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Parrots: at times, they seem almost suspiciously smart. It’s not just about the talking and the mimicry; the Harvard Gazettereports that an adult parrot can routinely outperform a human four-year-old in a variety of cognition tests, including judging the relative volume of liquids. (Pour equal amounts of juice into a tall thin cup and a short stout one and your average preschooler will opt for the taller cup, while your average parrot won’t be fooled.) How can a creature with a brain so noticeably different than our own seem to think so clearly? And why is parrot or crow intelligence (or, for that matter, octopus intelligence) so unsettling, compared to say, chimpanzee intelligence? What is it about a smart bird that seems a little spooky? Science has yet to address the latter questions, but as to that first point, it appears that a breakthrough has been made. University of Alberta neuroscientists Cristián Gutiérrez-Ibáñez, Andrew N. Iwaniuk and Douglas R. Wylie have been hard at work, …

Why Testosterone May Be the Real "Luxury Drug"

“You are what you buy,” our consumer culture seems to tell us. But how fixed and immutable are our buying preferences? How subject are they to chemical manipulation? This may sound like the premise for a paranoid and on-the-nose thriller about capitalism but it’s also the question raised by a recentcollaboration between Caltech, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, University of Western Ontario, and ZRT Laboratory. And the results of that study suggest the answer is: very. Researchers assembled 243 men between the ages of 18 and 55. Half were randomly dosed with testosterone, while the other half were given a placebo. 4 hours later, when the testosterone in their blood had nearly peaked, they were given several tasks. First, the subjects were presented with a 10-point scale, featuring a brand with high social status on one end, and a brand with low status—but otherwise equal quality—on the other. The men were asked to move a slider towards their preferred brand—the farth…

Don't Discover Your Passion--Grow It!

It’s graduation season, and that means it’s time to celebrate the grads in your life, revel in their accomplishments—and prepare yourself to wedge into some uncomfortable seating for a speech about the importance of uncovering your passion in life.

The “follow your dreams” talk has died down a little since the economic collapse of the late aughts. Still, remain in the orbit of a recently graduated high schooler long enough and you will still hear some well-meaning adult deliver advice to the same effect. “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” “Find what you’re passionate about and the rest will follow.” It’s as inevitable as potato salad at a summer cookout.
However, some psychologists now suggest it may be less nutritious.
Recently, researchers from Stanford and Yale-NUS college (a collaboration between Yale and the University of Singapore) administered a series of tests to look at what they call “implicit theory of interest.”…

Can Your Horse Read Your Mood?

Horses are remarkable creatures. 47 million years ago, their evolutionary ancestor was just two feet tall at adulthood. Anatomically speaking, their “wrist” is located at the joint that looks like a knee, while the rest of each leg is technically a finger. It’s been reported that two draft horses working together can pull triple the load of one horse.
And despite their reputation for not being terribly bright, like any other pack animal they have the ability to discern each other’s emotions—something your irritating co-worker still can’t seem to do.
Now, researchers at the University of Tokyo are conducting tests to see if horses can also read the emotions of nearby humans. Are riders right when they claim that their horse seems to know just how they’re feeling, or do we simply see what we want to see in their big brown eyes? For that matter, how would such a test possibly be structured? You can’t give a horse a questionnaire, and fMRI machines are definitely not designed for quadrupe…

When Songs Are Your Friends

How do you listen to music? I don’t mean “Are you a headphones person or more of a speaker fan?” I mean, what parts of your brain do you use? “The same parts of the brain everyone else uses,” you may be tempted to say. But hold on: it’s a little more complicated than that. It turns out that highly empathetic people experience music more deeply than the rest of the population, and there’s a neuroscience reason why. About 20% of the population is considered highly empathetic. These folks are unusually attuned to the emotions of the people around them. They may be overwhelmed by crowds, loud noises, or unusually needy or talkative people. But there are benefits, it seems—and not just the benefits associated with being able to read situations more accurately. In a study—the first of its kind—by Southern Methodist University, Dallas, and UCLA, 20 UCLA undergrad students climbed into an fMRI machine and listened to passages of music either familiar or unfamiliar to them while having their bra…

Would You Fall for It? The Conspiracy Mind

Are you likely to fall for a made-up government conspiracy? That depends: how well-informed are you? If you said “very”…bad news, you might be another chump. What gives? A recent study by Joseph Vitriol and Jessecae K. Marsh of Lehigh Unversity found that people who are overconfident in their grasp of the political world are the most likely to also buy into the existence of shadowy organizations and secret connections. Vitriol and Marsh had the study participants rate their understanding of a series of public policies. But here’s the kicker: the subjects then had to provide the most detailed possible explanation of how those policies actually worked. They then had the option to re-evaluate themselves. Many of the participants, bluff called, had to concede—perhaps a bit sheepishly—that they didn’t know as much as they’d thought. However, for some, the act of piecing together an explanation only strengthened their belief that they really got the whole picture. “Participants who had high le…

Tasting Sounds, Hearing Colors: The World of Synesthesia

What color is Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”? For many, the question may sound like word salad, but if you have synesthesia, not only might it make perfect sense, but there’s a chance you already have an answer. The UK Synaesthesia Association describes synesthesia like so: “[s]ensations in one modality (e.g. hearing) produce sensations in another modality (e.g. colour) as well as it's own.” There are many different kinds of synesthesia. A synesthete be able to “taste” a day of the week, or describe the weight or physical texture of a word. There is little consensus about just what those cross-category attributes are: the letter M may appear brown to one person and green to another. It’s also somewhat unclear how common the condition is; estimates range from one percent of the population to twenty percent. Part of this ambiguity stems from synesthesia being a little hard to pin down. A synesthete won’t necessarily even know that the way they process the world is unusual. Some ta…