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Call for science, medical and environment writing

We will be hosting the September 27th edition of Scientia Pro Publica, the biweekly blog carnival that “showcases the finest science, medical and environment writing published in the blogosphere”.

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Can You Outsmart Your Genes? An Interview with Author Richard Nisbett

(Editor’s Note: interviewing Richard Nisbett, author of the excellent Intelligence and How to Get Itrecent book Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count, was in our To Do list. We then found that fellow blogger David DiSalvo was faster than we were and did a great job, so here we bring you David’s interview and take.)

While the debate over intelligence rages on many fronts, the battle over the importance of heredity rages loudest. It’s easy to see why. If the camp that argues intelligence is 75 to 85 percent genetically determined is correct, then we’re faced with some tough questions about the role of education. If intelligence is improved very little by schools, and if the IQ of the majority of the population will remain relatively unchanged no matter how well schools perform, then should school reform really be a priority?

More to the point, if our genes largely determine our IQ, which in turn underlies our performance throughout our lives, then what is the role of school? For some in this debate the answer to that question is simply, “to be the best you can be.” But that seems little comfort for those who aspire to “be” more than what their IQ category predicts they will.

Those on the other side of this debate question whether heredity plays as big a role as the strong hereditarians claim. And for the role it does play, they question whether hereditability implies immutability. Heredity of height, for example, is about 90 percent, and yet average height in several populations around the world has been steadily increasing due to non-genetic influences, like nutrition. If such a strong hereditary trait can be radically altered by environmental factors–and height is but one example of this–then why is intelligence different?

It is not, argues the camp that might best be described as intelligence optimists. For them, the pessimism that colors the strong hereditarian position isn’t only discouraging, it’s dangerous. Too much is hanging in the balance for pessimism about the potential of our children to prevail.

Richard NisbettRichard Nisbett is a champion of the intelligence optimist camp, and with his latest book, Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count , he has emerged as the most persuasive voice marshalling evidence to disprove the heredity-is-destiny argument. Intellectual advancement, Nisbett argues, is not the result of hardwired genetic codes, but the province of controllable factors like schools and social environments–and as such, improving these factors is crucially important. Read the rest of this entry »

Change Your Environment, Change Yourself

(Editor’s note: one of the most common enemies of getting quality cognitive exercise is being on The Daily Trading Coach, by Brett Steenbarger“mental autopilot”. I recently came across an excellent new book, titled The Daily Trading Coach: 101 Lessons for Becoming Your Own Trading Psychologist, by trading performance expert Dr. Brett Steenbarger, which explicitly calls for addressing the “mental autopilot” problem in his Lesson 4. Even for those of us who are not traders, Dr. Steenbarger advice provides excellent guidance for peak cognitive performance. Dr. Steenbarger graciously gave us permission to share with you, below, Lesson 4: Change Your Environment, Change Yourself. Enjoy!).

Human beings adapt to their environments. We draw on a range of skills and personality traits to fit into various settings. That is why we can behave one way in a social setting and then seem like a totally different human being at work. One of the enduring attractions of travel is that it takes us out of our native environments and forces us to adapt to new people, new cultures, and new ways. When we make those adaptations, we discover new facets of ourselves. As we’ll see shortly, discrepancy is the mother of all change: when we are in the same environments, we tend to draw upon the same, routine modes of thought and behavior.

A few months ago I had an attack of acute appendicitis while staying in a LaGuardia airport hotel awaiting a return flight to Chicago. When I went to the nearest emergency room at Elmhurst Hospital outside Jackson Heights, Queens, I found that I was seemingly the only native English speaker in a sea of people awaiting medical care. After some difficulty attracting attention, I was admitted to the hospital and spent the next several days of recuperation navigating my way through patients and staff of every conceivable nationality. By the end of the experience, I felt at home there. I’ve since stayed at the same airport hotel and routinely make visits into the surrounding neighborhoods—areas I would have never in my wildest dreams ventured into previously. In adapting to that environment, I discovered hidden strengths. I also overcame more than a few hidden prejudices and fears.

The greatest enemy of change is routine. When we lapse into routine and operate on autopilot, we are no longer fully and actively conscious of what we’re doing and why. That is why some of the most fertile situations for personal growth—those that occur within new environments—are those that force us to exit our routines and actively master unfamiliar challenges.

In familiar environments and routines, we operate on autopilot. Nothing changes.

When you act as your own trading coach, your challenge is to stay fully conscious, alert to risk and opportunity. One of your greatest threats will be the autopilot mode in which you act without thinking, without full awareness of your situation. If you shift your trading environment, you push yourself to adapt to new situations: you break routines. If your environment is always the same, you will find yourself gravitating to the same Read the rest of this entry »

Epigenetics: Nature vs. Nurture?

In yesterday’s interview with Michael Posner, he says:

– “There is a growing number of studies that show the importance of interaction between our genes and each of our environments. Epigenetics is going to help us understand that question better, but let me share a very interesting piece of research from my lab where we found an unusual interaction between genetics and parenting.”

– “Good parenting, as measured by different research-based scales, has been shown to build good effortful control which, as we saw earlier, is so important. Now, what we found is that some specific genes reduced, even eliminated, the influence of the quality of parenting. In other words, some children’s development really depends on how their parents bring them up, whereas others do not – or do to a much smaller extent.”

Now check out this fascinating article in the Economist:Domestication and intelligence in dogs and wolves | Not so dumb animals

– “Monique Udell of the University of Florida … wondered whether learning rather than evolution explained his observations. Her team therefore worked with a mixture of pet dogs, dogs from animal shelters that had had minimal interaction with people, and wolves raised by humans.”

– “As they report in Animal Behaviour, the wolves outperformed both shelter dogs and pets. Indeed, Read the rest of this entry »

Cognitive, Brain News RoundUp

Brain Health NewsInteresting recent news:

1) A Paradigm Shift in Genetics (Philadelphia Inquirer)
4) Common Medications May Harm Memory in Older People (U.S. News & World Report)

For more on these news, and commentary: Read the rest of this entry »

Peace Among Primates- by Robert Sapolsky

(Editor’s Note: One of the most original minds we have ever encountered is that of Robert Sapolsky, the Stanford-based neuroscientist, primatologist, author of A Primate’s Memoir, and more. We highly recommend most of his books. Above all, for anyone interested in brain health, this is a must read and very fun: Why Zebras Don't Have Ulcers- Robert SapolskyWhy Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide To Stress, Stress Related Diseases, and Coping. We are honored to bring you a guest article series by Robert Sapolsky, thanks to our collaboration with Greater Good Magazine.)

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Peace Among Primates

Anyone who says peace is not part of human nature knows too little about primates, including ourselves.

–By Robert M. Sapolsky

It used to be thought that humans were the only savagely violent primate.  “We are the only species that kills its own, narrators intoned portentously in nature films several decades ago. That view fell by the wayside in the 1960s as it became clear that some other primates kill their fellows aplenty. Males kill; females kill. Some use their toolmaking skills to fashion bigger and better cudgels. Other primates even engage in what can only be called warfare, organized, proactive group violence directed at other populations.

Yet as field studies of primates expanded, what became most striking was the variation in social practices across species. Yes, some primate species have lives filled with violence, frequent and varied. But life among others is filled with communitarianism, egalitarianism, and cooperative child rearing. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Intelligence Innate and Fixed?

iq test, intelligenceGiven the recent James Watson “race and IQ” controversy, I took on to read Stephan Jay Gould’s classic book The Mismeasure of Man, in which he debunks IQ (and the underlying “g”) as measure of defined, innate, “intelligence”. Fascinating reading overall, very technical in some areas.

The key take-away? In the last chapter, A Positive Conclusion, he writes that

– “Flexibility is the hallmark of human evolution…In other mammals, exploration, play and flexibility of behavior are qualities of juveniles, only rarely of adults. We retain not only the anatomical stamp stamp of childhood, but its mental flexibility as well…Humans are learning animals”

He then relates this story from T.H. White’s novel The Once and Future King

– God, he recounts, created all animals as embryos and called each before his throne, offering them whatever additions to their anatomy they desired. All opted for specialized adult features-the lion for claws and sharp teeth, the deer for antlers and hoofs. The human embryo stepped forth last and said: Please God, I think that you made me in the shape which I now have for reasons best known to Yourselves and that it would be rude to change. If I am to have my choice, I will stay as I am. I will not alter any of the parts which you gave me…I will stay a defenceless embryo all my life, doing my best to make myself a few feeble implements out of the wood, iron, and the other materials which You have seen fit to put before me..” “Well done”, exclaimed the Creator in delighted tone. “Here all you embryos, come here with Read the rest of this entry »

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