Friday, April 29, 2016

It Feels Good, Man!

         Why does happiness feel good? What’s the purpose of our so called ‘positive’ emotions? Do happier people really live longer than other people? In this blog, I’ll explore all these questions and talk about the recent research of Barbara Fredrickson, the director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of Michigan. (Cool title, right? It has ten words! Only one of them is seven syllables!)
            Fredrickson recently wrote an article about her research in American Scientist titled, “The Value of Positive Emotions.” That’s where I’ll be getting my quotes from. In that piece, she talks about how scientists have mostly focused on the so-called ‘negative’ emotions: fear, anger, and disgust. She gives a couple reasons for this. First, there are clearly defined facial expressions for each of the negative emotions. (In contrast, there’s really only one facial expression for the positive emotions: a smile. J ) Second, negative emotions have evolved for a clear biological reason. In short, they keep you alive. (Either by marshaling additional energy stores or quickly teaching you not to eat those little red berries.) Third, that’s where the money is. Fredrickson doesn’t explicitly mention this, but there is a lot more funding in the world for studying negative emotions than there is for studying positive ones. This makes some semblance of sense: you would rather cure a disease, like cancer, than spend that same amount of money on entertainment, like a multi-billion dollar sports complex. Wait.
            Jokes aside, there is an unfortunate funding discrepancy between negative and positive emotions (which are described as happiness, serenity, love, and hope). It might just be human nature to prefer alleviating harm to promoting well-being. Or, scientists might secretly love watching people suffer. Regardless, it’s important question to consider.
            Later in her piece, Fredrickson talks about her proposed framework to study positive emotions. She calls it the Broaden and Build Theory. Her basic idea is this: when people are happy, their mindsets broaden, and “their thinking becomes more creative, integrative, flexible and open to information (2).” This sounds eerily similar to the functionality of the Dreamer network I’ve talked about elsewhere on this blog. Basically, when people are happy, they’re more relaxed (it’s shocking, I know). When people are more relaxed, their Dreamer network is generally more active. This could lead to more creative, integrative, and flexible thinking (and hugs; relaxed people give more hugs).
            I can support this theory with anecdotal evidence from my own life. Generally, more stressed people tend to focus more on the day-to-day hardships and details of life. More relaxed people tend to focus more on the bigger picture and may ask themselves “will any of this matter in five years?” (Which was my dad’s approach to parenting. If one of my actions wouldn’t matter in five years, he didn’t worry about it.) Likely, these types of thinking have an inverse relationship as well. When people think more big-picture, they tend not to get stressed about little things, thus making them less stressed. And, when people only focus on small things that have gone wrong, they tend to get stressed about those things, making them more stressed.
            Fredrickson also talked in her article about a single study that was done on a group of nuns. Basically, scientists studied the journals the nuns had written sixty years earlier (all the nuns were dead by this point), and figured out how long it had taken all the nuns to die. On average, nuns who wrote happier things in their journals lived ten years longer. (Life lesson: write happy things in a journal; it’ll make you live longer.)
Clearly, there were a lot of problems with this study.
Maybe the happier nuns had more to live for than the other nuns, which made them write happier things. Maybe the nuns lived longer, so they wrote happier things. Maybe Death is a sour-puss and doesn’t like hanging out with happy people. Maybe all the unhappy nuns were friends. When one of them died, the rest became more unhappy, had less to live for, and died sooner. Maybe all the happy nuns were friends and they were all peer pressured into living longer. Maybe all then nuns were playing an elaborate practical joke and just wrote happy things because they knew that scientists would someday read it and draw conclusions from it. Maybe it’s late. Maybe I should go to bed soon.
Anyway, there is real scientific evidence that says that happier people live longer. (Or, at least, I’ve been told it enough times by teachers that it must be true. No, there actually is evidence. Google it. The internet never lies. No, it’s actually a thing. Believe me. I know exactly what I’m talking about.)

ANYWAY, here’s the take-away message from this rather bizarre blog post: stressed people tend to get bogged down in the mundane details of life. Don’t let that happen to you. See the big picture. Laugh at silly jokes. Laugh at bad jokes. Laugh in general. Be happy and surround yourself with happy people. If that doesn’t work, write happy things in your journal. It’s not complicated, people. That’s all you need to be happy: a journal, a pen, and a quiet spot to write. Science has proved it. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Answers To The Three Questions

         A) The most impressive aspect of ballroom dancing is its partner aspect. In order to be a successful ballroom dancer, you and your partner have to be completely in synch. You have to trust each other and know each other’s moves by heart. These traits are integral for a number of different dance steps and have helped inform my dance education in a number of ways. Namely, they introduced me to the push and pull of partner dynamics, which Sveta and I have worked on extensively for our final presentation.
            B) One of the unique aspects of ballroom dancing was its gendered quality. A number of times, the presenter (whose name escapes me), talked about how the highest level of ballroom dancing required both dancers to fill their gendered role. In other words, the woman was expected to be fluid, graceful, and “feminine” while the man was expected to be strong and “masculine.” This is quite different from most other dance forms, where the roles are much less gendered.

            C) I did like the visit. It was informative, and I hadn’t known much about ballroom dancing before she talked to us. I especially liked the way she took control of the classroom when she taught us the steps. It was clear that she’d been teaching for a while, and she didn’t hesitate to tell us what she was looking for. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

What is Beauty?

        What is beauty? What makes something aesthetically pleasing? Is there an objective standard for beauty that every human has? Or does beauty exist only in the eyes of the beholder? Humans have been asking these questions for centuries, and modern scientists think they might finally have some answers. Although, as always, these answers come with the usual shrug and disclaimer, “We could be totally wrong. We really don’t know enough yet.” (Warning: the following paragraphs contain a lot of neuro-speak that may be unintelligible. I’ll do my best to translate in the parenthesis.)
            According to some neuroscientists, there are three basic networks of aesthetic processing: perceptual, cognitive, and emotional (Calvo-Merino). The perceptual network contains the basic components by which visual pleasurable stimuli enter the human mind (or in layman’s terms: the network that responds first to sight.) The mechanisms of the visual system are well known to those who study them, and, for consideration of people’s time, I won’t go into them here (in other words, I don’t remember them fully; even if I did, any explanation of them would take a number of pages that I don’t want to dedicate right now.) What’s interesting is that there was increased activity in the extrastriate areas and occipital and fusiform gyri when observers were asked to report the aesthetic pleasure of certain aesthetic stimuli (basically: especially pretty pictures make certain areas of the brain light up; this fascinates neuroscientists and me).
The cognitive network of aesthetic processing is located mostly in the frontal cortex and includes most of the cortices involved in executive functioning (you know the part of the brain you used when you did math in high school?; that’s the part of the brain I’m talking about). To quote Calvo-Merino, “the fronto-median cortex, jointly with activity in prefrontal regions –specifically the prefrontal dorsolateral cortex, – as well as temporal-parietal brain areas, has been found in another study that compared brain responses during esthetic judgements and perceptual judgement, like symmetry (166).” (The parts of your brain that help you judge symmetry also help you judge something’s beauty.) “Interestingly, these same sets of regions are involved while performing other judgments about human nature, such as social and moral judgements (166).” (The parts of your brain that judge other humans also help judge something’s beauty. Are you noticing a theme? Symmetry. Judging human nature. It seems as though beauty of objects is closely tied to beauty of people. And, we all know what beauty of people is tied to. Sex. It’s amazing how everything in biology comes back to reproduction.)
The third network of aesthetic processing is tied even closer to reproduction. The emotional processing of artwork is tied directly to the mesolimbic pathway between the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area (this is the reinforcement pathway that increases the frequency of any behavior from smoking a cigarette to kissing your lover to eating that extra milk chocolate truffle). Basically, looking at beautiful art is pleasurable and becomes a reinforced behavior (I couldn’t think of a way to make that sentence more complicated).
Another relevant discussion Calvo-Merino had earlier in her piece, “Neural Mechanisms For Seeing Dance” focused around the organization of stimuli and how certain organizations were much more visually pleasing for humans than others (humans enjoy looking at some pictures; not others; scientists have realized this). These organizations focused especially around what psychologists have called the “golden cut,” which is one of the most compelling arguments for the objective theory of beauty. The golden cut is a relatively common term in photography and is built around the biological golden mean. (There’s a super cool ratio that’s found everywhere in nature; scientists call it the golden mean; Google it.) The golden cut tries to harmonize four basic traits humans find pleasing: symmetry, balance, complexity, and order of stimulation. (Humans like things that are stimulating, symmetrical, and yet complex; scientists are so smart.) By applying the golden cut, psychologists think they may have unlocked what makes things objectively beautiful. (But, they really just gave photographers another tool to make pictures beautiful; scientists – and philosophers – are still quite mixed on the issue of beauty’s objectivity.)  
            It’s important to remember context when we’re talking about all these strangely named concepts and down-right bizarre names of brain areas (fusi-form gyrus? It sounds like the name of a melted metal sculpture that vaguely resembles a child’s spinning top).

There are many objects humans have called beautiful over the millennia, and a vast number of them are other human’s faces. We all have faces that we consider beautiful, (take a second to think about some of yours) and a complete stranger probably wouldn’t agree with us. There are some exceptions of course, and there will always be people whom a large number of us consider beautiful, but by and large, we don’t usually consider a stranger’s face to be beautiful. Instead, it’s the memories and connections we have with those people that make their faces beautiful. It’s our context that makes their faces beautiful. It’s much the same way with artwork. The same piece of art looks different for a couple on their honey-moon than it does for a couple who are about to be divorced. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Frameworks of Dancing and Life

          Everyone has their own frameworks. The ways of the thinking they’ve learned throughout their life. Every action or object people interact with can fall into a framework. For instance, squirrels (otherwise known as Sciuridae if you're a scientist) fit into the taxonic framework, Rodent. Rodents fit into the bigger taxonic framework, Mammal. The human action of typing, on the other hand, could be said to fit into the bigger framework, Hand Motions, which could be said to fit into the even bigger framework, Motions Made Below the Elbow. Typing could also be said to fit into the framework, Modes of Communication, and both typing and squirrels could fit into basically any framework you could care to dream up.  
Okay, but what am I trying to get at? In essence, I’m trying to demonstrate how the brain organizes the almost infinite amount of information we put into it. In order to understand things, our brain puts them into frameworks of thought. Some of these are taught to us; others we find out on our own. In order to become a fully-fledged framework, our brain needs to have enough relevant information to build a framework around. For instance, it took me a little while to understand the framework of Neuroscience. (The general idea behind Neuro is that “our brain controls everything we do,” but you have to have some knowledge of the functions of the different parts of the brain in order to grasp what that really means.)
It’s the same way with dance (and everything else we do). Once we have the framework (sometimes called, “the language”) of dance, then it becomes much easier to learn new types of dance. So, in a very real way, novice dancers are actually learning two things at once: how to dance the steps they’re working on, and how to learn how to dance the steps they’re working on. In this way (and in many others) dance is a language. Almost anyone who has learned more than two languages will tell you that their second was their hardest. After a while, a language learner realizes there’s a difference between the word and the idea of the word. Words themselves are usually different between languages, and often have different collections of ideas attached to them, but the ideas themselves remain the same. In other words, words are just labels; it’s the ideas that are really being discussed.
 In my Playwriting class this past week, we discussed Love Person, a play written bilingually in English and American Sign Language. In one of the lines of the play, one of the hearing characters signs to her girlfriend, “I loved signing with you. It was like speaking in pure thoughts.” In many ways, dance is like signing, and it could be said that dancing is to signing what music is to speaking. (I realize that sentence probably doesn’t make any sense; let me explain.)

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about how non-lyric music seems to bypass the areas of our brain devoted to language processing and seems to directly speak to our emotional processing. (This makes sense because non-lyric music isn’t a language per-say; it’s just a collection of cool-sounding sounds that have an effect on us.) In much the same way, dancing is intentional movement that would bypass the language processing circuitry in deaf people. (It’s worth noting that deaf people perceive sign language as language; their language processing circuitry lights up whenever they’re signing or watching someone sign.) So, in this way, dancing could be considered a deaf person’s music. (It’s worth noting that stylized ways of signing could also be considered a deaf person’s music. Before you go on with the rest of your day, you should check out this super cool YouTube video of a woman signing Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself.’)    
So, what's the framework behind dance? Well, I wish I could answer that question. One thing I've learned so far in Neuro Dance is that I don't understand dancing. I haven't yet learned how to learn how to dance. Numerous times, most of my classmates have easily been able to follow our instructor's motions and precise foot placements, but my brain hasn't yet figured out exactly where to look or what to do with what I'm looking at. It's really as though they're speaking a language I'm only slightly familiar with, and they're speaking it a little too quickly for me to understand. So, to partially answer the question: like most things, it takes time and practice and with those come understanding.    

Monday, April 4, 2016

Gestures: We All Do Them, But What Do They Mean?

           Gestures are an integral part of being human. Research (mostly just plain-old observation) has shown that people who have been born blind and are talking with other blind people will still use gesture in their speech (Goldin-Meadow). Various other observations have shown that human gestures are unique in the animal kingdom. Susan Goldin-Meadow, a professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and owner of possibly the most beautiful last name, writes in her piece, “The Role of Guesture and Communication and Thinking” (guess what it’s about? THE ROBOT ABOCOLYPSE) that,
“…it is interesting to note that chimpanzees in the wild do not use gesture as human children do. Chimps use gesture to request here-and-now action of another chimp (e.g. raising their arms over their heads to invite another chimp to groom them). In contrast, children use gesture, not only to request, but also to comment on objects in their surrounds (e.g. pointing to comment on distant events). Even chimps who are raised by humans do not interpret points referentially (i.e. they do not understand that the point is about a particular object); rather, they learn to respond to the gesture in such a way that they can garner a food reward. (423)”  

In more simple language: humans communicate for the sake of communicating much more than other animals do. If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone about the weather, you probably know what I’m talking about. Of course, some of us do it much more often than others, but we all do it sometimes.
Elsewhere in her piece that could have had a more imaginative title, Goldin-Meadow talks about all the different types of gestures that we use on a daily basis. These fall into five basic categories. 1) Emblems: these are culturally specific gestures that mean something everyone in that culture can understand – examples include the OK symbol and flipping someone the bird. – 2) Illustrators: these are not culturally specific and are usually used to illustrate something (hence the name; aren’t scientists clever?) – these gestures include pointing to the location of the tattoo you don’t want to show or showing the size of the imaginary fish you caught last week. – 3) Affect display: these are emotional displays – like a scowl or a smile. – 4) Regulators: these are more unconscious gestures and voice-shifts that usually indicate when it’s time for someone to speak – these could be as overt as turning to someone and saying “what do you think” or as subtle as lowering the pitch and timber of your voice when you reach the end of a list, like you would be doing right now if you were reading this out-loud. – 5) Adapters: These are usually quite unconscious and usually indicate boredom, anxiety or the like – examples include fiddling with a pen or a tie. –   
One thought I had while reading about all these different types of gestures was why context isn’t taken into account. (Or, at least, doesn’t seem to be.) Flipping your friend the bird after they make a joke at your expense feels much different from flipping the bird to someone who just cut you off. This context is essential to all forms of communication, but especially gestures because there are usually a relatively few number of them that are repeated quite often. (Although, there doesn’t have to be a few number of them. The gestures you can make with your hands are just as infinite as the words you can speak. *cough* Sign language.) With this context added into the equation, a gesture could fit into all five categories of gestures at once. (If you don’t believe me, just flip a friend the bird and ask them to categorize all the feelings they had.)
This brings up my second question: why are there so many categories of distinction?  These definite and nuanced distinctions are useful if we ignore context (and probably make research easier), but they don’t explain the way gestures work in the natural world. Or, at least, I don’t think so. So, I thought up classifications that seemed to make more sense. There are only two of them.
1) Gestures used that make or add nuance to an idea. (To fall under this category, the gesture has to be knowable, recognizable, and reasonably specific.)
2) Gestures that direct, deflect, or indicate attention. (These gestures are much more subtle.)
Think about all the gestures you make with your hands in a day. You wave to one of your friends. That’s the first one – you’re saying “hi” – (One could also make the argument that you’re drawing their attention to you as well, but I would argue almost anyone could tell you that a wave means some variation of “hi.”) You turn to look out the window when someone’s talking to you. That’s the second one – you’re trying to deflect their attention…usually. – (You could make the argument that you’re conveying the idea “I don’t want to have this conversation,” but I feel that looking out the window is a too common action to convey any specific idea.) You hold your hand out; that’s the first one – you’re saying some variation of “I want that.” (Again, it could also fall under the second because you’re directing that person’s attention to you, but the underlying message is strong and knowable, so I would say it falls under the first category.)

What about the most recognizable gestures of them all? How do facial expressions – affect displays – fit into this new system? I would argue that all these gestures would fall under the first category. In fact, they’re the most pure version of the first category. When you’re making a facial expression, you’re displaying your inner feelings and emotions…usually. These emotions and feelings are all abstract. They can only be described as ideas. There are all also knowable, recognizable, and reasonably specific. Everyone knows what a smile means. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world.