Friday, May 30, 2014

A life strategy based on science

I’d be better looking if I hung out with cheerleaders.  So would you.

If I’d only known this back in my gangly, self-conscious adolescent days!  I would have been photo bombing the cheer squad all over campus.  There’s that crazy Carolyn again!  She’s so cute! 

Scientific studies have now confirmed that the ‘cheerleader effect’ is a real thing – if you hang with a gang of good-looking girls, you can pass.

Yes, the so-called ‘cheerleader effect’ is the phenomenon that people actually seem more attractive to others when they are in a group than when they are alone. 

I think it really means that most people aren’t paying attention to detail.

Consider this:  An experiment staged on “Brain Games” showed that young men wearing wigs, short skirts and carrying pompons not only blended in with real, female cheerleaders, some of the men were selected by test subjects as the most attractive in the bunch!

If those guys had been standing alone, they would have been pegged as frat boys in drag!

Add those findings to another study, published recently in Psychological Science by researchers Walker & Vul, which puts a fine point on it:  If you are beady-eyed or big-nosed, all you have to do is crowd together in a cluster of wide-eyed cuties with their turned up noses and voila!  In the eyes of your beholders, you become adorable too! 

Or, as Walker & Vul explained less delicately, “Unattractive idiosyncrasies tend to be averaged out.”  Harrumph!

Of course, W & V don’t mention how to get the handsome, beautiful and cool kids to accept your goofy-looking oddball self into their midst.  So.  There’s that.

And in another unintended consequence, if you do manage to sneak into the in-crowd, from that point forward you’re on your own to pull off any relationship that might stem from your deception. 

Keep moving is my advice.  Wear hats.  Never leave home without your band of camouflage friends.  Car pool. 

I see now that without realizing it, I applied the principles of the cheerleader effect when I was a teenager and wanted to belong.  I sang with my church choir which was made up of a pretty good-looking crew of kids.  Like a penguin during the Antarctic winter, I took refuge in the middle, hunched my shoulders and kept my head down.  I laughed when they laughed.  And I looked good in the group photos.

I even took it a step further – I let their voices compensate for mine.  I was a better singer because of them.  Fact is, sometimes, I was lip-synching.  Now and then the choir director would raise his arms in my direction and say, “More soprano!”  I would smile at him and open my mouth wider.  Man!  I could sing!  

We were a traveling choir.  In demand.  Sang in a four state circuit down through Oklahoma and Texas, east to New Orleans and back up to Little Rock on the way home.  I was right there in the middle of it, cheerleading all the way.

Then there’s this – according to a new study published in the journal PLoS One, Kleisner and Associates say that smiling faces are judged by observers to belong to smarter people that frowning faces.  Hmmm…

Couple that with the ‘halo effect,’ the idea that global evaluations about a person – she is smiling and therefore likeable – bleed over into judgments about their specific traits – she likeable and therefore intelligent, friendly, displays good judgment and so on.

I think I’m on to something here.

Up until now I thought it was clever to hang with the dummies.  You know, stand out as the smartest hammer in the bag.  But I’ve learned that strategy only served to average my unattractive idiosyncrasies in with those of the other mallets.  The lowest common denominator was not working in anyone’s favor.    

So in keeping with the latest scientific advances, I’ve updated my life strategy. 

I’ve cultivated a group of good-looking and intelligent friends.  While they weren’t paying attention, I worked my way into the center of the group.  I keep my head down.  I laugh when they laugh.  I organize the carpool.  I wear hats. I smile.

They don’t suspect a thing:  

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Giving my all for humanity

Einstein was a scatterbrain!  Neener!  Neener!  Neener!

I know.  I shouldn’t build myself up by putting others down. 

You knew that about Albert though, didn’t you?  That his brain was scattered.  Literally.

A pathologist at his autopsy stole his brain and kept it.  In his home.  In jars. 

That’s right – jars.  Plural. 

The guy, Thomas Harvey, had all the good intentions, or so he said.  After the fact, Harvey told Einstein’s family that he had purloined the big man’s brain.  And they gave him permission to keep it! 

I tried to imagine their conversation.  Did he make an anonymous phone call?  “Listen carefully.  I have your father’s brain…”

No, probably something more sheepish: “Ha!  Ha!  You won’t believe the mix up!  The weirdest thing this morning when I opened my cupboard.  Next to the Cheerios!  Yeah!  Your dad’s brain.  I know!  But anyway, since it’s already done…I’m just sayin’.  Research and all.  Yeah.  Yeah?  OK then!  Thanks.”

They gave him the green light and Mr. Harvey promptly pickled Mr. Einstein’s gray matter and diced it into 240 chunks.  Most of those he scattered around the country among various neurologists to help determine if Einstein’s brain was different from the average brain.  (Spoiler alert – it was.)

All for the good of mankind, of course.

And it got me to thinking.  I’m humanitarian.  I’m altruistic.

I have that little pink dot on my driver’s license indicating that, should the occasion present itself, those ghoulish tech-farmers in the morgue can ‘harvest’ my organs.  But is that enough?  Could I do more for mankind?

I began to surmise; maybe I should donate my whole body to a medical science!   

Then I wondered:  What exactly would happen to my dearest dead body if I did?  I found out, and in scientific terms – Yikes.

For starters, my beloved carcass could be used for a “safety study” wherein researchers would gleefully subject it to an impact with a car's steering wheel — and record the resulting injuries to help design crash-test dummies.  Think “Myth Busters.”

Or forensic researchers might use my favorite cadaver to study decomposition, including that caused by flesh-eating insects.  Ewww!  They do this to help law enforcement better pinpoint a victim's time of death.  Or, they might re-create a crime scene posing me to test hypotheses about the cause of death in a specific murder. 

You know I love the CSI, but, but…

Then I thought hopefully, maybe I could specify that my precious remains be used for medical training.  Alas.  I discovered that creepy new medical students in basic anatomy classes would dissect me “to gain hands-on experience with the human form.”  Let’s face it.  They’re just playing ‘doctor.’ 

OK…I know it wouldn’t be me, per se.  Nevertheless, maybe like Albert, I’ll just donate my brain…

Harvard University Brain Tissue Resource Center?!  Now we’re getting somewhere!  The Brain Bank, as it’s called, has the world’s largest repository of donated brains, more than 7000.  But… they’re stored on shelves in Tupperware bins?  Labeled with Sharpies.  “B-4762.”  “B-1378.” 

I get it.  They’re brains.  But in under-the-bed bins for space-saving convenience and an end to your clutter problems forever? 

The space looked like a commercial kitchen and as God is my witness, they used a bread knife to slice away “precise” cross-sections for study!  Not a jigsaw in sight.

I expected more from Harvard. 

An online video from National Geographic traces the steps of a Brain Bank technician as he reports to work at 11PM.  He collects a cardboard box taped closed across its bulging top with a wet and soggy corner.  We’re told the box contains a brain that arrived earlier in the day.  It has been on ice until now to avoid “quality decline,” which you and I both know means that brain might “go bad” – like tuna salad under the noonday sun at a 4th of July picnic. 

I couldn’t help thinking of Eyegore, Young Frankenstein’s assistant, shopping through the local collection of brains-in-jars for Herr Doctor’s experiment in reanimation.  He brought back one labeled “Abby Normal.”  Probably outlasted its “use by” date, just like at the Brain Bank.

No thank you very much.  I’ll keep this noggin intact...  No real loss to humanity.

After all, I’m no Einstein.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Diana Nyad, Archimedes & the Zeigarnik Effect

Bluma Zeigarnik had it going on.

You remember Bluma, don’t you?  Bluma Zeigarnik?!  The famous Russian psychologist!  Jeez!

OK.  I never heard of her either.  Turns out though, she identified an interesting human behavior that might, according to Psyblog, help us avoid procrastination. 

But first of all, it’s kind of an oxymoron, isn’t it, “avoid procrastination”?  Put off the stalling?  Interrupt the deferment?   

All right.  I get it.  Stop the stopping.  Get down to it.  Start the thing.

Now I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but avoiding procrastination could present a troubling conundrum. 

You see, my day is built around postponement and delay.  I mean, how can I enjoy the fruits of retirement if I have to get things done in order, on time, chop chop?  What’s the point?

And here’s another riddle:  Having done my own analysis of the dynamics of unsupervised human behavior, I can assure you that without procrastination, some important things wouldn’t get done at all!

For example, I get a lot of laundry done when I’m resisting the keyboard.  Many a pedicure is completed when there’s still a smidge of time between now and a deadline.  Just this morning, I colored my gray roots, and, in an oddly parallel activity, dead-headed the geraniums – all while the cursor blinked on the screen.

I’m just saying, if I have to start avoiding procrastination, it might throw my universe into an unhealthy spin.

But OK.  Let’s see what this is all about.

Ms. Zeigarnik noticed an odd thing while sitting in a restaurant in Vienna.  The waiters seemed only to remember orders which were in the process of being fulfilled.  When completed, the orders evaporated from their memory.

Speaks to the level of entertainment available to 1927 Rooskies.  Limited, we could say.

Zeigarnik, starved for any diversion, ran like Archimedes out of the tub back to her lab to test out her theory about what was going on.  She set up an experiment in which participants were directed to complete twenty simple tasks, like solving puzzles and stringing beads.  

Except some of the time, crafty ole Bluma interrupted them half way through the task! 

Afterwards she asked them which activities they remembered doing.  Participants were twice as likely to remember the tasks during which they’d been interrupted than those they completed. 

And that’s her big news:  We don’t remember the things we’ve done, and cannot forget those we haven’t?

Bluma!  You have to do better than that!  It’s underwhelming.  This is how you justify your claim to fame, the “Zeigarnik Effect”? 


I don’t get it, but almost sixty years later Kenneth McGraw and colleagues carried out another test of the Zeigarnik effect (McGraw et al., 1982).  In this iteration, participants had to do only one really tricky puzzle; they were interrupted and told the study was over before any of them could solve the puzzle. 

Here’s the kicker:  Despite being told the study was done, nearly 90% carried on working on the puzzle anyway. 

I’ll be honest; at this point in the blog post I began to wonder if the Zeigarnik Effect was a cruel joke.  Unwitting lab rat (yours truly) is hoodwinked into reading research on miniscule components of human behavior, while fiendish lab geeks (Zeigarnik, McGraw et al) track my eye movements and galvanic skin responses.  Results to be categorized and filed away under “Gotcha!”

But no.  It’s all going to add up to something.  They promised. 

Following some yammering on about Charles Dickens’ serialization of “Oliver Twist,” and the popular TV series “Lost,” how we’re tantalized by cliffhangers, and tune in next week because the mystery is ticking away in the backs of our minds, the big finale of the research is delivered:  Once we start something, it stays with us until we finish it.

Did you feel the earth move?  No?  Me either.

Oh, wait. it is:  The trick to avoiding procrastination – drumroll – is to start.   Gosh, thanks.


I read an interview with Diana Nyad back when she was training for the Olympics.  She described a grueling daily workout routine that comprised many hours in the pool from early to late each day.  The interviewer asked her what the hardest part of her workout was. 

“Jumping in the pool,” she replied.

Ta da!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Mother's Day - an expose`

First let’s be clear.  I love my mother.  I would challenge you to prove that you love your mother more than I love mine.  You can’t do it.

And by the way, just because you post on Facebook that your mother is the best in the world doesn’t mean she is.  OK.  She’s the best in your world.

What I really mean is that if she were around, my mom could beat up your mom any day of the week.  And my step-mother’s pretty tough too.

Oh all right.  In the spirit of Mother’s Day…they’re all the best, right?  All moms are the best, what with the love and the sacrifice and the yadda yadda yadda.

Except of course for the crack mothers, who are bad.  And even they probably love their kids too but…oh, never mind. 

Now, having slogged knee deep into the quagmire of swampy curmudgeonliness, let me just say that I’m feeling a bit manipulated by this whole Mother’s Day thing.

And I’m a mother!  So, I guess that makes me a hypocritical curmudgeon at that.  Because the real truth is that I’m looking forward to my son’s token of appreciation come Sunday. 


The really real truth is that I’m expecting a token!  A cupcake with a smiley face…a handful of daisies from the neighbor’s yard.  He’d better do SOMETHING to demonstrate how selfless and unassuming I am!

I know.  That’s not very motherly.

We’ve both been pelted by all the ads reminding him to remember me.  I see him squirming.  It’s like homework.  He’ll put it off until Sunday morning then have to “run out for a minute.” 

There’s nothing like forced appreciation to let the air out of your balloon.

It puts me in mind of the Sunday funnies where we find Snoopy jogging back and forth on his hind legs in successive frames of “Peanuts.”  But he’s not dancing his happy dance.  This is not joy.  This is not abandon.  No grinning at the sky.  No arms wide. 

Snoopy looks a little frantic.  Desperate even. 

Charles Schulz has drawn a few drops of perspiration flying from Snoopy’s brow to convey his anxiety.  Snoopy is not smiling his doggy smile.  Instead, his fuzzy lips are pulled back a little too far in form of canine grimace.

Linus approaches Charlie Brown and asks what’s going on.  Charlie Brown replies, “I brought him to the park to frolic, and by golly, he’s going to frolic!”

That’s kind of how it is with Mother’s Day:  Appreciate your mother OR ELSE!

Not that I don’t feel grateful for the guaranteed follow through on the prompting.  My son will deliver.  He always does.  I love him for that.
I’m not the only one with mixed feelings about this.  Even the Mother of Mother’s Day was conflicted.  That’s right.  Anna Jarvis spearheaded the 1908 campaign to launch Mother’s Day as a way of honoring her own mother, who was a promoter of reconciliation following the end of the Civil War.
You’d think that would be a shoo-in for a national holiday, but no!  Politicians on both sides of the aisle argued against the proposal.  A Republican Senator from New Hampshire found the idea of limiting the celebration of his mother to just one day insulting.  My kind of guy.
A Democrat from Colorado said the idea of Mother’s Day was "absolutely absurd," "puerile," and "trifling."  Puerile?  Really?  I’m sure his mother was very proud.
Still, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation making Mother's Day a national holiday in 1914,
But Jarvis became disillusioned by the commercialization that quickly rose up around her holiday.  She began urging people to stop buying flowers and cards for their mothers! 

She wrote angry letters and led boycotts against the celebration.  She raised a ruckus at a confectioner’s convention selling chocolates for Mother’s Day, was arrested and dragged out screaming her protests against the event she had originally championed. 

Ultimately Jarvis declared that she regretted ever creating the holiday.  And she fought hard to have Mother's Day abolished!

Wow.  She kind of lost it.  Over a batch of carnations and a Russell Stover sampler.

Abolition?  I wouldn’t go that far.  I mean really.  What’s the harm?

And where would any of us be without our mothers?

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Multi-taskers, beware!

 If nothing else, the Rain Man could focus. 

Turns out, multi-tasking is a bust anyway.  Research now shows that multi-taskers get less done, are crabbier and frequently irritate those around them.

That was me back in the days of my employment.  Or as we say in English, “That was I.” 

Now, in my leisure, I’m a ray of sunshine.

When I was working I felt tremendously important to be so extremely busy.  Oh, the hectic life!  Don’t you wish you were like me?  Look!  Look how harried I am!  So sorry you aren’t stretched like the elastic in your grandma’s underpants. 

On any given day, I switched between making to-do lists and crossing items off again, to checking email, writing memos, running meetings, having impromptu phone consultations and just generally ping ponging around the joint.  

To a detached observer – say a white-coated lab geek with a clipboard – I might have looked like Groucho Marx in that movie where he and his brothers go in and out of doors in a common hallway, knocking skulls, creating a commotion, honking horns and meeting each other coming and going.

Thank goodness those who worked with me bought into the multi-tasking = efficient myth!  Or at least I think they did.

Now the word is out – that frenetic MO is more mentally draining and less effective than rearranging one bureaucratic piece of paperwork at a time.

In her book Overwhelmed: Work, Love,and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte reports that today, people in the workplace say they’re too busy to do pretty much everything including eat lunch, make friends, date and sleep – they’re even too busy to have sex!

Now wait just a minute!  Some things are sacred!  When’s the last time you went without a little shut-eye?

A niece of mine is still in the workforce and moving up the ranks in her company.  She posts her corporate life on Facebook and recently mentioned that she’d had a sleepless night.  I was about to express sympathy – I used to wake up routinely at 2:36am and thrash through the agenda for my upcoming day until the alarm went off at five. 

But before I could formulate my comment, one of her friends retorted, “Sleep is for the weak!” 

There it is.  No sympathy.  Keep up or die!  Multi-taskers have the mentality of predators.  Or self-preserving prey animals that panic and leave their co-workers behind to be consumed by god-knows-what if they slow down or show vulnerability.    

Schulte cites psychologists who write of treating burned-out clients who can’t relinquish the notion that the busier you are, the more you are thought of as competent, smart, successful, admired and even envied.

But in fact, multi-tasking makes you dumber — dumber than being drunk or stoned.  Studies have shown that no two tasks done simultaneously can be done with 100 percent of one’s ability.  

It’s true – I had to quit looking at my cell phone in the car, even at a stop sign, the day I realized that each time I picked up that glorious gadget, I also relaxed my foot off the brake!

Furthermore, the distractions from too many things going on at once hamper a person’s “spam filter.”  Multi-taskers lose the ability to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information.  Put bluntly, multitasking makes you stupid.

And worse, neuroscientists have found that so much distraction shrinks your prefrontal cortex!  That’s the seat of human intelligence!  When a human being feels pressed for time and overwhelmed, that part of her brain curls into a fetal position and cries, “Mama!”

Uh oh.  You don’t suppose that’s irreversible, do you?  I mean, all those years looking smart but getting dumber?  My prefrontal cortex withering.  

Or is this just it?  Am I done with the gray matter?  Gone, gone, gone?  Like tooth enamel, irretrievable. 

All those Words with Friends to no avail.  Games on Lumosity…?  Just getting good at the games!? 

No worries.  Smaller brain, fewer demands.  And I’m pretty darn adept at the short list of tasks I approach on any given day, one-by-one, in sequence.

First I wake up and read my book.  Then I have a cup of coffee.  Next I might take a walk.  And before you know it – one minute to Wapner!