Category Archives: sharks and jets

Big Love & Other Oxytocin Myths


My husband snapped this photo of me & our firstborn enjoying a stroll through the Muir Woods redwood park this Valentine’s weekend, exactly 30 years after he & I walked the same path. Everybody say, “Aww,” cuz that’s the last sentimental sentence in this pseudo-science-debunking post.

In 1953 Vincent du Vigneaud synthesized the so-called “pro-social” neuropeptide, Oxytocin (OT), for which he won a Nobel Prize in 1956 [but not for Peace]. Until the 21st century, researchers mostly studied the effects of this hormone in nonhuman mammals, concluding that it facilitates labor and lactation. From whence, it was only a short anthropomorphic leap of logic, to conclude that OT acts like a maternal love potion, cementing the mother-offspring bond, at least until the young can fend for themselves. Having witnessed at an impressionable age my cousin’s pet mouse giving birth and then eating all of her young that we were not quick enough to rescue from her, I can tell you [as they say Up North in England], “It don’t necessarily follow.” Apparently, the amount of OT sufficient to induce labor & delivery is not always sufficient to guarantee maternal feelings [let’s say, behavior] towards her progeny. Anyone who raises livestock is aware of this, and has one or two “foster mothers” on hand, to “adopt” the rejected newborns. Those who work in neonatology or “foundling” rescue have seen this occasional failure of Oxytocin to vincit omnia in humans, as well.

Nevertheless, OT has lately been hailed by [mostly European] neuroscientists, as the “Love Hormone” for shy, fearful and/or autistic humans, now available as a nasal spray [talk about “Gets Right Up Your Nose”], at least for research purposes. In April ’05, Kosfeld et al. [from Zurich] proclaimed “Oxytocin increases trust in humans.” In December ’05, Kirsch et al. [from Germany] reported “Oxytocin modulates neural circuity for social cognition and fear in humans.” By April ’10 Hurlemann et al. [from Bonn], in the article “Oxytocin enhances amygdala-dependent, socially reinforced learning and emotional empathy in humans,” began, “OT is becoming increasingly established as a prosocial neuropeptide in humans with therapeutic potential in treatment of social, cognitive, and mood disorders.”

Oh, yeah? Show me the data. More to the point, show me the methodology. The slender bough from which all these “findings” hang, is the Multifaceted Empathy Test: a self-administered computer instrument, on which a subject first categorizes a series of photos [happy, sad, or angry], and then rates [0 to 10] “how much you feel for the person in the photo.” With and without OT up your nose, double-blind. Seriously? Why not just ask subjects to rate Facebook pictures? “Would you ‘friend’ this person? Now, with OT up your nose, would you?”

Did I mention that trans-nasal Oxytocin is chemically similar to MDMA? [Google it.]

Let’s hear it for the Dutch [Carsten De Dreu et al., June ’10, Amsterdam], who used a slightly more real-world scenario, involving a game of strategy, allocating wealth [10 Euros] to Self, the In-Group, and/or the Out-Group. [Not unlike the contentious bail-out of debtor EU nations by (ahem) the Germans, nicht wahr?] They use wonderfully evocative terms, like “in-group love” and “out-group hate.” Here’s what they found: “The Neuropeptide Oxytocin Regulates Parochial Altruism in Intergroup Conflict Among Humans.” Absent OT up their nose(s) the (male) subjects mostly opted to keep their Euros to themselves. With a snootfull, though, they would sacrifice their Euros for the good of their in-group, especially if it “hurt” the out-group. Conclusion: OT “drives a ‘tend and defend’ response in that it promoted in-group trust and cooperation, and defensive aggression (including protectionism and preemptive strike) against perceived out-group threat.”

Sound familiar? Sounds like Circle-the-Wagons, Jets-versus-Sharks, Small Love [not Big Love] to me. Next time, a discussion of how OT gets into the bloodstream [other than via a nasal spray].

Hint: Consider the old English expression, “to curry favour.”

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Filed under murky research, pro bono publico, sharks and jets

The Uncanny Valley


This highly technical term, coined in the 70s by the Japanese roboticist, Masahiro Mori, could just as well be the title of a Hollywood horror flick, nar’mean? What Mori-san meant, though, was that sudden dip in a graph measuring the “appeal” of humanoid robots, that occurs when The Thing looks both Too Human, yet Not-quite Human, and the observer gets freaked out.

Dr. Christian “Jeepers” Jarrett’s article, “The Lure of Horror,” in the Halloween issue of The Psychologist, tries to account for the apparent predilection among current cinema-goers [it’s a British journal] for being freaked out. Despite what you might gather from the weekly Box Office grosses listed in The Hollywood Reporter, not everyone craves creepiness. In fact, it’s mostly males aged 6 to 25 who really dig “trips” to the Uncanny Valley. The rest of us get quite enough of that eery sensation, thank you very much, from our nightmares, hypnogogic illusions [in that twilight state between sleep & waking], and the weird coincidences of everyday life.

The concept predates modern film-making. Freud & his contemporaries were writing articles about Das Unheimliche [the Uncanny] in the early 1900s, pondering the scariness of dolls with missing eyes [remember the cartoons of Orphan Annie?], clowns, and anyone hiding their face behind a mask [or veil]. The limbic explanation, then and now, is that we vulnerable mortals need all the visual cues we can get, to determine whether a stranger poses a threat or not. If we think someone is PLU [People Like Us], and suddenly the mask slips, to reveal that they are [gasp!] non-PLU, our visceral response may be so dramatic that we get vertigo.

Back in the day, when I was a VA Trainee, I was interviewing a young “woman” veteran, to assess whether the first government-funded sex-change operation would increase or decrease his/her suicidal acting out. I had lived in Greenwich Village, the mecca of glamorous transvestites; but the individual before me looked and acted more like an Amish farm girl. When I asked about an incident from adolescence, the person’s voice, body language and facial expression morphed into the 16-year-old boy he had been; and I nearly fell out of my chair. It wasn’t scary; it was uncanny. We both had a good laugh about it, and carried on with the interview, in the safe surroundings of the Manhattan VA hospital. As a transsexual individual trying to live a “normal” life in 1970s NYC, however, the uncanny feelings my patient evoked in macho men often turned violent. [ See The Crying Game, not so much Tootsie.]

In this regard, Jarrett reports a startling finding from my least favorite research tool, the fMRI. 40 subjects watched creepy clips from scary movies and also boring clips from the same films. The researchers expected the amygdala to light up during the creepy bits; but, no, the intracranial wolf did not howl. What lit up were the “visual cortex, the insular cortex (a region involved in self-awareness) and the thalamus (the relay centre between the cortex and the sub-cortical regions).” I hate to admit it, but this is heavy. It suggests that members of that coveted demographic, males between 6 and 25, do not seek out horror films to get scared. They are there to get schooled. They are practicing [in what they are quite aware is a safe, pretend setting] vigilance. They’re getting good at discriminating the PLU from the non-PLU, innit?

Their motto is not, “Jeepers, creepers!” It’s “We won’t be fooled again.”

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Filed under attribution theory, limbic system, sharks and jets

Born This Way?


This, from last Tuesday’s Washington Post: “Fido won’t sit? Blame his genes.” This slipshod article is loosely based on a study conducted at the Department of Ethology & the Department of Medical Chemistry at 2 separate universities in Budapest, Hungary, entitled “Polymorphism in the Tyrosine Hydroxylase (TH) Gene Is Associated with Activity-Impulsivity in German Shepherd Dogs.” Still paying attention?

For me, the most fascinating finding was that, regarding this herenow gene, there was great variance between different dog breeds. (Which wasn’t the point of the study at all, mind you. They were supposed to be focusing on within-breed differences. Seem to have gotten a little sidetracked, no?) “For example, the frequency of allele 2 is 31% in Groenandaels [Belgian Shepherds to you & me], 0.89% in German shepherds, and 0.73% in wolves.” Got wolf? Yes, I do, near as dammit.

Now, to the weakest link of the study: the operational definition of Activity-Impulsivity in dogs. First they modified the standard parents-kvetching-about-their-kids ADHD checklist to “apply” to owners-kvetching-about-their-dogs. No items from this questionnaire appeared in the article. Trust them, it had great inter-rater reliability. Swell. How about validity? What they call ADHD, I might call hypervigilance [which is what my wolflike German shepherd manifests, ja?]. Or, possibly, Separation Anxiety, which she also has.

Next they conducted a 4-task individual test for 104 dog & owner pairs, with a female experimenter present. (1)”Spontaneous activity.” Dog on leash with owner [not giving any commands] for 1 minute. [How many leg movements did the dog make?] (2)”Separation & play.” With owner “hiding” behind a nearby tree & dog tied to another tree, the experimenter tries to engage the dog in a game of tug-of-war. [How active was the dog?] (3)”Lying on the side.” Owner commands the dog to lie down, then has it lie on its side for 30 seconds. [Does the dog obey?] (4)”Approaching the owner.” While experimenter holds the dog on a leash, the owner “hides” behind a tree. Then the dog is let off the leash and given the command “Go!” back to the owner. Now, get a load of this! The more quickly the dog returns to its owner, the more “ADHD” it is! Seriously.

Who knew the Hungarians placed such a premium on taking your sweet time when summoned by “the boss”?

Ooh! So, would they then predict that wolves [with an even lower frequency of the TH gene] would return to their pack leader even faster than our dog Lili? [Which I would have thought had survival value…] Wolves must be “ADHD” as all getout.

Notice that nowhere in the study was “Sitting on command” assessed.

May I suggest that you henceforth take the “Science News” section of the WaPo with a grain of salt? As they sing in Porgy & Bess, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

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Filed under ethology, murky research, sharks and jets

“Road Dogs”

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“If anybody ever asks us well let’s just tell them that we met in jail.” Recovery by Frank Turner

Elmore Leonard, who wrote Road Dogs in 2009, and died last week, has been my metaphorical Road Dog since 1982, when I left the Navy & moved with my husband Chris back to his hometown, the ritzy [but claustrophobically non-coastal] suburban Detroit town of Birmingham, MI. Back then Leonard himself was still living a few miles East in humble Clawson, MI, and having his trademark “loveable rascal” characters conflate Birmingham & the even ritzier Bloomfield Hills, referring to their denizens as “Bloomingham pukes.” I used to do my grocery shopping over at the Clawson Farmer Jack, hoping to spot my spirit guide Leonard in the liquor aisle, stocking up on Jack Daniels. Never had a sighting, but I took comfort from the fact that of all the places he could afford to live, he chose to stay put: “Hey, my grandkids live here,” he used to say. If Oakland Country was cool enough for “Dutch,” then I could do better with my time spent there, than “just making do and muddling through” [to quote from another Frank Turner song, The Way I Tend to Be]. The young British singer/songwriter Frank Turner is another metaphorical Road Dog for me.

The original meaning of the term, as portrayed in Leonard’s novel, is two people who meet in jail and agree to protect each other from the predations of the other inmates. The social contract of “I got your back, forever, man, no matter what,” is only a Socratic ideal, impossible to keep in real life; and only one “partner” can be the alpha dog…at any given time. Part of the fun of the novel is tracking the shifts in the power subtext between Jack Foley & Cundo Rey. Won’t tell you who winds up top dog. Buy the book.

And that’s the social contract between me & Elmore Leonard [and me & Frank Turner]. Their upbeat, offbeat take(s) on life keep(s) my morale up; and my big-upping them to friends [& readers of this blog] keeps their sales numbers up. What my two Road Dogs have in common is an unflinching, sarcastically funny acknowledgement of aggressive impulses: Leonard through his fictional characters, and Turner though his autobiographical songs. They own the wolf.  They make you want to invite it in and try to tame it.  One of Leonard’s recent books, for children, A Coyote’s in the House, is so popular that it is out-of-stock @ Amazon.

Just when we finally got out of Birmingham to move back East in 2000, Elmore Leonard moved across the street from our neighborhood, into Bloomfield Township [not to be confused with Bloomfield Hills, settle down]. His funeral was held at the Holy Family Catholic Church in Birmingham; but his wake was at a funeral home in Clawson. Just in case anyone thought he had sold out and become a “Bloomingham puke.”

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Here’s our coyote-looking one-year-old Emmy, with her new Road Dog, 8-month-old Bentley. They meet in our yard most afternoons, to sort out who’s alpha.

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Filed under aggression happens, power subtext, sharks and jets