Shortcuts: Multitasking (repost)

These are reposts of a series I did years ago on mental shortcuts.

(This post is part of a series. Intro > 1. Illusions > 2. Labeling > 3. Math > 4. Multitasking > 5. Rules)

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This one combines the worst of Illusions and Math. We trust our senses and inadequately assess risk.

We have limited capacities for attending to what happens around us. Two or more objects are not being held at the same time in memory. We switch between them. Once we have copied them from long term or permanent memory into working memory then short term, we can find those copies pretty quickly again. The more complicated the behavior and the more dissimilar the two or more tasks, the worse we multitask. By worse, I mean we are more prone to error and take longer time.

Given all the research and media coverage on how bad we are at multitasking and risks associated of texting and driving, I see people doing it daily. A law here allows police to write tickets to people who do it for the past few years. Texting is also pretty bad even on hands-free devices. Like other risky behaviors, these approaches are unlikely to stop humans from putting themselves in dangerous situations.

(This post is part of a series. Intro > 1. Illusions > 2. Labeling > 3. Math > 4. Multitasking > 5. Rules)

Shortcuts: Illusions (repost)

These are reposts of a series I did years ago on mental shortcuts.

(This post is part of a series. Intro > 1. Illusions > 2. Labeling > 3. Math > 4. Multitasking > 5. Rules)

Photo by Michel Berube on

We like to think only those things we experience exist. Or even can experience. What about those things we can experience that do not or never did exist? That is what illusions are. They are cases where we trick the brain into believing something happened that did not. Or tricking the brain into thinking is experiencing reality when it is missing crucially important.

Michael Bach has a nice optical illusions page to demonstrate how easily our eyes are tricked. Every sense we have can be tricked. The food industry has worked wonders in devising how to trick our senses of smell and taste. When you feel something crawling on you and look to see nothing, that is your sense of touch going haywire.

Illusions can also be dangerous. Eyewitness testimony is the worst evidence we use in the legal system. Witnesses rarely capture and retain all the details. And how they are interviewed can allow them to fill in these gaps with other evidence and skew their results to confirm that same evidence. Say the police pick up a suspect and present that photo with others to a witness. The witness picks the photo of the suspect and later out of a line up. If the suspect actually only resembles the culprit, then these two steps confirm for the witness (and the police) the suspect’s guilt even though the witness saw someone else. We attend to similarities when searching and ignore the differences. And we will go with the closest option given choices.

Inattentional blindness also falls into my illusions category. Paying too much attention to something means we have no idea about what else is happening. The train operator on his cell phone not noticing the curve for which he needed to slow down and derailed. Multitasking while operating a vehicle is dangerous because of this.

Of course, everything we experience is really the interpretation of signals to the brain. One of my favorite experiments was people wore goggles that inverted the image so everything appeared upside down. The brain just adapts to the error and interprets the picture to the desired orientation. Do not like what you see? The brain can solve that problem. Another favorite experiment was ending phantom pain in missing limbs by using mirrors to make the limb appear to exist again.

My favorite metaphor for how the brain works is Object-Oriented Programming. Different parts of the brain perform different functions. The functions adapt (are reprogrammed or reconfigured) based on the needed interpretation of the data. Of course, the adaptations are not always 100% correct. Nor do they always adapt in time not to avoid errors.

(This post is part of a series. Intro > 1. Illusions > 2. Labeling > 3. Math > 4. Multitasking > 5. Rules)

Paternal oxytocin

The one good thing about the shelter-in-place is the opportunity to be more engaged with my daughter. Before, I got her fed, dressed, and transported to daycare. Now, I still generally get her fed then periodically engage her in conversations, reading, and play. I can say that I do feel more connected to her.

Thus, the below makes sense to me:

Photo by Sebastian Voortman on

Oxytocin increases in mothers, who provide a lot of affectionate contact and in fathers, who have a lot of stimulatory contact. Studies show that fathers highly involved in playing with their children have a higher level of oxytocin, compared with fathers, who show less stimulating activities. Moreover, brains of fathers involved in caregiving activities show an increase in grey matter volume.

Parenting is a choice” on SciComm for everyone

Executive Function

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Teenagers have an under developed prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that interrupts emotional responses and considers the potential effects before acting. Teenagers look enough adult-like we want to treat them as adults, but they also have yet to grow the brain into their bodies.

Toddlers DGAF. Stimulus-response. Galahad is having to deal with the consequences of lack of planning, thinking three moves ahead, and a toddler who makes him pay the consequences.

He was in a bad mood, but he came upstairs to make a showing of his displeasure. Fleur who adores him now has made him sit and watch the same annoying video (we all hate) over and over.

She sounds so happy.

He sounds grumpier. Well, until she has worn him down.

My hope is that experiences like this will help him grow into being more mindful.

Pre-Theory of Mind

Fleur picked up something off the floor, popped it in her mouth, stood up, and met my gaze. She spun around and took off. She knew I was coming for it without me having to say it.

She is about a year from having developed the Theory of Mind. With it, she is able to know what I am thinking about the situation. In the classic situation, a researcher shows putting something in a box. Another moves it while the first is not present. Then the child asked where the first thinks it is located.

The taking off means she knows something of what I am thinking. She just would think I know what she knows.

Tryptophan, insulin, and melatonin

toddler lying on pink fleece pad


A few times now, I have gotten Fleur to sleep right after eating lunch. I know the daycare times it this way. It seemed arbitrary until I tried it and found it easy to get her to sleep.

Then I remembered something I read a while ago: Meats contain tryptophan. Fruits and sweets contain carbohydrates. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, we eat feel drowsy because of eating both. The carbohydrates prompts the release of insulin to use the branched-chain amino acids in rebuilding muscle, but the tryptophan is left behind. The tryptophan is metabolized into serotonin which is metabolized into melatonin. The last is what gives us that drowsy feel.

So, I now suspect the trick to getting the little one to take that nap is to get her full and use the excess melatonin as another nudge to “Go the #$@! to sleep!” That may also mean supper needs to be right before the bath when the neurotransmitter is maxed out.

Book: Brain Rules for Baby

photo of head bust print artwork

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I loved the Brain Rules book. The original discussed why the brain works the way it does (including the studies) and gave specific activities one can do to boost the efficacy. An example: the brain is a major consumer of oxygen, so scientists have found that intense exercise improves function by getting more oxygenated blood to the brain.

I need to re-read it as it has been a decade. I recently got the baby one.

Some quotes:

Having a first child is like swallowing an intoxicating drink made of equal parts joy and terror, chased with a bucketful of transitions nobody ever tells you about.

This is 1,000% true.

As a scientist, I was very aware that watching a baby’s brain develop feels as if you have a front row seat to a biological Big Bang. The brain starts out as a single cell in the womb, quiet as a secret. Within a few weeks, it is pumping out nerve cells at an astonishing rate of 8,000 per second. Within a few months, it is on it’s way to becoming the world’s finest thinking machine.

Some notes I took.

  1. Perception begins at weeks for most senses. And memory persists after birth, but stimulation too early is harmful and later not going to make a genius.
  2. Everything is a balancing act. During pregnancy especially weight, nutrition, stress, exercise.
  3. Chronic or acute stress passes those hormones through the placenta and children seeing it stunt brain growth observing it. Husbands need to keep their wife not stressed. Happy is the ideal, but at least not stressed. This can be 8 IQ points.
  4. Exercise can reduce pushing time and reduce the time baby is without oxygen and reduce stunted brain development.
  5. Kinds of intelligence:
    1. Record information, aka crystallized intelligence.
    2. Improvisation
    3. Desire to explore
    4. Self-control
    5. Creativity
    6. Verbal communication
    7. Decoding nonverbal communication
  6. Ingredients for happy kids:
    1. a demanding but warm parenting style ( responsiveness & demandingness)
    2. comfort with your own emotions
    3. tracking your child’s emotions (don’t ignore & don’t helicopter)
    4. verbalizing emotions (describe emotions)
    5. running toward emotions (emotions are reflexive; behavior is a choice; be consistent with rules on behavior; turn intense feelings into teachable moments)
    6. two tons of empathy
  7. Behavior modification basic principles.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. The thing I liked the most about the original was he named a rule and went on about why it is important and the research justifying it. This book lacked that simplistic and novel model, which put me off.



Study: The rough sound of salience enhances aversion through neural synchronisation

Why is is that children’s screams affect us so much? Crying is one thing. But, a scream gets adrenaline revved up and someone is going to die. These researchers looked at why.

They define how the physical properties of a scream differ from other similar sounds. It fits in 30–150 Hz, is loud, and has fast repetitive flicker like effects. These combine to capture attention due to the unpleasantness.

They used iEEG electrodes to measure brain activity. They looked at a small number of patients.

One of the areas that lit up is used in processing language and emotional context. While the superior temporal gyrus is in a part of the brain associated with sound, when analyzing facial expressions, we also leverage this area to understand emotions.

Arnal, LHKleinschmidt, A, et al. “The rough sound of salience enhances aversion through neural synchronisation” Nature Communications volume 10, Article number: 3671 (2019)

Fostering kindness

Turns out, kindness is complicated. We’re born with the wiring for both kindness and cruelty, so altruism is not inevitable. It’s a skill and a habit that we have the power — and responsibility — to foster, one good deed at a time.

I love the concept of mirror neurons. When watching someone else do something, the parts of our brain for doing that activity light up as though we are doing it. One of the reasons why I enjoy watching sports that I have played, especially the players of positions, is because I feel it when they make a play. They also have a dark side, in that when others experience pain, our brain experiences it as well.

two gray monkey on black chair

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My first experience with seeing early empathetic distress was in helping my aunt babysit twins. When one would cry, the other hearing the cry would also start to cry. Nothing was wrong. At the time, we chalked it up to attention seeking, but I bet really it was empathetic distress. Hearing the the cry bad made the other feel bad and crying was the way to express it.

Kindness is not just about feeling bad about another’s distress, but doing something to resolve it. Fleur likes to take my glasses. Unfortunately, I have turned it into a kind of game. Lately, I have had to shift my reaction to expressing sadness about it. She is much faster about giving them back when I do. Wonder if that would work for the throwing food thing?

Human brains more responsive to musical tones than macaque monkey ones

monkey eating bananas

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I’ve written before about singing to Fleur to get her attention and how music is good for the brain. If this fMRI data on human brains compared to macaque monkey ones holds up, then there might be a developmental difference in brains that allows us to be more attuned to musical tones.

“When the researchers looked more closely at the data, they found evidence suggesting the human brain was highly sensitive to tones. The human auditory cortex was much more responsive than the monkey cortex when they looked at the relative activity between tones and equivalent noisy sounds.”

The researchers wondered what kind of auditory experience our ancestors had that caused this difference. The same structure also responds to speech, which might explain some of our qualities of speech. Music and talking are intertwined. So, child development being responsive to music makes sense in that they are wired to learn and we adults are doing so with both music and speech.