Sunday, December 31, 2006

How to Attract Mr. Right

10 Secrets to Getting Your Man Hooked On You For Good

It sounded interesting - so I clicked. See, I like to find out whether websites actually present scientifically valid information or the usual b.s. Unfortunately, the catch it and keep him dot com people wanted my email address first. SPAM! No thanks.

The advert appeared at the top of this article that my sister sent me. It reports the results of a new study that found people (undergraduates) judge a man's "dad" vs. "cad" potential based on the way he looks. Guys who have more masculine facial features (prominent jaw and brow ridge) tend to be seen as the type of guy who gets in fights, cheats on his mate, has a wandering eye, etc. etc. Less masculine looking men are seen as more emotionally sensitive, better dads and more caring parents.

Physiognomy (reading personality from faces) typically ranks right up there with astrology and phrenology (reading personality, especially criminal intent, from bumps on the skull) as pseudoscience. However, there is actually some truth to the link between personality and appearance. For the real deal on why the two are linked I highly recommend Reading Faces by Brandeis University psychologist Leslie Zebrowitz. It's an excellent overview of the subject. Suffice it to say, there are compelling scientific reasons to read into a person's face - but only to a point. If you judge a book by it's cover - reject it without opening it, you'll probably miss a lot of very fine stories. So goes with people.

So, in my humble scientific opinion what are ten secrets to getting your guy hooked on you for good?

In no particular order:

1. Choose a man you encounter often, or arrange to cleverly and unobtrusively bump into him frequently. You can take advantage of the mere exposure effect: We like even more those things or people that we encounter more often. A student once asked me in class if that means stalking works. It was one of the better questions and class discussions I've had.

2. Select a guy who is approximately the same level of physical attractiveness as you are.

3. Pick some who is as similar to you as possible. I put this one in bold because it is the most important one. Similarity is the number one reason for long term couple compatibility. Non-negotiable similarities are religion and intelligence. These should match for the best chance of achieving longevity. If you also agree on food, music, activities, movies, childcare, which kind of car to get, whether the toilet seat should be left up or down, which way the toilet paper hangs, etc you will be a lot better off.

4. Really get to know the person before committing. That way you can assess whether you are similar enough to be a good long term match. Don't fool yourself either - if you are passionately sexually attracted to the person you might be willing to overlook the fact that the person eats only vegan food and isn't really a dog person. I think it's best not to commit until after the passion phase subsides so you can realistically see who the person really is. This will take at least a year, if not two.

5. Rule out anyone who is highly neurotic. Neuroticism is one of the five fundamental personality traits (along with openness to new experiences, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) in the Five Factor Model of Personality. A neurotic person is one who tends to be emotionally unstable; they get rattled easily and do not make good life partners.

6. Know how to flirt. There are steps to flirting; if followed in the right order at the right pace (you've got to have a feel for this to avoid coming on too strong) you'll be able to get the person interested so you can judge similarity.

-- Step 1: Make brief eye contact - glance in his direction then look down when his eyes meet yours.

-- Step 2: Give an eyebrow flash. Nothing says come hither to primates like briefly raising your eyebrows in unison. If you are interested in someone this will happen unconsciously. Watch for it - if you receive an eyebrow flash, that's a very good thing!

-- Step 3: Make nonverbal displays of submission. The aim is to appear non-threatening. Expose your neck, give a "coy smile," toss your head, smile, sit with your legs/arms crossed gently with toes pointing in.

-- Step 4: Make extended eye contact. Anthropologist Helen Fisher calls this a "copulatory gaze." Sustained gaze activates the sympathetic nervous system and causes arousal. A little arousal is what you want while flirting. Don't stare - that's creepy.

-- Step 5: Engage in "grooming talk" in which you chit chat about who you are. The aim is to discover similarities (or lack of them).

-- Step 6/7: Break the contact barrier. Here's where "grooming talk" can turn into actual grooming. Picking off lint on his sleeve or something like that can be an excuse for touching the person. Be careful - it might be viewed as being critical of his appearance. Touch should happen spontaneously.

-- Step 7/6. Achieve synchronicity of nonverbal behavior. Watch for mirrored posture, arm movement, taking a drink at the same time. Mirrored behavior is an excellent sign of rapport. You can feign this to a degree, but it's not advised. If you have to fake it, you don't have the kind of chemistry you need to sustain a long term cooperative relationship. Many animals who form pair bonds mirror each other during courtship; it's a great way to test whether they work well as a pair.

7. Avoid a man whose parents are divorced. Statistically speaking people whose parents have been divorced are more likely to get divorced too. It may have to do with seeing divorce as an acceptable way to solve marital problems.

8. Avoid a cheater. This is a man who had parents who cheated on their spouse or who has already cheated on a mate in the past. While it's possible for people to "learn from mistakes," statistically speaking the odds are better for long term relationships if there is no history of cheating. Infidelity, along with infertility, is a leading cause of divorce.

9. Avoid someone who shows contempt while having an argument. Contempt has a very particular appearance - the easiest way to spot it is to look for muscle contraction on only one side of the mouth. This photo shows a fairly subtle contempt face. Psychologist John Gottman found that looks of contempt during arguments predict relationship dissolution.

10. Communicate.
This is easier said than done, of course. It's important to let the other person know what's going on with you. If your potential 'Mr. Right' clams up emotionally when you need to talk, that's a bad sign. Similarly, you've got to be emotionally intimate with your potential Mr Right.

You are going to have arguments and disagreements. You can avoid a great deal of disagreement by choosing someone who is as similar to you as possible, but you will still have arguments over disagreements from time to time. How two people fight says a lot about how they function.

An argument should be about trying to understand the other person and reach an agreement, not an excuse to let off steam and say nasty things in anger. If his way of arguing is to insult you or tell you what you did wrong when you're trying to express what he did that upset you, that's not the right way to discuss the matter.

One of the most common mistakes to make while airing grievances is for the other person to air his too. Resist the temptation to talk about what has been bothering you when your mate talks about what has been bothering him. Instead, listen and show you comprehend what is upsetting him, then do what you can to help. If that thing that you thought about bringing up during the argument really is important, you will remember it later.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Belize Navidad

The Belize Navidad I enjoyed with my favorite man in a little thatched roof cabana on a beach in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye is probably my favorite Christmas. We had Chinese food for dinner that night with our new friends, one a Brit the other Czech. There was a parade down the unpaved, sandy main drag. And I actually got to talk to my grandparents and dad on the phone. That was 8 years ago.

I would love to go back. The only part I'd change is staying a few nights in Belize City. It was a dump. But, I would like to see if any of it has changed at all. I remember there was a cute park on the coast with a little lighthouse and some jungle themed jungle toys for kids to climb on. One was a gorilla. I saw a scissor-tailed flycatcher there for the first time.

The ride into Belize City from the airport should have said it all. It was a an old wood-grained sided station wagon complete with a severely cracked windshield and several coconuts in the back. Our driver said nothing until we spotted a billboard that spelled out VAT and asked him, "What's VAT?" He said three words.

It's a killer.

Later we found out VAT was a tax on just about everything.

Inside Belize City we got the lowdown from a friendly guy with dreds who was associated with our hotel, or at least the bartender who worked there. He told us where it was safe to walk. Basically one block down that way and a few blocks up the other way. Don't go there or there he said pointing off:

They even be chancing on my own self.

We took a speedboat to the Caye. The guy drove without regard to waves - it was fast and furious and very bumpy. A piglet got shoved into a cardboard box which was then sealed up with fruits and whatnot piled on top. The pig squealed loudly and the box jiggled noticeably for a while. Maybe it went to sleep or suffocated.

On the Caye we went snorkeling a few times, ate raw conch right out of the ocean (delicious!), walked around birdwatching a lot, and drank rum with Dr. Pepper on the beach every night. We took a boat ride to see manatees. When they stuck their snouts out of the water to get a breath of air they looked like big dogs.

We rode a boat out to the reef with scuba divers so that we could see Red Footed Boobies. It was well worth the expense and the ride. The boat was in shambles. It rained every night and since we slept on the deck, our mattresses got soaked. We slept on soggy mattresses. The captain had the same philosophy as the water taxi driver who took us to thew Caye - drive as fast a possible, ignore waves. It was a seriously choppy ride. I got a little seasick and so did my favorite guy, so I know it was bad.

By the end of the four day trip the door to the can was hanging on by only one hinge and had a smell to match.

But - the boobies were glorious. We could get so close that one actually crapped on Alasdair's shoulder as we walked by. My own animal encounters were similar, but at least the giant cockroach that fell on me in the middle of the night when I got up to pee and the mouse that ran across my bare leg as I got dressed didn't leave any lasting marks.

On a whim we bought plane tickets to Flores, Guatemala so we could see Tikal. We bought handwoven textiles in tienda typicas, drank cheap beer, and found a wonderful guide who was an excellent teacher. I can almost smell the bark of the allspice tree he cut off for us to smell. The golden glint of the Chestnut-Colored Woodpeckers in full sunlight is a sight! We wondered around the temples and climbed two of them.

We watched a beautiful sunset from the top of one where we met a young guy from Walla Walla who was serving in the Peace Corps there. Small world.

The coatis looked like miniature dinosaurs as they sauntered off into the dim light of the forest. One night we stayed too long in the park and had to walk back half-lost in the dark. It was a full moon that night which added to the drama of walking along in a mostly black jungle where we had just been told about poisonous fer-de-lance snakes that stalk their prey, not to mention the jaguars and ocelots.... which we would be lucky to see in the first place!

After Tikal, we stayed on a ranch in central Belize that is owned by a Montanan - the Banana Bank Ranch. That was a treat. They were excellent, warm, and friendly hosts. I went horseback riding for the first time there which supports to my claim that I am a MT city slicker. We saw boat-billed herons and a jabiru that made the wood storks it stood next too look like crows. Riding around with the rancher was a lot like riding around with my dad. It all made me a little homesick. I would love to stay at the ranch again!

I saw and heard howler monkeys. They really do sound like lions roaring. If you don't believe me, you can listen to them here. And they are LOUD. I didn't mind at all being woken up by them at 3 o'clock in the morning. It added to the experience. I saw spider monkeys too.

We caught a flight on a three seat Cessna to Chan Chich Lodge. Chan Chich is an expensive, luxury lodge situated in the heart of the jungle near the Rio Bravo Conservation Area. The bird watching was spectacular and we were extremely fortunate to be able to go there at such a young age. We were both in our early 20s and by far the youngest people there. While I painted a watercolor postcard form the porch of the lounge I spotted a green hummer. A new bird! I thought to myself and quickly trained my binos on it only to discover it was actually an enormous grasshopper.

We also saw "jesus christ" lizards, pygmy kingfishers, king vultures, jacamars, a red-capped manakin whose neon orange head was so bright it looked cartoonish, bare-throated tiger heron, purple-crowned fairy, ornate hawk eagle, sungrebe, chacalacas, northern jacana, trogons, motmots, aracaris, toucans, oropendulas (who make huge hanging nests!) and my favorite: the full-of-personality and mischievous looking yellow-billed cacique.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Blood Diamond

I don't understand about
Diamonds and why men buy them
What's so impressive about a diamond
Except the mining
~ Red Red Red by Fiona Apple

Monday afternoon My Man with Gills and I watched Blood Diamond.

I enjoyed it quite a bit - and know so because I would be happy to see it again in spite of the questionable inclusion of a very brief scene with a young chimp. Any movie with Djimon Hounsou is a movie I am happy to sit through! Leo gives a good performance too - especially the few scenes he speaks Creole. It reminded me of listening to the guys in Belize speaking it. The subtitles were nice, but not totally necessary. The action was intense - the street fighting scenes were appropriately chaotic. I really liked that the diamond they were after was pink, as if it was already tinged by the blood shed over it.

I also liked that the producers/director/DP did not include a love scene between Jennifer Connelly and Leonardo DiCaprio. I wondered why they didn't. The movie was violent enough to warrant an R rating, so it seemed like a given to include a sex scene, and there was indeed a place midway through the movie where one could have been included. Maybe it was filmed but got edited out. Anyhow, I think if they had included one it would have been pandering. I appreciated that the story was appropriately morally legitimate which is to say all of the bad guys more or less get what's coming to them, even McSmuggler.

The only thing that has kept me scratching my head is the inclusion of a juvenile chimp sitting in a tree in the juggle. First, a chimp that young would never just be quietly sitting there all alone. Second, chimps are very rare in West Africa - they are almost extinct save for a few tiny isolated populations. The chimp was not a wild chimp but rather one rented for the hours it took to shoot the scene. There are a number of Hollywood animal providers who rent out exotic animals for movies. I don't think chimps should be used this way, and wondered why the decided to include it.

My stab - perhaps it will make people think about the effect of the illegal diamond trade/civil war on the habitat and livelihood of chimpanzees. There's no doubt that civil war, really any war, is disastrous for the environment. People flee their homes, forests burn down, chimps get eaten as bushmeat. In the Congo when coltan (highly valuable mineral used in electronics, especially cell phones and computers) was discovered, chaos ensued. Gorillas and bonobos who live anywhere near the mining camps suffer. Can cell phones be certified conflict free too?

What's the point of certification anyway besides some vain hope that consumer behavior will actually change corporate policies or international politics? Sure, you can refuse to buy dirty gold and conflict diamonds, but really, are you achieving any more than someone who prays diligently for their relative to be cured from a glialblastoma brain tumor?

What's so impressive about a diamond except the mining?
Why do men buy them?

In an EP nutshell, a diamond is an expensive courtship gift that is a difficult signal to fake, thus, it is an honest signal of a man's commitment, level of investment, and willingness and ability to provide. This assumes a woman who doubts her mate's honesty is smart enough to take her shiny new ring to a jeweler to find out whether it's a diamond before she commits to him.

"Two generations ago, Japanese couples did not bother buying diamond engagement rings. Then the De Beers diamond cartel, through an intensive advertising campaign in the 1970s, convinced Japanese women that they deserved a ring just like Western women. A new standard was imposed: Japanese men must spend at least two months’ salary on a colourless lump of carbon to demonstrate their romantic commitment. Japanese marriages are probably no happier than a generation ago, but De Beers is richer," says Geoffrey Miller in his award winning essay Waste: A Sexual Critique of Consumerism.

Switched to New Blogger

I finally made the switch to the new blogger after being prompted for weeks (maybe months) about switching.

I didn't need to have a gmail account which is great because I already have enough email accounts and passwords to keep track of. Now that I think of it, I have three different academic accounts collected from the various teaching positions I've held. One of those is probably totally defunct but I wouldn't know because I haven't logged in a long, long time. My password still works for the purpose of online journal access which is FANTASTIC because sometimes when I can't access a journal at one of the other two, I can at that one. Yeah! Another account is a shared home account and I have yet another that I communicate with friends through. I think that makes at least five different places I can be emailed.

The big switch was hardly noticeable at all. It took a few minutes and voila! Everything still looks the same. Plus, on the start-up page I found an old blog I started back in Sept to be more anonymous if I want to be... I don't have a problem with people knowing who I am but I do feel consigned to write mostly academic posts. I would blog a mean streak if I could be assured that I was totally anonymous, but I don't think that can ever truly be achieved. So, I carry on as if I am identifiable. I think it makes life easier. I never have to worry about whether someone from my department, a job prospect, a student, etc finds me out. I am thinking about deleting the other one.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Mammals May Share Vocal Communication Pattern

"What do dog barks have in common with bird tweets and human baby cries? All appear to communicate basic emotions, such as fear, aggression and submission, in somewhat the same acoustic way, according to a new Applied Animal Behavior Science study that suggests a primitive communication system may unite virtually all mammals."

Read more here.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Disruptive Innovation

Will the Internet put newspapers out of business?

That's a question that's been at the top of mind for me these last few days. My husband has worked in the newspaper industry for roughly ten years and I have made moves very recently to get into the business too (I even had an interview yesterday). But, given that newspaper circulation and readership have been reliably declining and even the best papers with the most name recognition have been losing money, it hardly seems like a intelligent career move.

Why? The Internet can be considered a disruptive innovation - a new way of getting a job done that renders the previous way obsolete. Consider what effect it's had on the travel industry. Now, you can search online for cruises, airline tickets, hotels, car rentals, and even villas to rent for a week in Tuscany. You no longer need a travel agent.

Craigslist is a perfect example of a disruptive innovation, and, it's one that spells demise for the classified advertising wing of newspapers, a major source of revenue. Why pay for an ad in the newspaper when craigslist will do it for free?

When it came time to collect data for my dissertation, I set my study up online. What's more, I could have hired the newspaper to help me recruit participants but elected not to. I recognized that people would not go online after seeing my ad, but they might participate if they were already online. So, I placed ads in a different city each week for a year through craigslist. I paid nothing and have 4,000 participants to show for the small investment of time. If my local newspaper had a newsletter it emailed to subscribers, I would have considered placing an ad.

Unfortunately for the local paper, craigslist arrived in the nearest city within the last month and should be in Walla Walla very soon. Then what?

As much as a might consider myself a depressive realist, I am at my core an optimist. I think newspapers can turn things around.

The most exciting ideas for how to do this come from Newspaper Next, a product of the marriage of the American Press Institute with Innosight, a consulting firm.

One of the recommendations that comes out of this report (and I unabashedly admit I am a biased reader here) suggests that hiring bright, creative outsiders will keep newspapers from becoming dinosaurs. It will be interesting to see what develops!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

iPod meme

How many songs: 1477

First song: (Don't Fear) The Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult

Last song: Zombie ~ The Cranberries

Shortest: 16 sec. language lesson - saying "I" and "you" in Arabic
(shortest piece of music: Njarka by Ali Farka Toure - 44 sec.)

Longest: 30 min. Pimsleur Arabic language lesson
(longest piece of music: Alice's Restaurant Massacree (18:36)

Five most played songs:

Aïcha - Khaled (115) A love song in French and Arabic. He offers to give her all sorts of romantic gifts but all she wants is the same rights he enjoys.

Mohammed's Radio - Warren Zevon (106) I still don't know exactly what he means by "Mohammed's Radio" but the closest thing I've come to hearing Mohammed's Radio might be the calls to prayer of the muezzins I heard in Tunisia.

Oran Marseille - Khaled (99) A song about the struggle of French-Algerian immigrants in Marseille. I love the rapped parts. I only get bits and pieces of it though because it flies by so fast.

Le Juge Ment - Foy-Foy & Kwal (91) Recorded at the Festival of the Desert in Mali. When I first heard this, I was impressed by how fast the guy can rap and go without pausing to take a breath. It's truly amazing. I only understand words here and there. I would love to go the festival someday.

32 Flavors - ani difranco (90) I love the lyrics, especially the line "god help you if you are a phoenix - and you dare to rise up from the ash - a thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy - while you are just flying past."

First song that comes up on "shuffle”: Pastures of Plenty sung by Odetta, written by Woody Guthrie (after that: Sunday Bloody Sunday by U2 - I love the version they did in the rain for the dedication of Clinton's library. You should hear it, and you can here or at the end of this post.)

Number of items that come up when searching for:

"sex": 3

"death": 0

"love": 48

"you": 130

"me": 280

"cry": 5

If you're reading this, consider yourself tagged!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Will your mate cheat on you?

Will your mate cheat on you?

That depends on whether the two of you share a particular set of genes known as MHC. Research released in the October issue of Psychological Science suggests that the likelihood your mate will cheat increases with greater genetic similarity in a certain region of chromosome 6. Women, but not men, whose partner's MHC matches their own tend to find their partner less sexually interesting, especially when ovulating. They are also more strongly attracted to other men.

MHC codes for chemical markers on the surface of immune cells that help catch foreign cells - those that could potentially cause illness or disease. The more kinds of MHC genes a person has, the more germs he or she will be able to fend off. Individuals who have similar MHC genes are more likely to produce a child whose immune system can't detect and fend off as many kinds of germs.

When women are paired up with a men whose immune system genes are similar to their own, they tend to find other men more sexually appealing about the time they are likely to become pregnant. This appears to be a behavioral mechanism to avoid inbreeding.

So, why don't men show a similar effect? The authors of the paper don't get around to talking about this, but the glib answer would be that men are attracted to women other than their mates already anyway. They don't need any extra help from an inbreeding avoidance mechanism to spread their seed when it's so cheap, so to speak.

A woman's egg is comparatively rare and expensive, so the onus is on her to choose a mate wisely. This view suggests the smart choice is on someone who is genetically very different. That person isn't always the one who turns out to be a reliable life partner for raising children cooperatively. Other research has found that men with diverse MHC genes tend to be symmetrical, physically attractive, and also promiscuous. They tend to be cads rather than dads.

Cheating may present a way for women to have their cake and eat it too. By securing a dependable but less sexy partner, then cheating on him and becoming pregnant by a genetically better man, a woman can secure for her baby the good genes for a healthy immune system *and* a reliable dad. That is, if the cuckolded dad never figures it out.

On average, 1 in 10-25 children are born this way. It's no surprise then that a study published in Nature a few years ago found at that maternal relatives are more likely to say that a newborn looks like her dad. It's in their interest to try to convince the dad that the child really is his.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


In honor of the first snow fall of the year in my home town, I present some snow factoids:

Is it true that no two snowflakes are exactly alike?

Yes, say researchers at Caltech. Kenneth Libbrecht, a physicist, has studied the growth of ice crystals in controlled laboratory settings. Ice crystals form around a speck of dust and grow differently depending on the air temperature and humidity. In real life, snowflakes float through the air where temperature and moisture constantly change. Just as no two people have the same developmental history, no two flakes have the same growth history so each is unique.

What causes pink snow?

While it's true that sometimes shadows cast on snow appear to have a pink hue, the bright pink almost reddish tint of "watermelon snow" is a totally different phenomenon. A certain species of algae, Chlamydomonas nivalis, produce a red pigment in addition to the familiar green-tinted chlorophyll produced by plants. This algae thrives in frozen water and when compacted, by stepping on it with a snow boot, the color intensifies. Watermelon snow can be seen in late spring and early summer in old, packed snow at around 10,000-12,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in CA. The red tinged carotenoid pigmentation is what gives tomatoes, peppers, lobsters, corals, and shrimp-eating flamingoes their distinctive crimson color. You can see examples of pink snow here.

Snowflake, the Albino Gorilla

Snowflake, the world's only known albino gorilla, lived in the Barcelona Zoo. He was captured from the wild in the 60s in Equatorial Guinea when he was an infant and lived about 40 years in captivity until he died from cancer. He sired 21 offspring and 10 grandchildren, including twins.

Albinism is a recessive genetic trait so both of Snowflake's parents had to have the gene that causes the condition. The gene alters the amino acid tyrosinase which is a necessary building block for the proteins that pigment hair and skin.

Snowflake was not treated any differently by the other gorillas in his community on account of his odd skin and hair color -- a lesson we humans ought to take to heart.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Pulling Rank

This morning, like other mornings recently, my thick skulled Newfie pup has taken to pulling weeds for me. Yep. I have got to find a way to harness her inclination. Right now it's an annoyance because she's picking up the dried ones I pulled long ago and eating them. I know, I know - I could go out and do some yard tidying, but if you saw the enormity of the job and the utter lack of its necessity the way I do, you'd throw in the proverbial towel too and resign yourself to emptying the contents of her mouth and jowls like I do.

It all reminds me of old world monkeys (those who live in Africa and Asia like the macaques pictured to the left) who have cheek pouches they can use to store food for a time so they can eat it in peace away from higher ranking monkeys later.

Frequently, they lose the contents of their 'jowls' to monkeys who pull rank.

No one ever pulled rank on my feisty old dog when he was a juvenile, so when he gets hold of some illicit substance, a bribe and exchange is necessary.

If you don't want to be bitten each time you need to take something away from a dog, be advised to take things from them early and often, and often for no reason at all.

That way, when you have to assert authority you won't get a lot of flack in return.

The same thing works for people too, don't you think?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Animal Eyes

I can pass on "The Natural History of Weasels and Stoats" and also "Western Corn Rootworm," but a few of the other titles featured in the Oxford University Press catalog on Ecology and Evolution titles really look interesting. The most exciting to me is "Animal Eyes."

Back in my grad school days I took a class in stereopsis, the technical term for binocular vision, and chose to write my special project paper on binocular vision in animals other than mammals. Through it I learned that animal eyes are quite diverse, and a few are simply amazing.

We've all heard about the compound eyes of insects - the fancy conglomeration of hundreds of lenses in each eye that form a sort of mosaic tile perception of the world. Those are cool, but they don't provide any binocular depth perception because the lenses of each eye don't coordinate with one another in the organism's brain.

Instead, insects with compound eyes judge distance through monocular cues like texture gradient (finely textured objects are probably nearer), occlusion (if one object blocks another the one that is blocked is farther away), and motion parallax (moving your head from side to side simulates the "camera one," "camera two" effect of binocular vision).

Other animal eyes are way more astounding. Take for instance the mantis shrimp. It has compound eyes but also achieves binocular depth perception within a single eye. Humans, like other animals, need two eyes to have binocular depth perception.

The band that can be seen running horizontally across the mantis shrimp eye separates the two distinct areas above and below. The top and bottom parts of the eye receive different visual inputs (kind of like a right eye vs. left eye), as does the middle band. These areas are coordinated in its brain. Even more amazing is that these three areas are also coordinated with the three matching areas in its other eye, giving it not binocular vision, but hexocular vision.

This animal may have the most complicated eyes on earth. And, that doesn't stop with its perception of depth. This critter also has sophisticated color vision. Whereas humans have trichromatic vision (corresponding to the three different kinds of photoreceptor cells we have in our retinas) that allows us to see light in a relatively narrow range we call the "visual spectrum," the mantis shrimp has four times as many kinds of photoreceptors that allow it to see a much broader spectrum of light, including polarized light.

To find out why these colorful creatures have such complex eyes, check out this entertaining and well-written NWF article.

Some people, such as those who adhere to the Intelligent Design school of thought, think the existence of such intricate biological systems is evidence of an intelligent designer.

The idea can be traced back to William Paley, a theologist who lived around the time that the pocket watch came into common use, who argued that the existence of god could be inferred from the apparent design of the world. He argued that no one, upon stumbling on a rock in a field, would question how the stone got there. But if we instead found a pocket watch, an object that shows evidence of design in that its individual parts work together to produce motion and can be used to keep time, then we would of course question its existence and infer that it had a maker and that it was produced for a reason.

The ID people look at biological systems this way, and not surprisingly, the eye is one of their favorite subjects.

Proponents of ID cannot accept that parts of an eye would be useful in isolation, however, they are. Eyes evolved in small incremental steps, probably starting with a cell that was sensitive to light, followed by patches of cells sensitive to light, then a lens to concentrate the incoming light on the most light sensitive patch, followed by lenses that could concentrate light more exactly, or more than one lens, and so on. No designer is needed, just random changes in DNA that turn out to be beneficial.

Of course one could always just say that the intelligent designer laid down the rules of physics and chemistry and meiosis and then went on permanent holiday never to be seen or heard from again. Questioning how and why the universe came to be in the first place seems to be a human universal, a sort of species typical trait. Perhaps it's the product of consciousness.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Lesson on Acetylcholine From a Simple Eye Exam

Yesterday I had my eyes dilated as part of a routine eye exam. It's been a long time since I had my eyes dilated so I forgot about the side effects. To say that it's "a bit uncomfortable for the patient as it causes increased light sensitivity that lasts for several hours" greatly understates the experience.

According to the University of San Diego School of Medicine, "a non-dilated view of the retina is adequate for a general exam in which the patient has no specific ophthalmologic complaints." Had I only known that yesterday I could have avoided hours of distorted vision that made me queasy and gave me a headache. I did have sensitivity to light, albeit minimal, but elected to shut the lights off in my room anyway. That eliminated the sparkling rainbow halos around the lights which were no good to me anyway as my near vision was so blurry I could not possibly read or do sodoku. That's the real bothersome side effect - and one people should be warned about in advance. If you have to work or be at all productive for the rest of the day you'd be up a creek. Watching a movie was pointless too. I was tempted to call it good and go to bed early, but at five, that seemed crazy.

The short walk home from the doc's office wasn't much fun either. Car headlights looked like a giant Swarovski display case moving at high speed. I felt like how I imagined people must feel while on one of a variety of psychotropic drugs. And, I sort of was "on drugs."

The susbstance used to dilate pupils is a relative of the "belladonna" (beautiful lady) plant so called because the pupil dilation it causes makes people appear to be more beautiful. It's been speculated that people seem to grow in attractiveness with the size of their pupils because pupils naturally dilate when people are interested in something, or someone. Appearing interested makes the person seem more physically attractive. It makes sense - who wouldn't be a little more interested in a stranger simply because he (or she) seems interested?

The chemical, atropine, attaches to the same receptors on the cells of our body that acetylcholine uses. The main job of acetylchone is to contract muscles, whether it's the iris, our forehead or our limbs. When atropine binds to the receptors instead of acetylcholine, muscles relax. The pupil expands. So do the muscles that change the shape of the lens to allow us to focus on near objects in a process called accommodation. The resulting "paralysis of accommodation" simulates what people who need bifocals experience.

Atropine is not the only substance that acts as an acetylcholine antagonist (it blocks its function). Botulin toxin, the stuff responsible for botulism, relaxes muscles too. Small amounts of it is used in Botox beauty treatments to paralyze facial muscles so that they can't produce wrinkles. The chemical eventually wears off, as do the uncomfortable side effects of atropine. Curare, extracted from the bark or a South American tree, is used to poison blow gun dart tips. When curare enters the bloodstream, internal muscles relax and death from asphyxiation can result.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Christmas Wish List

Every year I have such a hard time figuring out what to get everyone for the holidays. Gift exchange is an important tradition, I think, but as much as picking the perfect surprise gift for everyone is ideal, it doesn't always happen. Last year I found four perfect gifts for my MIL. She loved them and said something like "Holly really knows me." Little did she know that it took 9 months and a lot of luck to stumble on the perfect thing. That almost never happens, so I think it would be really helpful if they all kept blogs and put up a post right about now about what's on their wish list to give some ideas for those years when the perfect thing didn't cross my path.

Here's what's on mine:

Coleman Big Red Plush Oversized Ball (for the Baroness von Roughenhausen who LOVES balls but has none - she's not supposed to play fetch with tennis balls because Newfies can choke on them)

Aquolina Pretty In Pink Gift Set (I got a sample from Sephora a while back and loved it)

set of pastel pencils like these (probably easy to find at Art Media in PDX) along with something to gently fix it in place on the paper so it doesn't smudge, and a good pencil sharpener

several sheets of good quality drawing/painting/pastel paper around 18x18in large

Black Currant Vanilla lotion from Bath & Body Works

incredibly soft sheets (Queen size) and pillowcases in burgundy or light olive (I have yet to find them... My pillow, whatever fabric it's made out of, is what I'm looking for. Anyone know what composition of fabric to look for to get really soft sheets?)

iTunes gift certificate

a tall, narrow crystal bud vase (I like the looks of this one)

Starry Night Victoria's Secret flannel p.j.s (XS) with matching slippers (free if ordered before Dec 5)

Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue Body Cream (enter code CIRQUE4 at Sephora to get nifty gift bag for free)

Kenzo Flower Pearly Poppy Cream

An extremely neat puzzle box from Japan.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Wheels For Pets

I stumbled on this company, Eddies Wheels For Pets, that makes wheel chairs for dogs who need help wheeling their hind ends around. I sometimes wonder whether Katy has dysplastic hips. It's a problem that runs in the breed. She came with a hips replacement warranty that means we will get a replacement Newf if her hips turn out to be so bad that she needs to be "put down" before she's two. I've already grown really attached to her so that would be horrible. It's nice to know there's something out there for her if she needs it. The photo shows a 120 lb Newf who used the wheels while recovering from spinal surgery. She now gets around without the wheels.

Yesterday's newspaper carried a story about China's new one dog policy to combat the spread of rabies. Not only are people not supposed to have more than one dog, but the one dog they can have has to be smaller than 14 inches. I think Max would barely qualify. A Newfoundland is out of the question. Why can they not just have the dogs vaccinated against rabies with a certificate of proof? I'm glad I'm not Chinese, and I'm also glad I'm not so naive to actually think that the war in Iraq has anything at all to do with safeguarding the freedom, like owning more than one dog, that we enjoy in the US. What I wonder is why the reporting never gets into why so few dogs in China are given rabies vaccines. Katy has actually been vaccinated twice for rabies because her vet office screwed up and vaccinated her again instead of Max.

Lately she has shown signs that she'd enjoy having a job. She is a working breed afterall. It's been very windy here lately. On a walk a few nights ago we saw a huge tree limb had crashed down on the roof of a house in our neighborhood. The wind has calmed down but the sidewalks are still littered with branches. Katy loves to swipe them and carry them around for the duration of her walk. She fit 4-5 good sized ones in her mouth the other night. One was about 5 feet long. We don't have a fireplace so bringing home kindling is cute but not terribly helpful. My Man With Gills thought it would be fun to outfit her with a blue and white U-B logo-d jacket to carry newspapers around for delivery. His newspaper is offering ten bucks for every new subscription an employee drums up. I wonder if Katy would be good at selling Newfpapers.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Human Family Walks on All Fours

Last night while flipping through channels I happened on a PBS/BBC program "The Family That Walks on All Fours" about five siblings in a Turkish family that walk on their hands and feet. Quadrupedalism is totally normal up until a certain age for humans, but then around a year old, we start to walk bipedally. It's not very coordinated at first but eventually humans get it. It's one of the things that makes humans unique in the primate world.

How and why humans became bipedal has been the subject of much debate. There still isn't a single theory that is accepted. Some think we stood up to stay cool (less body surface exposed to the sun), that walking upright allowed us to travel long distances more efficiently, enabled us to spot predators, use tools, carry food, babies, etc.

What we do know for certain is that walking bipedally coincided with a change in where our spinal column enters the skull (through a "big hole" called the foramen magnum). All other primates have a spinal cord that attaches to the brain at about a 45 degree angle; a human's does so at about 90 degrees.

This shift also altered the way the throat muscles and vocal tract are situated, giving humans an ability to utter a wider range of sounds than other primate. Thus, walking bipedally could ultimately be responsible for why humans have speech and language.

The program interviewed some scientists about whether they thought this family could provide some clues about the evolution of upright walking. Of course they can! One thought they could if the afflicted people had a genetic abnormality that kept them unable to walk upright. I think it could be that this hypothetical genetic sequence, or one nearly like it, is actually normal for other primates whereas humans carry a mutation.

Another scientist thought this family suggests nothing about the evolution of bipedalism because the kids learned to walk on all fours in response to a cerebellum problem. They have "cerebellar ataxia," a condition that can be congenital but also can develop in response to a virus, in which case the condition tends to resolve itself. Cerebellar ataxia produces symptoms consistent with being excessively drunk. Alcohol, like any damage to this vital portion of the brain, interrupts the cerebellum's job of keeping our muscles coordinated. Effects include slurred speech, poor balance, and an inability to walk in a straight line. That's the real, key genetic aberration.

I think there's no doubt these Turkish kids have seriously abnormal cerebellums. They also can't really be compared to normal quadrupedal primates. If chimps had the cerebellum problems these kids have, they would have routinely fallen out of trees and would never be alive today. However, I'll at least reiterate that the cerebellum is involved in the evolution of upright walking. Whatever changes occurred in the cerebellum, those changes are part of what made it possible for humans to walk upright in a more coordinated fashion over long distances and have more control over our tongues. It's not just the so-called "language centers" of Broca's and Wernicke's areas that permit human language, it's also the cerebellum. Walking and talking go hand-in-hand.

When thinking about how human bipedalism might have evolved, primatologist take quite an interest in something called "facultative bipedalism" (walking upright when it's necessary to do so). "Faith," a truly amazing bipedal dog (see YouTube clip below), provides a textbook example of facultative bipedalism. The Turkish children featured in the documentary show what I'd call facultative quadrupedalism; they walk on all fours out of necessity.

Faith reminds me of people who learn to use their feet like hands. Our feet don't appear to be as useful as our hands, but with enough effort and time, they can function nearly the same as hands can. Big toes *can* be opposable, when they're needed to be. Not having full use of arms/hands would have put pressure on ancestral humans to walk upright. Perhaps our ancestors' hands were full carrying food or babies and those who had a genetic sequence that allowed them to walk upright longer and more efficiently were able to forage more successfully and outrun predators. Thus facultative bipedalism became the habitual bipedalism we see today.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Infant Reflexes

When I think about ways to spice up my intro psych class, I am reminded of a video clip I overheard while returning to my office one day. My colleague was showing his class the home movie he made of his daughter failing to demonstrate "conservation," an understanding that the number of items (M&Ms, coins) doesn't increase simply because they are spaced out more or that the amount of juice in a cup doesn't increase because it has been poured into a narrower cup. It's considered to be a major cognitive milestone that kids achieve around 5-6 years of age. (Adult apes demonstrate conservation too, but monkeys don't.)

Anyhow, the class really enjoyed seeing an abstract concept realized; I think, or they just like watching videos that show young children can't grasp the most elementary of concepts that they all take for granted. One of the great advantages of having kids as a psych prof is that you can actually make a repository of videos of your own kid's infant reflexes, Piagetian tasks and oh, I don't know, various Freudian things that kids are bound to do, like saying they want to marry daddy when they grow up.

My SIL just had a baby, and my sister is expecting one in March, so I suppose I could enlist their help in making footage for my class until I have a subject of my own to work with. (Hint! hint! ) My furry monster canines just won't cut it for the infant reflexes and Freudian departments, but they do a decent job of demonstrating Piaget's "object permanance." Out of sight is nowhere out of mind for Max when it comes to a treat, let me tell you!

One of the reflexes that I find particularly fascinating from an evolutionary standpoint is the "Moro reflex." When an infant is startled or loses head support, the baby's arms fling straight out to the side, fists close, and then come back to the chest as you'd expect to happen if a primate needed to quickly grasp mom's hair in case of emergency. This happens for the first 3-5 months after birth and is one of the most convincing examples that we are primates whose ancestors were hairy.

Infant reflexes can be used to gauge whether the infant has a normal central nervous system. Besides the Moro (no connection to the delicious blood "moro" oranges I love), there's also the Babinski, rooting, stepping, and one I'd nver heard before looking into it today: the swimmer's or "Gallant" reflex. Hold the baby prone supported by your hand on its belly. Stroke one side of the baby's spine. The baby should flex its body toward the stroked side.

The video below (found on YouTube) isn't a perfectly textbook example of the Moro reflex, but I think it comes pretty close. I also think this baby looks too thin!!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Newfoundlands Are Supposed to Like Water!!

This morning brought another day of pouring rain and with it, bizarre behavior from my Newfoundland puppy. Perhaps the weather doesn't agree with her now that she has made it through her first hot, dry Walla Walla summer. Usually the climate here is decidedly non-maritime; it's nowhere near the blustery cold she was bred for which explains her penchant for flopping down right on top of the AC vents whenever they're blowing out icy cold air. She butts in on anyone having a shower, seeming to get her head drenched on purpose. She'll find any water main no matter how covered with grass or weeds. Loves the water hose! You'd think she was a real bona fide Newfie.... until the rain. For the last two days the air has been warm and humid. It's been raining virtually non-stop and today when I tried to take her out for her post-breakfast poo she had other ideas.

I was standing in the yard getting soaked looking back at a Newfie, feet so firmly planted on the porch you'd think she was stuck in hardened concrete. She wears a very serious expression most of the time, but the look she shot me this morning told me I was crazy if I actually thought she'd go get wet out there!!! She reluctantly got off the porch, made a 6 foot loop and then promptly ran back up the ramp and glowered at me again. So we repeated those steps, making a bigger loop each time until she finally peed.

She's got a water proof coat! She loves to get her head wet in the shower! She put her feet in her water dish until we elevated it to stop her attemps to make her own pond in our kitchen.

So what is going on with this kid?

We came back inside; I toweled her off, wiped up the muddy floor, and started a load of dog towels. We go through them very fast. We need towels for drying her feet off, wiping up her "drool fangs," wiping up the puddles left on the floor after she gulps mouthfuls of water from her dish and lets half of it spill out of her jowls as she runs off, and lately, drying up her piddle problem. We need towels for wiping off the slime she leaves on the furniture. It all adds up to an extra load of wash now and then. It's no big deal, she more than makes up for the little bit of extra work.

Speaking of towels, her latest game is to run around with full sized towels. She stuffs her mouth full of one corner and runs off trailing the rest behind her, sometimes getting flustered or tripping because she doesn't realize she's standing on it. I like to toss the towel end over her back so she looks like she's biting a cape that she's wearing when she runs by. It's really very cute and almost impossible to get a picture of so you'll just have to take my word for it.

A long time ago when I stayed with a friend who had backyard pool in Scottsdale I got to witness a most amazing dog - a very sweet blonde Lab. She'd ask politely to go for swim by bringing you a towel.

If only Katy would view going out in the rain as a fun "swim" she could bring her own towel to the door.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Publication Progress & SLAC application advice

This week I sent a manuscript off to one of the best journals in my field. I should hear something fairly soon as this journal lets people know right away if their stuff doesn't warrant consideration. We'll see! I found a co-author who revamped sections of the lit review and discussion. I think it's an improvement.

I've got another manuscript I can submit once I tidy it up. My co-author is interested in working on this one too. One of my honors thesis students analzyed some data I had collected but hadn't done anything with yet. She floundered around for an idea of her own before asking me if I had any projects she could work on. Her thesis needs major revamping to be fit for submission. The lit review is way too long and goes off on tangents that aren't immediately relevant. She didn't incorporate any of my previous work so that needs to be brought in. These are both bones of contention that I had with her thesis.

This is the first time that I've had a thesis student base her work on mine. I thought it would be smooth but was actually a major time suck. Every weekly meeting went on for at least an hour; other students took half that time. I found myself giving her the conceptual framework for her thesis, the hypotheses, suggestions for data analysis, and even data interpretation. These are things I expect thesis students, especially honors students, to handle fairly well on their own - with the refinement coming from me. Her oral defense went all right and she managed to eke out passing with honors because I argued her case. I went to bat for this student. If I hadn't, she most certainly would not have received honors. Her thesis is a mess mostly do to clunky writing. The premise is solid though, and the data backs up the theory surprisingly well. Everything but the methods and results sections needs to be scrapped.

I think she deserves to be third author on this paper. She analyzed the data and I will use major portions of her methods and results sections. She also entered all of the data which includes responses from a population that was not analyzed for her thesis. Potentially two papers could come out of that data, which would be very exciting.

This would all be very helpful in my applications for positions at small liberal arts colleges (SLACs). They invariably want you to show that you can involve students in your research program. I have a very good record of this stretching back to grad school. I think I've worked with a dozen students over the years and have had three of them present our research at national conferences. To publish with one before being in a tenure-track position would be quite a coup as that usually doesn't happen until you've been in that position for a while. Then again, people don't usually get to hold positions at stellar SLACs without having a PhD, but I did it twice!

If I could offer advice for anyone wishing to go the SLAC vs Big Research University(BRU) route, I would suggest:

1) have an undergrad degree from a SLAC (it implies you know why they're special and will come in supporting the different nature of SLACs). If you don't have that, you can still get a favorable look from SLACs if you:

2) have experience teaching your own course, preferably courses. You need to have strong student evaluations from these courses as well.

3) show you can involve students in your research by having undergraduates work with you as research assistants, independent study students, etc while you are in graduate school. If you can co-author a paper or conference presentation with them, that is very, very helpful.

These are the three things that I think helped me get the positions I had, but it also seems that at least among the top-tier SLACs now, the direction they're going seems to be in the direction of wanting the BRU research capability at a small college with superb teachers. I don't know how they're going to pull that off -- it is true that research takes time away from teaching and vice versa, but if you want to be competitive for positions at top-tier SLACs, you need to have all of the above plus have a PhD from a big name BRU, a number of publications in reputable journals, and a well-developed program that will produce publishable results with undergraduates as assistants until you earn tenure.

Given that that's the route SLACs are going, #1 is far, far less important than 2 & 3. If you've got #1, you'll probably fit the culture of the place better. I've seen a few colleagues say and do some really inappropriate things to students because they failed to appreciate what is expected of them in a SLAC environment. Never blow off a student you run into outside of 'school hours' by telling him or her that you're "off the clock." If you work at a SLAC, you are never really ever off the clock. Students choose SLACs because they want accessible faculty. They want to own you. So, if you don't mind signing your life away to the demands of 18-22 yr olds, and instead relish being hounded by students when you're not even at 'work' to answer their questions about a lecture you gave, an upcoming test, or some random academic or personal question - by all means, apply!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


The Today show featured a short segment on cranberries and bogs. The announcer really wanted the cranberry grower to explain how the whole bog thing works, but all he could do was point out some short bushes with little red berries. Left hanging on the vine was the question of how one goes from there to the picturesque water filled bogs. I wondered the same thing myself, so here's what I found out about cranberries. They're really interesting berries. (I still don't think they taste particularly good!). The berries are harvested by flooding the field they're grown in (a bog that has peaty, acidic soil) and then agitating the water with this device to loosen the berries. The floating berries are then sluiced from the surface.

Cranberries are native to New England and grow well in acidic soil (just like azaleas & rhododendrons). The name is probably a variation on the colonial "crane berry" so named because the flowers resemble the sand cranes that could be seen eating them. The Ocean Spray company produces 90% of the world's supply, grown in northern climates (MA, WA, OR, BC) only because milder climates create problems with fungus.

Cranberries are also well known for promoting urinary tract health. And, it's not all hype. In 2002, JAMA reported a study that suggests persistent urinary tract infections that are resistant to antibiotics could be prevented by drinking cranberry juice. The researchers found that cranberry juice prevents 80% of bacteria from attaching to the cells of the urinary tract. These anti-adhesion effects have been isolated to compounds called proanthocyanidins - yep, a cyanide relative. Cranberry juice is a real, viable alternative to participating in the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Speaking of that, recently my Newfie puppy had to visit the vet for what they labeled a bladder infection. They allegedly did a test that showed she did have an infection, and of course, sent us home with antibiotic pills. She still dribbles. So, now I'm thinking it wouldn't hurt to put her on a cranberry juice routine. She may not like the tart treat as much as she enjoyed that peanut butter pills, but maybe it would be a good long-term solution.

The Cranberry Institute reports that the bacteria that cause periodontal gum disease are also sensitive to cranberry juice. That seems like good reason enough to drink the stuff, but did you know that blueberries are just as good?

Blueberries, in addition to having the anti-adhesion properties of cranberries, also have anti-proliferation capacity. They prevent cancer cells from replicating. Cool.

And, blueberries taste much better!

The Rutgers Blueberry and Cranberry Research Center is working to breed berries that have higher concentrations of medicinal properties.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Elephants Have Self-Concept

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences will be releasing a study soon that shows elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror.

Among animal psychologists this is taken as evidence that they have a sense of self, a self-concept. Researchers gave three captive elephants the mirror and mark tests that were invented in the 70s by Gordon Gallup, a psychologist. Animals who don't recognize themselves in the mirror either ignore it or attack it. Those who do understand they are looking at themselves often inspect parts of their bodies that they can't normally see.

Chimps check out their behinds, the inside of their mouths, and their eyes. Elephants evidently do the same thing. The mark test is a variation on the mirror test. Visible and invisible paint is placed on either side of the individuals head and then observers watch to see whether the painted animal touches the visible paint spot but not the invisible one.

Members of all great ape species (chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans) have passed these tests, but not all individuals do. Infants and juveniles don't "get it" and neither do infant humans. There is some developmental process that has to happen first, but at some point in time, usually by their first birthday, all normal humans understand the mirror image. Adult dolphins are the only other non-ape to pass these tests — that is up until now.

What's really amazing is that through evolution by natural and/or sexual selection, three very different kinds of critters all wound up with an ability to understand themselves. I wonder if this means they are conscious beings. Do they think about themselves? What do they think?

A while ago when Marc Hauser, a monkey psychologist who has done research on captive marmosets, released his book *** Wild Minds (excellent!!) the NY Times ran an article with a sidebar on testing your dog for self-concept. Max flunked it miserably. As far as I can tell he thinks mirrors are utterly boring. When we got our new pup I was keen to observe her in front of mirrors. We hadn't hung one of ours yet so it was on floor level with her. She was very, very interested in it but didn't do anything that confirmed in my mind that she knew she was looking at herself. I think she may have thought it was one of her litter mates. When we walked her around campus the first few times, she'd spot her reflection in the windows of doors. I think her reactions to them speak more of her outgoing, interested-in-other-dogs personality than her self-concept. Perhaps she does know the image is her, perhaps not. Either way, it's still fun to watch her watch herself. For that matter, it's also fun to watch her watch TV. She really loves dogs and balls. Max never pays attention to TV. Because of these differences I find it hard not to think that Max's new pal is smarter than he is. I think we humans assume that anytime another animal does something human-like that means it's "smart" even if it's a dumb as watching TV.

Some headlines on the elephant self-concept story reflect this assumption.

*** Adult captive cotton-top marmosets have passed these tests according to Hauser's research. He used day-glo neon pink Manic Panic hair dye to color the marmosets' stark white mohawks. This got them to look in the mirrors long enough to realize themselves staring back. Monkeys perceive direct eye contact as a threat (as do dogs) so their instinctual response is to retreat or attack. If they could just get over the eye contact part of it, it's possible that species who respond to eye contact this way would be able to "pass" the tests.

Feral Children

From Romulus & Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, to Mowgli, immortalized by Rudyard Kipling, stories of children raised by animals fascinate students the fictional boyof introductory psychology. The Legend of Tarzan isn't complete fiction. There are plenty of real cases of "feral children" who have grown up to be something other than human, halfway between man and beast. The children seem genuinely wild; having no language, they communicate only in grunts resembling the sounds of whatever animal raised them. Many crawl rather than walk. It takes years to socialize them to live semi-normally among humans and many never learn to talk.

One of my enterprising students showed me this neat website devoted to feral children.

Some wild children have been raised in isolation, as was Genie, who was kept in a closet most of her life with no interaction with anyone. She is probably the best known case of a wild child in this country, but looking at this list it's clear she's got no shortage of company. It seems that many feral children turn up in India. "One explanation is that women with young children or babies would leave their infants at the edge of a field while working, and wolves would emerge from the forest and steal them," says the feral children website.

I think these cases are fascinating because they reveal just how vital early experience with other members of our species is to normal human development. Without contact with others of own kind, particularly adults, humans don't grow up to speak, walk bipedally, or wear clothing. It's not 100% instinctual to do so.

These stories also demonstrate that some animals, dogs and primates, may actually take care of a human infant. One theory is that maternal care is instinctively "released" by cuteness (small body, big head, large eyes, soft wimpers) and that humans are sufficiently cute to some other animals to stimulate the maternal instinct to care for them. It's a little like a vireo feeding the cherry red gaping mouth of the cuckoo who parasitized the nest simply because it's instinctual to drop food into a gaping mouth. Brood parasitism is one of the neatest things that happens in the animal world.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Soy & Phytoestrogens

Last week I finished reading an article from Hormones and Behavior about the metabolism of hunger and sex drive. Within it, I learned some more interesting factoids about the consequences of ingesting soy. I think I drink a lot of soy, and I also eat tofu occassionally, so I am interested.

I'm still trying to wrap my head around the wide-ranging article, to fit the pieces together myself, so I'll just report some of the more interesting elements of the story.

1 - Fat cells have estrogen receptors! Mice without working estrogen receptors become obese.

2 - Body fat distribution is more critical to long term cadiovascular health than body fat content or BMI. Gluteofemoral fat deposits are cardioprotective. So, if you have an hourglass figure (narrow waist with wide hips and fleshy butt and hips - an hourglass/pear figure rather than an apple) you're at reduced risk of heart disease. Also, women with a .70 waist to hip ratio (the hourglass figure) have higher fertility.

3 - Insulin levels are associated with visceral (deep belly) fat, whereas leptin levels are associated with subcutaneous gluteofemoral (butt, hips, thigh) fat. Hormones of the HPA axis (hypothalamus - pituitary - adrenal glands), such as cortisol, are also implicated in body fat distribution. Stress may cause you to put on more visceral fat.

4 - Eating disorders (of which the author seems to be primarily interested in obesity) may arise from changes in neural sensitivity to estrogen that occur early in brain development.

5 - These changes might be intitiated by exposure to phytoestrogens in our diet and pollutants.

So, evidently, consuming soy is cardioprotective and reduces the risk of developing obesity only when consumed as an adult. BUT - and this is a big but - consumption of soy during pregnancy or exposure of a fetus to soy and phytoestrogens actually increases the risk of cardiovascular problems and obesity.

Pregnant women and infants should not consume soy or any products containing phytoestrogens because the phytoestrogens bind to the body's estrogen receptors in the brain, various internal organs, and particular body cells like fat cells. This leads to organizational changes in the infant's brain that masculinize a female's body fat distribution after puberty: more visceral fat around the waist, less around the hips and butt. This places her at greater risk of developing heart disease and obesity.

The paper, however, focused on an evolutionary theory that there are brain mechanisms dependent on hormones that serve to signal an animal when it's time to eat vs. mate. The author explored the metabolic control of hunger inhibition, arguing that such a mechanism is adaptive because it would "bring the cessation of hunger and eating long enough to find and court potential mates." She suggests that the hormone leptin, known as a hunger hormone because high levels of it inhibit appetite, should come to be viewed as a sex hormone too. Evidently, leptin enhances sex behavior - in rats and mice. It stimulates the preference of having sex over eating. The author also argues that the hormone neuropeptide Y which is known as an appetite stimulant, should also come to be viewed as a sex hormone that stimulates the preference for food over sex.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Psychology News Roundup

We all have ideosyncratic facial expressions. My guess is that more than once you've realized that you exhibit some of the same facial mannerisms your parents do. I noticed a while ago that I purse my lips the same way my mom does. Not so long ago my husband commented during a conversation that I had just made a facial expression that is typical of my youngest sister. I really didn't believe him. How could I have picked that up from her, or her from me? We have never lived together and haven't spent a ton of time together. Do families share similar facial expressions? If so, why?

A recently released study in the PNAS suggests there is a genetic basis for shared family facial expressions.
Read more.

In other news, Giant Pandas appear to have some capacity to see in color! Read more here.

Charles Dickens had a keen eye for the observation of neurological disorders, so perfectly describing the symptoms of Tourette's, Parkinson's and "restless legs syndrome" that medical reference texts at the time used his character desciptions. Although he had no formal knowledge of psychological conditions, he had tremendous skills of observation. Read more here.

Pulfrich's Pendulum

The teaching of psychology listserve I subscribe to presented an interesting vision demo that I haven't tried yet, but want to.

Here's how it goes:
Slowly swing a golf ball attached to a string from side to side. The string should be about 3.5 feet long. You'll need to stand on a chair or table for this to work well. Students hold a shaded filter over one eye while viewing the moving ball. A 2 inch square of colored transparent material will work just fine. They will perceive the ball moving in a circular fashion. When you have them move the filter to the other eye, the ball will move circularly in the opposite direction.

Why does this happen?

Lower contrast stimuli are perceived by our visual system to more slower than higher contrast stimuli. The filter reduces the contrast in just one eye so the subjective speed of the ball in that eye is slower. It appears to lag behind. To the brain, that difference in speed is perceived as a disparity between the two eyes in the distance of the object. The resulting impression is a ball moving along an elliptical path. The illusion is known as Pulfrich's pendulum

More interesting apparent motion information can be had here.

That website suggests that a similar effect can be achieved by watching a TV set to a vacant channel with one eye covered by sunglasses. The "snow" will appear to swirl. Switch the filter to the other eye and it will swirl in the other direction.

Stereoblind people, who can't fuse random-dot stereograms (i.e. MagicEye pictures), still perceive the apparent motion of the Pulfrich pendulum. The authors conclude that stereoblind people retain some residual binocular mechanism for depth perception.

The apparent motion effects caused by difference in contrast arise from the different speeds that neural impulses have when conducted down the optical nerve. High contrast stimuli travel faster. The symptoms of multiple sclerosis result from slower neural conductivity brought on by the deterioration of the myelin that insulates the axons of neurons. Without insulation, electrical impulses travel slower. It's possible that people with MS, cataracts, or some other neurological condition that affects the speed of neural impulses in just one eye could experience Pulfrich-like effects.

Friday, October 20, 2006

A Natural History of Peace

Robert Sapolsky, neuroscientist and primatologist extraordinaire, wrote A Natural History of Peace a while back for Foreign Affairs. I just discovered it today. It's long so I'm archiving the link here so I'll be able to retrieve it easily later.

Sapolsky is a fantastically funny writer and is razor sharp. I've read his Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers tome about how stress affects the immune system and brain. He's known for his discovery that the hippocampus (for memory) shrinks over time from chronic stress. If you are at all interested in stress and health, I very much recommend it.

The Trouble With Testosterone, his collection of short essays reprinted from pop science magazines, is also very good. "Curious George's Medicine Cabinet" is my favorite essay from the collection. It's what introduced me to zoopharmacognosy, the study of animal self-medication with plants and other substances. It inspired me to include a unit on that topic in my primate class. Did you know that chimps travel out of their way to eat a particular kind of leaf with spines that removes their intestinal parasites when swallowed whole? How about the habit of clay eating that spider monkeys and other primates indulge in when they need a little natural Kaopectate? Or lemurs that rip open certain millipedes and rub the juices over their fur to repel insects? All are examples of animal self-medication.

For a hilarious read on what it's really like to be a field primatologist, check out A Primate's Memoir. His stories about drinking the local beer are worth the read alone.

Sapolsky is one scientist I would be very, very excited to meet. If you ever get a chance to hear him give a lecture, GO!!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Newfoundland Photo Collage

Evidently the recent lack of news about The Baroness von Roughenhausen has come to the attention of some loyal readers. Here's an update.

Katy now weighs about 80 pounds at seven months old and is still up to her old ankle shark tricks. She has what we've affectionately started calling 'nonregulation Newfy ears.' They're really long and her adult coat hasn't fully grown in yet, so she's got a bit of a mad bomber hat look about her which is made ever so endearing when she just wakes up and strolls in to say hello, face pointed at the floor, ear flaps flopping.

Besides being the Baroness von Roughenhausen, she's also known around here as the Mad Bomber.

She still likes to pounce on Max, intimidate him into dropping his bone, and run him off the road so to speak. She likes him though and when she lingers around outside longer than I'd like to, all it takes to get her excited about going back inside is a quick "Wanna go find Max?"

She invites him to play constantly but he always turns her down. She has to settle for his snarling versions of play.

She loves to lick the inside of his ears. Ewww gross. At least someone else is cleaning them these days! It's as affectionate as they get... except for the times we come home and find them sleeping on the couch together.

We take her down to campus to let her run off some steam off the leash on Ankeny Field. She loves to play chase and fake-tackle. She still gets really hyper at least once everyday at home. She tears ass around the house, running a circuit from the front to back as fast as she can go, sometimes running a figure eight around some barrier. When she's done I have to go around and straighten out the rugs. We can always tell if she's had one of these hyper fits while we've been gone because the rugs are out of whack.

She is fascinated by the shower. Whenever I get one started she pokes her head in to take a drink. Sometimes I form a little cup with my hands to assist her gulping. She comes in to visit every so often during my showers too. To rewet her head? Check on my progress? See if I need a rescue? Newfoundlands were bred to be water rescue dogs afterall. One time while I was shaving my legs she poked her head in and licked my butt. I had no idea that was coming, but now I know not to turn my back on the curtain! There could be a Newfy tongue waiting to ambush me. I think she just likes to get her head wet. Once her ears dry out she looks like she's just visited the bedroom beauty salon of a thirteen year old girl in the 80s, major crimping action!

I'd love to see her swim with Alasdair. That would be an absolute riot.

This morning she had a decidedly non-Newfy day. She refused to go out in the rain. WTF? It was really bizarre. I expect that from Max but not her. Maybe she's feeling a little off given her bladder infection. We noticed her 'urinary incontinence' problem over the weekend. She got to spend a night at the vet and came home with not one but two bottles of Cephalexin because of her S.I.Z.E. I guess she really is big. She's still very much a puppy though.

She learns quickly and has mastered SIT, LIE DOWN, COME, GIVE and all of the accompanying had signals. We need to work on stay. I suppose she could learn a few more tricks too. She knows shake. We haven't taught her roll over or circling yet. They seem kind of boring because Max does them with such gusto. Any ideas for cool tricks to teach a smart dog? I suppose we could teach her to speak on command. Max doesn't vocalize enough for us to have taught him that, but Katy has a whole range of things she 'says.' Her bark is serious and sounds like something a bloodhound or basset would produce. She also gives a hilarious yowl-moan when she flops down.

She's a wonderful dog. We've had yet another Hug Your Newfy Day today.

And, she is much prettier than the Newfoundlands featured in the calendar that arrived today courtesy of my dad.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Hardly A Day Goes By

Yesterday my dear sweet Man With Fins told me a hilarious story about someone who proposed to write a science column for the local newspaper that he edits. The lead for one of the columns read "Hardly a day goes by without thinking about DNA..."

I doubt that's true even for geneticists, so we collectively laughed uproariously.

Ironically, today I realized that I really had been thinking about DNA for the last couple of days because of a short article I read in The Economist about epigenetic imprinting. In short, mice that are licked and groomed by their mothers early in life grow up to handle stress better because that early experience adds a little chemical to a portion of their DNA which then changes the way that gene works. So, you could have identical genes expressed differently in two different people because they have different life experiences. The article paints a much more interesting picture of this. I certainly recommend reading it!

Among other things, epigenetic imprinting has been hypothesized to play a role in cancer and mental illness.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. This morning I heard a statistic that 90% of women who get breast cancer have no family history of it. I've also heard that aluminum in anti-perspirant has been linked to breast cancer, BUT did you know that epigentic imprinting may play a role in breast cancer and your weight at birth might be a risk factor?

A paper released this month in the International Journal of Cancer proposes that premenopausal breast cancer may originate in utero. That's right ladies - before you were even born your cells might have been marked. A higher weight at birth increases a girl's chances of getting breast cancer. "Loss of imprinting of growth hormone genes relevant for intrauterine growth, such as insulin-like growth factor 2 (IGF2), leads to abnormally high levels of these hormones evidenced by high birthweight," the study says.

I wonder how gestational diabetes plays into this. Women with gestational diabetes are at risk for having a baby that grows too large. Perhaps too much glucose causes the baby's genes to fail to turn off the growth factor?

I drink a lot of soy milk so I read this other abstract that says agoutis (cute rodents that can be seen in Belize and Guatemala where I saw them) not only change their hair color in response to ingesting phytoestrogen that is present in soy, but also receive protection from developing obesity by, you guessed it, the way the phytoestrogen changes how their DNA gets expressed. What's also interesting is that they say phytoestrogen is linked to "diminished female reproductive performance." Does that mean I harm my fertility by drinking soymilk?

More interesting genomic imprinting information can be found at geneimprint, a site set up by Randy Jirtle, an epigeneticist.