Laura’s Psychology Blog

One Professor’s Observations of the World of Psychology….   

June 29, 2009

Teenagers Who Expect to Die

Filed under: Psychology — Laura Freberg @ 9:20 am

It’s been a long-standing belief in developmental psychology that teens believe in immortality, or at least act as though they do. There was supposed to be something about the immaturity of the prefrontal cortex, our highest centers for decision-making, that just led teens to behave in ways that were oddly divorced from their inevitable consequences. One of the truly frightening aspects of turning 25 or so is that your parents’ concerns for you suddenly make sense.

Immortal Teens May Engage in Risky Behavior

Immortal Teens May Engage in Risky Behavior

This widely held belief about teen immortality has been challenged by Iris Borowsky and her colleagues, who reported that around 15% of a sample of over 20,000 teenagers agreed with a statement that they had at least a 50/50 chance of NOT living to age 35. Although these fatalistic teens were no more likely to die than their more optimistic peers, their fatalism was correlated with more risky behavior. Males, African-Americans, and Native Americans were even more likely to agree with the statement, possibly due to the availability heuristic. If you see young people around you who die, maybe you’re more likely to think the same thing will happen to you.

People’s perception of the risk of dying is not very good–many fear earthquakes and shark attacks, but step into their automobile with great confidence (your odds of being killed in your car are 1 in 84, while the odds of being killed by a shark are less than one in 264 million). We are so ridiculously safety conscious in some respects–children wear helmets to play at the park and my neighbor debates whether it is “safe” for her 11-year-old son and his friend to ride their bicycles a mile to the local ice cream store, fearing that they will be molested or kidnapped in broad daylight in our remarkably rural little town. Then parents turn around a couple of years later and act as if teen drinking, drug use, and promiscuity are “normal” parts of growing up. Teens are not the only ones with a disconnect between behavior and consequences.

I’m not sure how I would answer Borowsky’s question as a teen. I had seen little of death, but the deaths of high school classmates due to automobile accidents and drugs left large impressions on my thinking. I paid my way through college by working as an admitting clerk in the UCLA Emergency Room, where death stalked young and old on a daily basis. The children were the worst. Thirty-five was so far away that one could barely imagine ever being that old, and I remember feeling deep pity for grad students who were still in school as they approached the ripe old age of 30. Events of the Cold War seemed remote, in spite of our neighbor’s elaborate bomb shelter, until I visited the Austria-Hungary border in 1969 and saw the Soviet Army amassed as far as the eye could see. They were so close that you could see the soldiers smoking cigarettes while leaning against their tanks. But did this change the riskiness of my behavior? No. But Borowsky et al. raise an issue that needs further study. Why is it that some teens are fatalistic, others immortal, and others somewhere in between?

June 26, 2009

Men Agree on Attractiveness; Women Don’t

Filed under: Psychology — Laura Freberg @ 5:53 pm

It appears that yet another study has found a difference between the ways men and women view physical attractiveness. This will make the evolutionary psychologists happy, as they typically argue that male judgments of female attractiveness focus on youth and fertility, while females are all about finding a man with resources who will protect them and their children.

Dustin Wood and his colleagues asked more that 4000 people to rate photographs of men and women. You can participate in a similar study here. There are 100 photos to rate, so set aside about half an hour to do this. 

Men rated women who were thin, seductive, and confident as attractive, but the women showed much less consensus about who they thought was attractive. Some men rated as very attractive by some women were rated very negatively by others. This seems really consistent with the images presented to us in the movies, with actresses all pretty much thin, seductive, and confident (think Angie) and actors ranging from really almost prissy to relatively macho.

The study did find one result of age–older participants preferred images of people smiling. I have to tease Mr. F about that–based on his background in advertising and marketing, he always complains about sad-looking people in textbook photos, so of course, we found mostly smiling people for Discovering Biological Psychology.

Symmetry Usually Predicts Judgments of Attractiveness

Symmetry Usually Predicts Judgments of Attractiveness

It would be interesting to see how these results interact with facial symmetry, which seems to be attractive to everybody, even little babies.

June 23, 2009

Gray Hair Protects Us from Cancer?

Filed under: Dieting,Psychology — Laura Freberg @ 5:06 pm

I love weird science news, in case you haven’t noticed, so while perusing New Scientist, this headline about gray hair caught my attention, in spite of the fact that it’s not very psychological. Well, I suppose that people become VERY psychological about aging and its outward signs, so I suppose I can fit this topic into my blog on that basis.

According to recent research, hair goes gray when the number of stem cells in the hair follicles declines. Apparently, one’s supply of melanocytes, the cells that provide the pigmentation that gives us our hair color, is restocked in younger people by stem cells. If you run out of stem cells, you can’t make more melanocytes, and bingo–gray hair.

Now this isn’t all bad news. If you zap mice with DNA-damaging things like radiation, their hair turns gray, which may be the least of their worries. Their hair follicle stem cells turn into permanent melanocytes, meaning they can’t restock as the supply of melanocytes dies off. What’s the good news about this? Well, by taking stem cells with damaged DNA out of circulation, along with their potential cancer-causing mutations, we might be a little more protected from cancer.

Intrigued by this article, I decided to do a little more research on graying. Somebody even came up with a name for the process: achromotrichia. Trichia is the Greek word for hair, and “achromo” means lacking color.  According to the ever-accurate Wikipedia (sans references to boot), 40 percent of Americans have some gray hair by the age of 40 years. 

Gratuitous Greek Vacation Photo of Me Outside the Athenian Agora With Brown Hair (Mostly)

Gratuitous Greek Vacation Photo of Me Outside the Athenian Agora With Brown Hair (Mostly)

My father didn’t become truly gray until he approached his 60th birthday, and I’m not sure when my mother did, as she colored her hair as far back as I can remember. It appears that I’m following in my father’s footsteps (follicles might be more appropriate) as I still have a fair amount of brown hair as I approach my 57th birthday.  Dad always claimed that his hair was graying rapidly until he finished off some of my mother’s leftover prenatal vitamins (he was in his 40s when my brother and I were born). I can’t speak to that, as I own a bottle of vitamins that gets dusty because I forget to take them, but I’m pretty sure that my careful eating a la Jenny Craig hasn’t hurt. Genes matter, too, of course.

June 21, 2009

Happy Father’s Day!

Filed under: Biological Psychology,Psychology — Laura Freberg @ 9:49 am

No offense to single mothers out there, who are doing their best to raise good kids, but dads do provide input that moms and other female relatives cannot. I have to admit that many of the major highlights of my children’s lives were not the day-to-day things that I did, but the popcorn fights, trips on the roof of our 2 story house, fishing, and other “dad” activities that happened when I was conveniently off at work.

Cross-culturally, fathers teach achievement and how to compete, skills that are likely to be ever more relevant in today’s economic environment. According to David Geary, an expert in evolutionary psychology, dads also teach children to emotionally regulate through a special type of play. By roughhousing with their children, Geary says dads work their kids up almost to a breaking point, then calm them down, teaching them important skills that lead to popularity among both peers and authority figures. In our house, Mr. F devised a game called “smash the Daddy,” harkening back to his NFL experiences. How does one play, you ask? First, you construct an elaborate block tower on the coffee table that is to be defended by the daddy. Next, you teach your toddler daughter proper tackling technique. Her task is to get past the daddy to destroy the block tower on the table. Now I know some moms who would throw up their hands in horror at such an activity, but I think it’s no accident that our daughters, now adult, have had no problems whatsoever maneuvering through the masculine domains of military service and elite athletics.

Mr. F Catches Karen for the Umpteenth Time--Who Needs a Gym When You Have Kids?

Mr. F Catches Karen for the Umpteenth Time--Who Needs a Gym When You Have Kids?

One of the interesting outcomes of Geary’s research is that children living in a calm, stable environment with their dad experience later sexual maturation. We do know that age of puberty has dropped substantially in the last century, from about 16 years to the current average of 12 years, and it is not uncommon to see children of 8 years or so who are physically quite mature. How much of this is due to father absence would be an interesting question.  Children with a stable relationship with their father are more likely to form their own stable relationships as adults and become good parents in turn. One has to wonder how much of this is modeling and how much is due to epigenetic changes.

My own father passed away in 1986, and I still miss him deeply. I still think I should be able to dial his telephone number, and hear him answer “Well, this is a surprise,” even though I called him regularly. Geary says that some of a father’s best work shows up in his grandchildren, and I like to think that watching Kristin graduate from West Point or Karen taking 9th in the Olympic Trials or Karla having a Pixar animator gush over her art would put a smile on his face.  I think he would also be proud of Mr. F’s investment in our daughters, and he might even want to join in on a round of “smash the daddy.”

June 19, 2009

The Remarkable Human Brain–Up Close and Personal

Filed under: Biological Psychology,Psychology,Textbook Publishing — Laura Freberg @ 5:43 pm

This morning, Mr. F and I traveled down the coast to the University of California, Santa Barbara, where our friend Skirmantas Janusonis kindly provided an opportunity to photograph six human brains he and colleague Scott Grafton were preparing to use for the Summer Institute in Cognitive Neuroscience.

Skirmantas Janusonis and I Examine Six Human Brains
Skirmantas Janusonis and I Examine Six Human Brains

According to Skirmantas, times have changed since I took my monster core course in Neuroanatomy at UCLA from the remarkable Arnold Scheibel. For that course, each student was given a human brain to dissect, which was a truly amazing experience. I had dissected sheep’s brains in my undergraduate lab with Darrell Dearmore, but having an opportunity to work with a human brain was fascinating. Unfortunately, it appears that these opportunities are more difficult to come by these days, and Skirmantas said it was no easy matter to obtain the six brains he had. I have to say that I don’t miss the eau de formalin of the 70s, although the ethanol used to preserve these brains was a bit tough on the olfactory system, too.  On the drive home, I kept asking Mr. F if I smelled like ethanol, and I quickly changed my clothes when I got home.

The first thing that strikes me, especially when I have a chance like this to see several brains at the same time, is that there is no “textbook” brain. All of our beautiful artistic renderings of the brain for Discovering Biological Psychology make it look like everybody has a clearly identified central sulcus and similar convolutions. Skirmantas’ six brains varied widely in size and shape, which is so important for students to see. It was also interesting to see where little chunks of brain had been removed during the autopsy process. Although the brains were from “healthy,” albeit deceased people, I found myself speculating about what symptoms lead the physicians conducting the autopsy to take a chunk out of the temporal lobe of one, and out of the cerebellum on another. Then of course, the psychologist is me gets to wondering, what kind of person was this? Happy? Sad? Kind? Cruel? Loved? Lonely? Perhaps that is why I ended up in psychology, instead of medicine.
We hope to use some of our photographs in upcoming textbooks, so stay tuned! For those of you interested in attending Summer Institute, this year’s session is closed, but you may want to check back in time to sign up for next year’s. The themes include “are humans fundamentally different than other animals?” and “individuality.”  The presenters list reads like a “who’s who” in neuroscience. Hmmm, maybe I’ll sign up next year, too!
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It is not a lack of love,
but a lack of friendship
that makes unhappy marriages
-------- Nietzsche



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