Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Psychology of the Brain

Do you enjoy moving your body? What about eating sushi, or choosing what to wear in the morning before school? If so, then you may want to tip your hat to the 1.4 kilograms of porridge sack in your head called the brain. The brain safeguards all these functions for us, keeping us both alive and conscious. The brain does this by dividing up the workload between sections of the brain, which is noticeable through a few tricks of neuroscience. One way to discover how parts of the brain operate is to find patients with parts of their brains missing, and compare those subjects with people that have fully functional brains. For example, people with damaged temporal lobes are deaf, because the auditory cortex which processes neural information received from the ears is in the temporal lobe. Another way of deciphering meaning from parts are scans from machines like EEGs, which place electrical nodes on the eeg%20machine-6[1]scalp of the patient, which detect which parts of the brain fire off neurons, or brain cells. The parts where neurons fire signify which parts are working. An experiment that requires subjects to listen to music found that music stimulates the auditory cortex, cerebrum, cerebellum, and the limbic system. EEG are also currently being tested as lie detector tests, because psychologists theorize that lying and telling the truth stimulate different parts of the brain. So dividing up the brain into parts with specific functions is a way to help both medical, physical, and psychiatric psychologists, and there are a few general ways to separate the brain.

The Left and Right Distinction

The easiest way to separate the brain is by dividing up the brain into two halves; left and right. The lateralization of the brain theory suggests that each side of the brain has tasks that it can do better than the other side of the brain, based on the work of Roger Sperry. Sperry found a way to sever the connection between the hemispheres, and conducted visual and somatic tests and concluded that while our brains work together, and accomplish more when connected, when severed, the hemispheres of the brain tended to outperform each other on certain tasks. The left side of the brain is better at language, logic, critical thinking, etc. The right hemisphere is better at music, colors, facial recognition, and creativity.

The Four LobesLobes_of_the_brain_NL.svg_[1]

For a more precise distinction, consider the four lobes of the brain. The frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital. The frontal lobe is in the front of our brain and is responsible for critical thinking. The parietal lobe is responsible for somatic senses and sense of body in the universe, and is found behind the frontal lobe. The temporal lobe is on the sides of the brain, and is responsible for hearing. The occipital lobe is in the back of the brain and is responsible for sight.

The Psychology of Addiction

Addicts can be defined as “an enthusiastic devotee of a specified thing or activity.” While this definition leaves room for things we colloquially consider pleasurable but not addicting, (gambling, sex, Thai food) the focus of this blog post will be on the addiction of psychoactive drugs. These are chemical substances that alter thinking, perception, memory, or some

Black and white portrait of a young man covering his face, perhaps in shame or exhaustion. A bottle of pills is spilled in front of him. Has film grain at full size.

Black and white portrait of a young man covering his face, perhaps in shame.

combination of the abilities. When discussing words like addict and drugs, the word defendant usually comes to mind. While you might be able to guess the definition, there is a slight nuance in dependence from the physical to the psychological.

Physical dependence is the body’s need of the drug in order to function at a normal level. People with physical addiction might be tired during the day, forget to eat, or may attempt to use other drugs in order to sooth symptoms. Psychological addiction is the addict’s belief that the drug is needed because it produces positive effects like euphoria or a sense of meaning. This belief is not always true, because sometimes the psychological addiction can be a trick of the mind. All drugs can psychological dependent, but some drugs lack the physically addicting qualities. While physical addiction has immediate and detrimental consequences, one of the downsides of psychological addiction is that psychological dependencies can last a lifetime.drugs[1]

The chances of physical and psychological addiction can depend on two things; the type of  neurotransmitters the substances uses and the type of substance. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that are released as neurons communicate with each other. Drugs can mimic or inhibit these receptors, messing with the natural production of them. Dopamine is an example of a neurotransmitter that has a ‘reward pathway system’ in the brain, and often leads to dependence. Substances that mimic dopamine are nicotine and cocaine. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that can inhibit or excite your nervous system, but lacks a reward pathway. This may explain why substances like LSD or magic mushrooms, which control serotonin receptors, have virtually no physical addiction.

    Three general types of drugs are stimulants, depressants, and hallucinogens. Stimulants like cocaine and caffeine excite the nervous system (you may have heard the street term “uppers”), depressants like tranquilizers and alcohol slow down the nervous system, and hallucinogens like PCP and LSD create false sensory images, stemming from the 5 senses.

The Psychology Behind Blink

The central theme in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink is called thin-slicing, the snap judgments we make. Thin-slicing judgments occur in our adaptive unconscious, which contains mental tricks that operate without our awareness of them. This shouldn’t be confused with Freud’s views of unconscious, which was where thoughts about primary instincts that, if surfaced, would cause mass panic. So the adaptive unconscious is our second method of decision making (the first being conscious processing) and operates on a extremely limited time scale. The book is titled Blink because thin-slicing lasts 2 seconds long at most.blink[1]

Thin-slicing probably evolved in order to make quick decisions when humans were in a period of history were knowledge was scarce. As this is the case, thin-slicing only occurs in instinctual matter. You cannot use thin-slicing for decided where to go on your next family vacation. Considering destinations, pricing, attractions, and other reasons for vacationing require conscious processing. The adaptive unconscious is not interested in these dilemmas. Consider meeting someone for the first time. Your first impression will be influenced by your adaptive unconscious, because you don’t have enough data of the person in order to decide whether or not you will make nice. So it comes to a snap judgment for you.

Although judgments are rendered quickly, this is not to say that the judgments cannot be trusted. Blink’s example of thin-slicing was to show students a picture of a teacher and ask for their first impression, the video itself being two seconds long, just enough for the adaptive unconscious. Then the researchers asked for reviews of the same teacher to kids who had been in the class for the entire semester. The results were considered to be quite correlated, and a deeper analysis of the study can be found here.

Another example of snap-judgments was the experiment done by the University of Iowa. They created a gambling game with two decks of red cards and two decks a blue cards. Each card awards a sum of money or costs a sum, with the goal being to reached a fixed amount. Choosing one card at a time from any deck, the player’s task was to figure out through trial and error that the only way to win was to pick cards from the blue deck. The red deck, unbeknownst to the participants, was filled with either great gains or devastating losses. Given the results of the experiment, there’s evidence to conclude that our adaptive unconscious reached the answer to the game a full 70 cards before our conscious processing figures it out. A excerpt of the passages detailing the experiment can be found here.Malcolm-Gladwell[1]

Gladwell makes clear that  unconscious processing cannot replace conscious processing, as thinking and rationality are our best tools against situations that harbor complexity. Gladwell posits this is not true across the board. “And what do we tell our children? Haste makes waste. Look before you leap. Stop and think. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover… The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” Whether or not thin-slicing and rationality can be called inferior or superior to each other doesn’t bare much weight on the existence of either system. The nuance is one worth learning, and the book was a pleasure to read.

Psychological Schools: Old Schools


In this photo released by the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna former Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud is pictured in his working room in 1938. Austria and the world will be celebrating Sigmund Freud's 150th birthday on Saturday May 6, 2006. (AP Photo/Sigmund Freud Museum)

In this photo released by the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna former Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud is pictured in his working room in 1938. Austria and the world will be celebrating Sigmund Freud’s 150th birthday on Saturday May 6, 2006. (AP Photo/Sigmund Freud Museum)

Psychoanalysis was first coined by Viennese psychologist Sigmund Freud, who started his career diagnosing and treating neurological disorders. To help understand the disorders, he posited that most problems in conscious took place in a different part of the brain, called the unconscious. The broad definition of the unconscious is the repressed thoughts and memories we have that, if surfaced, would cause us depression, anxiety and psychosis. For example, our dreams, Freud said, were the “royal road to our unconscious”. This would be an attempt to explain the blatant confusing or “sexual” nature of dreams. He said our conscious goals or intentions had psychological underpinnings in the unconscious, as our true intent of life are our primary reinforces; food, water, sex, and shelter. If we were too obvious about our true intentions, society might collapse, and therefore we need to repress these thoughts. Psychoanalysis has lacked strong scientific evidence, and is no longer prescribed as an actual practice. However, Freud’s theories have been modified in a way that sex and the unconscious plays less of a role. A few modifiers have been  Anna Freud and Carl Jung.

Gestalt Psychology

Gestalt comes from the German word ‘shape’, and is referred to studying psychology using the “big picture”. The famous quote from gestalt psychology is “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” For example, consider a cell phone. If I were to take apart a cell phone, I would no longer have a cell  phone. I would just have a combination of single gears and buttons. Only by viewing the human as a whole collection of physical characteristics, memories, and bran states would we be able to figure out more about brain state. While gestalt is no longer used, the school has had an impact on cognitive psychology, which deals with memories in relations to physical parts of the brain.


Functionalism has roots in physical behavior, but differs from behaviorists in that they don’t study any kinds of behavior. Functionalism’s main focus is to see our organisms behave in order to survive. Functionalism would study the claws on predatory birds, why ants are pitifully weak creatures, yet manage to survive longer than humans, etc. This school of psychology is n longer referred to as functionalism, but has been a huge foundation for evolutionary psychology, based of the work of Charles Darwin. Some current evolutionary psychologists are Richard Dawkins and the late Stephen J. Gould. richard_dawkins2-620x412

Psychology on the Origins of Religion

Before I begin to discuss the possible origins of religion, I feel it best to start with a few remarks, as to assure people of what I am trying to accomplish in this blog post. The first would be to underline a word in the previous sentence: possible. These are only theories and should be treated as such. Needless to say, these theories don’t have the same weight under them as something like the ‘theory’ of gravity, but are nonetheless interesting to ponder. The second disclaimer is to assure readers that this post is not an overt attack on religious people. I am no friend to religious ideology, and my views are obvious to those who know me. Still, to attack religion unprovoked doesn’t sit well with me, as I try to only show my contempt for ideas when pushed into a corner. Paul Bloom claims that studying why people are religious is axiomatically seen as a threat to those who are religious, and I hope those who see this post aren’t subject to the same misunderstanding. The fact of the existence of a deity, and how we’ve come to belief specific religious doctrines is in some sense a non sequitur. With that said, I’d like to grace across these possibilities with the theories of the father of psychoanalysis, a capitalist theorist, and the founder of Skeptic Magazine.

Sigmund Freudfreud

The father of the field of Psychoanalysis, this Viennese psychology posited that religion is a byproduct of our evolutionary instinct to fear death. He acknowledged the inescapable correlation between our species fear of death and our religious doctrines that include a concept of an afterlife. Since no man can escape death, we’ve come to belief that death itself is an illusion, which can be seen as consoling. Hence beliefs about an afterlife. I realize that not all religions suspect an afterlife, but enough do so in order to make the point valid.


Karl MarxMarx_Karl-Marx

When discussing Karl Marx’s Views on religion many will be incredibly lazy in digging up what he said in his critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and only supplement his view in a single sentence. ”Religion is the opium of the people.” The words are his own, but put in context, it’s clear he viewed religion as our way of acknowledging the inequities of the world, and additionally our protest against them. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the spirit of a spiritless situation.. it is the opium of the people.” So he compared it to medicine that humans needed in order to be happy.

Michael Shermeruntitled

Mr. Shemer sees religion as a social invention, with a keen interest in keeping people behaving morally. Take the crime of murder for example. Imagine yourself in the Indus River Valley, one of homo sapiens first real civilizations. Now imagine yourself as a government official, tasked with keeping order in a chaotic world. You are deprived of the technologies of DNA testing, fingerprinting, or any other criminal justice technique which will only be discovered in future civilizations. So solving murder on your own might be challenging. What can you do, besides educate people on religion? Tell them that there’s an all-powerful being, that watches everything you do and knows your thought. AND his views happen to line up with whatever political regime is in place. AND that if you do follow the orders of this deity to the letter, you will be rewarded handsomely. Law breakers, of course, will be sent to an eternity of punishment. What keeps people in line more than a Big Brother? It seems that Eric Blair owes ancient civilizations some royalty checks.