amazingly prescient how our director cast me as a professor!

Sunday, January 29, 2006

From Synapse to Sex

My wife's four and half months of being on bed rest ended this past Wednesday with the removal of her cervical cerclage. Needless to say, we were both happy to reach this milestone, so we went out to play during the afternoon. We sprinted to the new Atlantic Station development--the first time V's been able to see it since it opened. IKEA was our first stop. We bought a little mobile for the baby's changing table and a small table to put next to the glider chair where a lot of breastfeeding will supposedly occur. Woody Allen's "Match Point" was next. I had really been looking forward to seeing this, but I ended up feeling mildly disappointed, as the main themes of this film were more fully explored by Woody in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and even "Hannah and Her Sisters." Still, a Woody Allen film is better than most of the movies out there, so we enjoyed it.

V. continued her post-bed rest period on Thursday by going to lunch with a friend in Norcross. I had a long day of teaching. I am especially enjoying teaching my Intro class. The students ask all sorts of interesting questions. Even though we were talking merely about synaptic transmission, they were beginning to raise questions about how all this was related to personality and how we choose our mates. This prompted me to finally open a book that I bought a while back by Joe LeDoux called "The Synaptic Self." LeDoux addresses these very questions by focusing on synapses as the major explanatory mechanism for the self, personality, sex, etc., rather than the organization of the nervous system, which is pretty much the same across all members of the species. I've only made it through a couple of chapters, but I'm really enjoying LeDoux's prose.

On Friday we had another off-of-bed-rest celebration, starting with a trip to a Midtown spa for haircuts and V. getting a thorough leg and bikini wax. We had a terrific lunch at the new restaurant at the High Museum, and then saw another movie at Atlantic Station, "Brokeback Mountain." What an excellent film! I especially enjoyed the performances of the lead actors, as well as Michelle Williams, who portrays the suffering of Ennis's wife so amazingly well. This is a great film for people who get into personality, psychology, and the psychodynamic tensions that surround aggression and sex. Perhaps in a more enlightened setting I would have my students watch the film and have a lengthy discussion about everything it covers. My guess is that some lucky liberal arts professor at a small Northeastern college has already done that.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Crash in Dunwoody

The waiting continues. All is fine at 35 weeks and 4 days, but we are both very ready for the baby to come. Friends with a two-year old girl visited us last night, giving us another peek at parenthood. I'll repeat...we are both very ready.

I was reading The Dunwoody Crier last night and came across a curmudgeon-y letter to the editor about how someone in "College Park" had ripped into the guy's mail to steal a Kroger card he sent to his sister for Christmas, apparently while the letter was being sorted at the post office somewhere. This morning I read a NY Times article about great screenplay moments in 2005, which featured an excerpt from "Crash." In this scene, Sandra Bullock's character has been recently mugged by two Black males. She acknowledges that she immediately didn't trust the two young males walking toward her, but she didn't want to fall victim to stereotyping. However, her stereotype-based fears were confirmed by the incident, so in the scene excerpted in the Times article she's telling her husband that they will need to change all the locks to their home again because the security company has sent over a Latino male to work on the current set of locks:

Written by Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco

After a carjacking, Jean (Sandra Bullock) and her husband, Rick (Brendan Fraser), the Los Angeles D.A., have called a locksmith to their home. He is Daniel (Michael Peña), a hard-working Mexican-American. But Jean sees something very different.

JEAN I want the locks changed again in the morning.

RICK Jean -

JEAN And you could mention that we'd appreciate it if next time they didn't send a gang member.

RICK (lowering his voice) You're talking about that kid in there?

JEAN Shaved head, pants down around his [expletive], prison tattoos?

RICK Oh, for Christ sakes, those aren't prison tattoos!

JEAN Right, and he isn't going to sell our key to one of his gang-banger friends the moment he's out the door.

RICK Jean, it's been a tough night. Why don't you go upstairs and -

JEAN - wait for them to break in? I just had a gun pointed in my face!

RICK (softly) Lower your voice!

JEAN And it's my fault, because I knew it was going to happen! But if a white person sees two black men walking toward them and turns and walks the other way, she's a racist, right? Well, I got scared and I didn't say anything and one second later I had a gun in my face! Now I'm telling you that your amigo in there is going to sell our house key to one of his homies! And this time it'd be really [expletive] nice if you acted like you actually cared!

The Dunwoody resident complaining about his stolen mail seemed to suggest something similar, as the College Park reference is to a city in S. Fulton county that is predominantly African American. He finished his little diatribe about no longer trusting the U.S. government because he's lost 50 bucks (and don't even get him started on social security). My own research on prejudice doesn't capture any of this because we mainly study the reactions of college students, who really have no property and probably little concern about safety to their family and selves. The more that I invest in my home with little DIY projects and then planning the arrival of our baby, the more I find myself relating to these right-wing Dunwoody residents and Sandra Bullock's character. Trying to develop a neuroscientific model of all this is way beyond my comprehension at this point.

The other day I lectured briefly about the problem of consciousness for neuroscience and psychology. My students got very involved in the discussion, and it was thrilling for me. I liked that feeling. I need to work some more on developing moments like that.

Monday, January 9, 2006

The Penguins Start a New Semester

Tomorrow is the first day of the spring semester. I am teaching three classes--one graduate and two undergraduate courses. We're also expecting our first baby in the next 3-5 weeks, so this is going to be an action-packed month!

Vikki and I watched "March of the Penguins" last night on pay-per-view. What an awesome story! Although we have had to endure more than four months of bedrest (well, actually, V. has, but I provide support), no creature can be more devoted to bringing offspring into the world than the emperor penguin. Is there an animal out there with more parental devotion? And, my gosh, what a weird way for evolution to solve the problem of penguin procreation. Surely, if there were merely just a Divine hand in all this, he or she would have come up with a less miserable way for penguins to have their chicks.

As for me, with the impending birth of our child I am comforted by my iPod, the PT Cruiser, and a new episode of "Gray's Anatomy." And I won't be walking 70 miles for my next meal either...