Experiments that make quantum mechanics directly visible to the human eye

Rebecca Holmes writes:

I spent a lot of time in the dark in graduate school. Not just because I was learning the field of quantum optics – where we usually deal with one particle of light or photon at a time – but because my research used my own eyes as a measurement tool. I was studying how humans perceive the smallest amounts of light, and I was the first test subject every time.

I conducted these experiments in a closet-sized room on the eighth floor of the psychology department at the University of Illinois, working alongside my graduate advisor, Paul Kwiat, and psychologist Ranxiao Frances Wang. The space was equipped with special blackout curtains and a sealed door to achieve total darkness. For six years, I spent countless hours in that room, sitting in an uncomfortable chair with my head supported in a chin rest, focusing on dim, red crosshairs, and waiting for tiny flashes delivered by the most precise light source ever built for human vision research. My goal was to quantify how I (and other volunteer observers) perceived flashes of light from a few hundred photons down to just one photon.

As individual particles of light, photons belong to the world of quantum mechanics – a place that can seem totally unlike the Universe we know. Physics professors tell students with a straight face that an electron can be in two places at once (quantum superposition), or that a measurement on one photon can instantly affect another, far-away photon with no physical connection (quantum entanglement). Maybe we accept these incredible ideas so casually because we usually don’t have to integrate them into our daily existence. An electron can be in two places at once; a soccer ball cannot.

But photons are quantum particles that human beings can, in fact, directly perceive. Experiments with single photons could force the quantum world to become visible, and we don’t have to wait around – several tests are possible with today’s technology. The eye is a unique biological measurement device, and deploying it opens up exciting areas of research where we truly don’t know what we might find. Studying what we see when photons are in a superposition state could contribute to our understanding of the boundary between the quantum and classical worlds, while a human observer might even participate in a test of the strangest consequences of quantum entanglement. [Continue reading…]

How culture works with evolution to produce human cognition

Cecilia Heyes writes:

The conventional view, inside and outside academia, is that children are ‘wired’ to imitate. We are ‘Homo imitans’, animals born with a burning desire to copy the actions of others. Imitation is ‘in our genes’. Birds build nests, cats miaow, pigs are greedy, while humans possess an instinct to imitate.

The idea that humans have cognitive instincts is a cornerstone of evolutionary psychology, pioneered by Leda Cosmides, John Tooby and Steven Pinker in the 1990s. ‘[O]ur modern skulls house a Stone Age mind,’ wrote Cosmides and Tooby in 1997. On this view, the cognitive processes or ‘organs of thought’ with which we tackle contemporary life have been shaped by genetic evolution to meet the needs of small, nomadic bands of people – people who devoted most of their energy to digging up plants and hunting animals. It’s unsurprising, then, that today our Stone Age instincts often deliver clumsy or distasteful solutions, but there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. We’re simply in thrall to our thinking genes.

This all seems plausible and intuitive, doesn’t it? The trouble is, the evidence behind it is dubious. In fact, if we look closely, it’s apparent that evolutionary psychology is due for an overhaul. Rather than hard-wired cognitive instincts, our heads are much more likely to be populated by cognitive gadgets, tinkered and toyed with over successive generations. Culture is responsible not just for the grist of the mind – what we do and make – but for fabricating its mills, the very way the mind works. [Continue reading…]

The interplay that brings together order and disorder

Alan Lightman writes:

Planets, stars, life, even the direction of time all depend on disorder. And we human beings as well. Especially if, along with disorder, we group together such concepts as randomness, novelty, spontaneity, free will and unpredictability. We might put all of these ideas in the same psychic basket. Within the oppositional category of order, we can gather together notions such as systems, law, reason, rationality, pattern, predictability. While the different clusters of concepts are not mirror images of one another, like twilight and dawn, they have much in common.

Our primeval attraction to both order and disorder shows up in modern aesthetics. We like symmetry and pattern, but we also relish a bit of asymmetry. The British art historian Ernst Gombrich believed that, although human beings have a deep psychological attraction to order, perfect order in art is uninteresting. ‘However we analyse the difference between the regular and the irregular,’ he wrote in The Sense of Order (1979), ‘we must ultimately be able to account for the most basic fact of aesthetic experience, the fact that delight lies somewhere between boredom and confusion.’ Too much order, we lose interest. Too much disorder, and there’s nothing to be interested in. My wife, a painter, always puts a splash of colour in the corner of her canvas, off balance, to make the painting more appealing. Evidently, our visual sweet-spot lies somewhere between boredom and confusion, predictability and newness.

Human beings have a conflicted relationship to this order-disorder nexus. We are alternately attracted from one to the other. We admire principles and laws and order. We embrace reasons and causes. We seek predictability. Some of the time. On other occasions, we value spontaneity, unpredictability, novelty, unconstrained personal freedom. We love the structure of Western classical music, as well as the free-wheeling runs or improvised rhythms of jazz. We are drawn to the symmetry of a snowflake, but we also revel in the amorphous shape of a high-riding cloud. We appreciate the regular features of pure-bred animals, while we’re also fascinated by hybrids and mongrels. We might respect those who manage to live sensibly and lead upright lives. But we also esteem the mavericks who break the mould, and we celebrate the wild, the unbridled and the unpredictable in ourselves. We are a strange and contradictory animal, we human beings. And we inhabit a cosmos equally strange. [Continue reading…]

Can we get better at forgetting?

Benedict Carey writes:

Whatever its other properties, memory is a reliable troublemaker, especially when navigating its stockpile of embarrassments and moral stumbles. Ten minutes into an important job interview and here come screenshots from a past disaster: the spilled latte, the painful attempt at humor. Two dates into a warming relationship and up come flashbacks of an earlier, abusive partner.

The bad timing is one thing. But why can’t those events be somehow submerged amid the brain’s many other dimming bad memories?

Emotions play a role. Scenes, sounds and sensations leave a deeper neural trace if they stir a strong emotional response; this helps you avoid those same experiences in the future. Memory is protective, holding on to red flags so they can be waved at you later, to guide your future behavior.

But forgetting is protective too. Most people find a way to bury, or at least reshape, the vast majority of their worst moments. Could that process be harnessed or somehow optimized?

Perhaps. In the past decade or so, brain scientists have begun to piece together how memory degrades and forgetting happens. A new study, published this month in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that some things can be intentionally relegated to oblivion, although the method for doing so is slightly counterintuitive.

For the longest time, forgetting was seen as a passive process of decay and the enemy of learning. But as it turns out, forgetting is a dynamic ability, crucial to memory retrieval, mental stability and maintaining one’s sense of identity.

That’s because remembering is a dynamic process. At a biochemical level, memories are not pulled from the shelf like stored videos but pieced together — reconstructed — by the brain. [Continue reading…]

Good Samaritans aren’t the exception

Melanie McGrath writes:

A few years ago, I was assaulted on a busy street in London by a man who came up behind me. Some details of the assault are hazy, others pin-sharp. I recall exactly what my attacker did, and that the assault was witnessed by rush-hour drivers sitting at a red light. If there were pedestrians nearby, I do not remember them, though the situation suggests that there were people at hand. I do remember that no one came to my aid.

On the face of it, this looks like a textbook case of bystander apathy – the failure of onlookers to intervene in troubling, violent or even murderous events when others are present. The effect was first described in 1968 by the social psychologists Bibb Latané at Columbia University in New York and John Darley at New York University. Their research was prompted by the murder of Kitty Genovese outside her home in Queens in 1964. In The New York Times’s report of the killing, which was rehashed by news media across the world, only one of 38 witnesses was said to have done anything to intervene.

Latané and Darley’s research suggested that the greater the number of onlookers the less likely anyone was to step in, especially if others around them appeared calm or unconcerned. Whereas lone bystanders stepped forward to help a victim 85 per cent of the time, only 31 per cent of witnesses intervened when they were part of a group of five. Latané and Darley labelled this phenomenon ‘diffusion of responsibility’, which along with ‘evaluation apprehension’ (concern about how any intervention might be interpreted) and ‘pluralistic ignorance’ (if everyone else seems calm, there’s nothing to worry about) make up what has become known as the bystander effect or bystander apathy.

In the half-century since it was first described, the bystander effect has been widely studied and elaborated upon, but never fundamentally challenged. [Continue reading…]

Teens have less face time with their friends – and are lonelier than ever

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Teens aren’t necessarily less social, but the contours of their social lives have changed.
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By Jean Twenge, San Diego State University

Ask a teen today how she communicates with her friends, and she’ll probably hold up her smartphone. Not that she actually calls her friends; it’s more likely that she texts them or messages them on social media.

Today’s teens – the generation I call “iGen” that’s also called Gen Z – are constantly connected with their friends via digital media, spending as much as nine hours a day on average with screens.

How might this influence the time they spend with their friends in person?

Some studies have found that people who spend more time on social media actually have more face time with friends.

But studies like this are only looking at people already operating in a world suffused with smartphones. They can’t tell us how teens spent their time before and after digital media use surged.

What if we zoomed out and compared how often previous generations of teens spent time with their friends to how often today’s teens are doing so? And what if we also saw how feelings of loneliness differed across the generations?

To do this, my co-authors and I examined trends in how 8.2 million U.S. teens spent time with their friends since the 1970s. It turns out that today’s teens are socializing with friends in fundamentally different ways – and also happen to be the loneliest generation on record.

[Read more…]

Descartes was wrong. ‘A person is a person through other persons’

By Abeba Birhane

According to Ubuntu philosophy, which has its origins in ancient Africa, a newborn baby is not a person. People are born without ‘ena’, or selfhood, and instead must acquire it through interactions and experiences over time. So the ‘self’/‘other’ distinction that’s axiomatic in Western philosophy is much blurrier in Ubuntu thought. As the Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti put it in African Religions and Philosophy (1975): ‘I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.’

We know from everyday experience that a person is partly forged in the crucible of community. Relationships inform self-understanding. Who I am depends on many ‘others’: my family, my friends, my culture, my work colleagues. The self I take grocery shopping, say, differs in her actions and behaviours from the self that talks to my PhD supervisor. Even my most private and personal reflections are entangled with the perspectives and voices of different people, be it those who agree with me, those who criticise, or those who praise me.

Yet the notion of a fluctuating and ambiguous self can be disconcerting. We can chalk up this discomfort, in large part, to René Descartes. The 17th-century French philosopher believed that a human being was essentially self-contained and self-sufficient; an inherently rational, mind-bound subject, who ought to encounter the world outside her head with skepticism. While Descartes didn’t single-handedly create the modern mind, he went a long way towards defining its contours.

[Read more…]

A Danish word the world needs to combat stress: Pyt

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Instead of overreacting to minor slights, it’s healthier to just say, ‘pyt.’
Ezume Images/Shutterstock.com

By Marie Helweg-Larsen, Dickinson College

Danes are some of the happiest people in the world, and they also happen to have a lot of cool words for ways to be happy.

You may have heard about “hygge,” which has been the subject of countless books, articles and commercials. Often mistranslated to mean “cozy,” it really describes the process of creating intimacy.

But another word “pyt” – which sort of sounds like “pid” – was recently voted the most popular word by Danes, beating out “dvæle” (to linger) and “krænkelsesparat” (ready to take offense).

Pyt doesn’t have an exact English translation. It’s more a cultural concept about cultivating healthy thoughts to deal with stress. As a native Dane and a psychologist, I think the concepts that underpin the word are applicable to people everywhere.

[Read more…]

Frans de Waal embraces animal emotions in ‘Mama’s Last Hug’

Sy Montgomery writes:

The two old friends hadn’t seen each other lately. Now one of them was on her deathbed, crippled with arthritis, refusing food and drink, dying of old age. Her friend had come to say goodbye. At first she didn’t seem to notice him. But when she realized he was there, her reaction was unmistakable: Her face broke into an ecstatic grin. She cried out in delight. She reached for her visitor’s head and stroked his hair. As he caressed her face, she draped her arm around his neck and pulled him closer.

The mutual emotion so evident in this deathbed reunion was especially moving and remarkable because the visitor, Dr. Jan Van Hooff, was a Dutch biologist, and his friend, Mama, was a chimpanzee. The event — recorded on a cellphone, shown on TV and widely shared on the internet — provides the opening story and title for the ethologist Frans de Waal’s game-changing new book, “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves.”

 

Other authors have explored animal emotion, including Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy in “When Elephants Weep” (1995) and Marc Bekoff in “The Emotional Lives of Animals” (2007). Still others have concentrated on a specific emotion, such as Jonathan Balcombe in “Pleasurable Kingdom” (2006) and Barbara J. King in “How Animals Grieve” (2013).

“Mama’s Last Hug” takes these seminal works a step further, making this book even bolder and more important than its companion volume, “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?,” de Waal’s 2016 best seller.

For too long, emotion has been cognitive researchers’ third rail. In research on humans, emotions were deemed irrelevant, impossible to study or beneath scientific notice. Animal emotions were simply ignored. But nothing could be more essential to understanding how people and animals behave. By examining emotions in both, this book puts these most vivid of mental experiences in evolutionary context, revealing how their richness, power and utility stretch across species and back into deep time. [Continue reading…]

The American aversion for psychological complexity

Dahlia Lithwick writes:

The launch of the 2020 presidential contest has triggered yet another round of uniquely American anxiety around the stability of character.

We’re only a few weeks into the nascent primary campaign, and already the public discourse is mired in a debate that seems to be consumed with which of the Democratic candidates is in fact tricking us.

Amy Klobuchar appears to be a sweet Minnesota girl, but is she secretly a crazed, potentially abusive harpy? Elizabeth Warren holds herself out to be a wonky economic populist … so then why did she dabble in all that bonkers Native American ancestry stuff? Kamala Harris says she’s a genuine liberal, but she was also a brutally tough prosecutor. Cory Booker is trying too hard to be an Obama reboot. Beto O’Rourke seems like he could be the real thing, except that he also seems like he was hatched in an underground lab to simply seem like the real thing. Kirsten Gillibrand says she’s a feminist but she was for gun rights before she was against them, and Julián Castro is Hispanic but he also might be too Hispanic, but then is Kamala Harris really black enough and don’t get me started on Sherrod Brown and whether he’s a folksy blue-collar guy or just a rumpled blue-collar guy.

It is deeply strange, this American fixation with political “authenticity.” We would rather have a flat, one-dimensional stick figure run for office than sit with the possibility that human beings are multifaceted and evolving and—by necessity and design—apt to show different faces to different people over the course of a political lifetime. This transcends the much-ballyhooed American proclivity to prefer presidents whom they can have a beer with. It’s not so much that we want a president who is like us; it’s that we abhor the notion that our politicians may appear to be one thing sometimes but are something totally different at other times. [Continue reading…]