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Slate offers up some funny, albeit biting, commentary on a recent report of increased parity in gender assignment to household grocery shopping.

Whether or not you agree with author Amanda Marcotte’s interpretation of bias in the Chicago Tribune article, there’s a cautionary tale in her reaction to the Tribune’s reporting that’s worth paying attention to.  Marcotte discredits its findings because there isn’t enough data presented to back them up. In looking at the case presented, she saw contradictory and inconsistent application of information, and figured that a gender bias was the culprit.

While this may or may not be the case, it’s a good reminder to reporters and researchers alike: go ahead and use context, use that background knowledge. But don’t let these things define your work – research needs to be based in what the data says, not what you want it to mean.


It’s that dead week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and here I am at the office. Trying to work (promise), but having a really hard time staying focused on the tasks at hand what with all the thoughts of champagne, crackers, and long weekends dancing through my head.

As it turns out, this is not necessarily a bad thing. A recent study issued by the Chinese Academy of Sciences indicates that daydreaming has a beneficial effect on the brain’s ability to forge disparate neural connections and possibly contributes to higher IQs. As Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, puts it, “It turns out that cultivating an active idle mind, or teaching yourself how to daydream effectively, might actually encourage the sort of long-range neural connections that make us smart.” Because such flights of fancy – often unrealistic, even ridiculous – increase communication between remote areas of the brain, they lead to a generally greater level of activity incorporating richer and more diverse synaptic ‘conversation’.

On a related front, another recently completed study from Harvard University established a connection between a person’s freedom to mentally drift and their emotional state. Participants were asked to report upon the various activities they engaged in during their waking hours, to what extent it was necessary to focus on that particular activity, and a corresponding rate of happiness at that point in time. The study found that the more room participants’ minds had to wander, the happier they reported feeling.

When considered in tandem with our culture – with its great emphasis on efficiency and productivity (the early bird gets the worm; early to bed, early to rise; and so on) – it seems that daydreaming is getting short shrift. Contemplation is not indolence. And besides, our service- and idea-based economy relies inherently on the inspired creativity of leaders. The ability to conceptualize elegant,  unexpected, and even obscure combinations or recombinations is a driver of our economic engine. So, altogether now – Get up. Get out. And do…nothing. Except maybe contemplate the sidewalk, or consider whether that fern really does look like your Aunt Bertie. Feels good, doesn’t it?

An exhibit currently running at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences presents an interesting – and illuminating – intersection of art and science.

Noted Salt Lake City, Utah, artist Amy Caron has established residency at the Institute to present her interdisciplinary work Waves of Mu, which investigates the phenomenon of “mirror neurons.”

Mirror neurons are neurons which fire signals to the brain not only when an animal acts, but also when it observes another animal’s actions. The implications are wide ranging – certain scientists have posited that these neurons provide a neurobiological basis for complex learning (think language) which is based on mimicry. For this reason, the discovery of mirror neurons is considered one of the more important recent discoveries in the realm of neuroscience.

Caron believes that the mirror neuron has particular bearing on artists like her. In her words, “…as a performer, emotional exchange is a big part of performance. I was interested to learn that there’s actually a neurobiological basis for this, and a function that’s not just purple fluffy stuff and feelings.” Caron feels that the emotional resonance that draws people to art and performance has its roots in the so-called “empathy neuron,” too.

She explores this idea in her installation, which is constituted of an elaborate construction of the brain’s internal architecture and an interactive performance in which Caron engages her audience in various ways to try and get their mirror neurons firing. If you’re interested in learning more about the exhibit, check out it’s site here.

More than likely, you’ve encountered a “meme,” an article, photo, video or other digital file type which disseminates quickly through the Internet. These nuggets of information drop into our computer screen at the speed of digital transfer, and are propagated faster than fact checkers can say ‘misinformation’.

Which is not to say that every meme is a lie…But when dealing with information that can’t necessarily be verified, how can you be sure which is which? For those of you who have ever found yourself questioning whether the Tweet you’re reading is truth or meme, help is on the way. Researchers at Indiana University have developed a tool called Truthy, which analyzes the diffusion of Tweets in order to detect whether they are genuine groundswells of social sentiment or intentional spreading of misinformation.

The tool’s algorithms are complex and use several data input streams, including Truthy-user feedback, to identify misleading memes – a great use of Web 2.0 to improve data analysis system architecture. Check out the tool and see if you can spot any fishy memes!

As a researcher and a cyclist, I was doubly interested in this Slate article about the absence of fixed-gear, or fixie, bicycles in China. (For those of you not familiar with the hipster fixie trend, here’s a quick primer.) While the article is ostensibly about this one product in this one country, it makes a larger point about trends and cultural context.

What is “cool” and “trendy” to one audience can be “weird” and “useless” to another. And this is not just true when comparing Brooklyn and Beijing. In research, subtle differences in demography can have huge effects on the perceptions of a product. Considering the cultural context in which we operate is always key.