Archive for June, 2011

June 27, 2011

Update Schedule

Contrary to evidence, this blog is not abandoned! I will be traveling quite a bit for the rest of the summer, so updates will likely be few until things stabilize. But I will try to do better than last week from here on out.

In the meantime, please enjoy this photo of my cat:

June 25, 2011

Things Worth Reading

This week’s things worth reading cover neuroscience and the justice system, belief in supernatural punishment, and how humans acquire and pass on knowledge:

  • The Brain on Trial — This article in The Atlantic by David Eagleman reviews the implications of neuroscience for criminal justice. It is long but more than worth it to read in its entirety.
  • Post-Hoc Supernatural Punishers — Cris Campbell of Genealogy of Religion wrote a post this week about an influential theory on the origin of religion: the idea that belief in a punishing supernatural agent was evolutionarily favored because it promoted cooperation.
  • We stand on the shoulders of cultural giants — Razib Khan wrote a wonderful post on Gene Expression about the accumulation of knowledge through culture and imitation.


June 18, 2011

Things Worth Reading

This week’s Things Worth Reading includes popular media coverage of science, female ejaculation, and modern ideas of mental illness:


June 16, 2011

New Conference: Daniel Dennett and the Scientific Study of Religion

The Center for Inquiry has announced a conference, in honor of Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell, for December 2-3 this year on the theme of the scientific study of religion. The invited speakers list includes some prominent figures from the field, such as Dennett himself, Pascal Boyer, and Azim Shariff.

CFI has released a call for papers for the conference, with a deadline of September 1.

June 15, 2011

Affect Week, Part 2: Silvan Tomkins’s Affects

Yesterday, I wrote about how Silvan Tomkins conceptualized affect as a biological response to a stimulus. Tomkins argued that there were nine such affects, each the result of natural selection. He divided these affects according to whether they were positive or negative, their physiological characteristics, and the stimulus conditions that create them. Tomkins’s nine affects are interest, enjoyment-joy, surprise, fear-terror, distress-anguish, anger-rage, disgust, dissmell, and shame.

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June 15, 2011

Affect Week, Part 1: Silvan Tomkins

Angry kitty by Tambako the Jaguar on FlickrThe cat above is something I imagine most readers would see only in a zoo or animal sanctuary, but even still, you might find its threatening face quite scary. Your attention would be drawn to the tiger, temporarily losing focus on everything else in your environment. You’d even be able to feel the fear before could actually name what caused it.

Such reactions are great examples of the power of affect — it draws our attention to important stimuli in our environments and gives us information about them (like, “hey, there’s something here that might try eat me!”) faster than our conscious cognitive processes could allow.

This kind of reaction is also a good demonstration of Silvan Tomkins‘s theory of affect.

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June 14, 2011

Affect Week

A Smile by whologwhy on FlickrThis week, prompted by great discussion on my guest post at Genealogy of Religion, I’ll be writing a series of posts on affect. Although some of my labmates and collaborators study affect, its not a topic I’ve studied in depth. I’ll be learning as I go, and I hope to hear from others about their approaches to affect.

Affect, of course, is a major component of human experience, something we experience from infancy until death — something the absence of which is a symptom of a psychological disorder, according to the major diagnostic tool in the US. Affect serves protective and social purposes for humans. Disgust helps us avoid harmful food or waste, and a baby’s distressed cry alerts his or her caregivers that it’s time to be fed. Affect is also an important aspect of religious experience, including in ritual.

Humans the world over experience affect, and the scientific perspectives on affect are almost as diverse as the people of the world. So I won’t attempt to define affect up front. Instead, I’ll discuss definitions as they are used by different theorists. I’ll be covering major theories and studies of affect, beginning with those of Silvan Tomkins and Paul Ekman.

As the posts go up, links to the series will be added here:

June 11, 2011

Things Worth Reading

This week’s Things Worth Reading cover evolution, X-Men, justice, attention, and more:


June 8, 2011

Looking Over Your Shoulder from Beyond the Grave

Ghost Plushies by Katspurl on Flickr

Recently, a friend suggested I make up my own version of a WWJD sticker — one that said “What Would Jesse Think?” See, both of my academic advisors have been named Jesse, and, being an insecure person, I am constantly worried about what my advisor will think of my work. Fortunately, for me, these thoughts are productive: They drive me to do work that I hope would please my advisor, even when I know that I am alone and my advisor has no idea what I am doing!

Anxiety about being watched by invisible agents (an agent is anything that has intentions, desires, or goals) appears to be a powerful motivator for other people, too, and the agents who we think are watching us don’t need to be human or even real for the effect to work. This effect has been proposed as one of the bases of belief in the supernatural: If people think they’re being watched by God, a spirit, or a ghost, they will be less likely to behave badly. Jesse Bering, Katrina McLeod, and Todd Shackelford (2005) tested this idea in the laboratory through a clever experiment.

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June 6, 2011

Mutants, Apes, and Evolution — Oh, My!

I went to see the new X-Men movie this past weekend and saw this intriguing trailer:

I was excited — this looked like a good movie! — right up until I saw the word “evolution.” Since I was there to see a movie about human mutants with superpowers, I couldn’t justify getting too upset about abuses of evolution. But it was precisely seeing this trailer and that movie in the same night that made think about how media reflect popular misunderstandings of evolution.

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