New York: Too Many Geniuses

G+TThis article ran in the July 8-15, 2013 issue of New York.

Long before summer’s first heat wave, temperatures were running hot among the parents of New York’s 4-year-olds. A series of gaffes by the test-publishing company Pearson undermined the ­credibility of the city’s gifted-and-talented testing program and forced families to hang fire over their kindergartners’ academic fate. Then, just as that problem seemed close to resolution, an NYU mathematics professor named Alexey Kuptsov, along with three other parents, sued the Department of Education, claiming the admissions process was flawed, causing more delays and rousing the ire of New York parenting blogs.

Like any system that creates an elite benefit and doles it out to a lucky few, New York’s G&T program has long been a lightning rod for anxiety and resentment. Alongside some 70,000 places in standard-track general-education kindergarten classrooms, the DOE offers about 2,700 seats in G&T programs, which originated to serve the small percentage of kids so brilliant that they’re at a disadvantage in a normal classroom. Within each school district, certain schools maintain gifted classrooms open to the children living there. In addition, a handful of elite public schools are open to top-scoring students from anywhere in the city. To qualify for either type, kids take an aptitude test and receive a raw score and a percentile ranking. A child must rank in the 90th percentile or above to be eligible for a district program, 97th or above for citywide.

At first glance, the system looks highly selective, but the numbers are misleading. A child who’s ranked in the 99th percentile hasn’t outperformed 99 percent of actual fellow test takers but a mathematically generated hypothetical national population. Twenty percent are in the “97th percentile”; 40 percent are in the “90th.” Continue reading New York: Too Many Geniuses

Psychology Today: Dancing With a Madman

Psychology Today McAfee illoThis story appears in the June, 2013 issue of Psychology Today. Read it online here.

June 2007, near Rodeo, New Mexico: Enchantment on the Mesa

An evening breeze carries the smell of the surrounding desert across the patio of John McAfee’s ranch. Now that the sun has ducked behind the mountains, the scorching heat has mellowed to an embracing warmth. McAfee, the 61-year-old former software pioneer and multimillionaire entrepreneur, is contemplating new ventures with a gregarious band of misfits gathered around his table. They include a half-dozen ultralight pilots and McAfee’s 27-year-old girlfriend, Jen Irwin.

I’m here to write a story about the freewheeling new sport McAfee has invented. Called aerotrekking, it involves flying tiny aircraft at dangerously low altitudes above the desert floor—low enough, he jokes, to catch the occasional cactus spine in the undercarriage. Maybe he’s not joking. McAfee’s avowed mission is not to take himself too seriously. The conversation around the table is a never-ending stream of wisecracks, and no one gets more laughs than McAfee.

At the moment he’s ribbing me about my plans to get married. “Why would you give up the most important thing in your life—your freedom?” he asks. I protest that some of my best friends are happily married. “If there was a pond filled with alligators, and you saw someone swim across it and get out safely on the other side,” he asks, “would that make you want to swim across, too?”

I laugh along with everyone else. Is he pulling my leg, I wonder, or is his épater-les-bourgeois stance for real? There’s no way to know, and I still don’t know today, six years later, after McAfee became a suspect in his neighbor’s murder in late 2012, then triggered an international manhunt when he went into hiding. There’s no way I could have guessed, chuckling in the New Mexico dusk, that I’m embarking upon the strangest journalistic relationship of my life, one that will lead me to view McAfee as something like a friend and ultimately as a nemesis. Continue reading Psychology Today: Dancing With a Madman

What is Music For?

concert crowdWhy do we take pleasure of bathing our ears in certain frequencies of sound, modulated at various tempos? What, exactly, is this thing called music?

Given how ubiquitous music is in our daily lives, you might be surprised to learn that scientists have come up with no really solid explanations of what it’s all about. Archaeologists tell us our species has been enjoying it for a long time—the oldest known musical instrument, a flute, was made out of an extinct bear’s thigh bone some 50,000 years ago—so it’s clearly a deep-seated part of our psyche. But no one knows why we love it.

And this is strange, because most of the things we enjoy are obviously useful from the perspective of natural selection. We like looking at attractive members of the opposite sex because they are crucial to reproduction. We enjoy playing sports because they involve skills (throwing, hitting, moving in coordination with a group) that were crucial in Neolithic hunting and warfare. We enjoy novels and movies because they allow us to learn about the interpersonal dynamics that are crucial to our survival as social mammals.

Music, in contrast, doesn’t seem to help us do anything. Continue reading What is Music For?

How Real Life Change Happens

businessman lost in field using a mapIf the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then most of us qualify as nuts. We want to change our lives for the better; we believe that we are capable of change; and yet we find ourselves perennially stuck in the same old rut. One study found that 90 percent of coronary bypass patients go back to their old, unhealthy eating habits within two years of their operation. Another found that a substantial majority of dieters regain all their weight within a year—or wind up even heavier than when they started.

We fail to change time after time because we profoundly overestimate our stores of willpower. Psychologists call this failing “restraint bias.” We confidently make resolutions to change and assume we’ll be able to bulldoze our urges because we’re bad at remembering how tempting temptation can be. When we’re full, we forget how irresistible that bacon triple cheeseburger is when we’re hungry. So we allow ourselves to walk into situations in which our willpower is going to be overwhelmed.

That’s not to say that all resolutions are necessarily doomed. People do transform their lives, every day. But for the most part they don’t do it by relying on willpower. The key, it turns out, is to simply start behaving like the person you want to become. Instead of wondering, What should I do?, imagine your future, better self and ask: What would they do? Continue reading How Real Life Change Happens

Deadly Mind Tricks

MIND TRICK: “One by one, each climbed down to rescue the others, and each one died in turn.”

Domino Effect: The problem began with a minor malfunction. Scott Showalter, a 34-year-old Virginia dairy farmer, was trying to transfer manure from one holding pit to another when the pipe between them became clogged. As he’d done before, he climbed down to free the obstruction. But what he neither saw nor sensed was the invisible layer of hydrogen sulfide gas that filled the bottom of the pit. He keeled over within seconds. When an employee, Amous Stolzfus, climbed down to Showalter’s aid, he too succumbed, but not before his shouts drew the attention of Showalter’s wife and two of their daughters, ages 9 and 11. One by one, each climbed down to rescue the others, and each one died in turn.

Readers’s Digest reprinted a condensed version of my Psychology Today article on the lure of fatal mistakes. You can read the whole thing here.


The Grandeur of Delusion

A patient lies in a hospital bed in the neurological ward, his head wrapped in bandages. He’s just suffered a major trauma to the brain. The injury has wiped out the region that controls motion in his left arm. More than that, it’s destroyed the man’s ability to even conceive of what moving his arm would be like.

He’s paralyzed, in other words, but he doesn’t know that. He can’t know.

“Would you be so kind as to raise your left hand?” his doctor asks.

“Certainly,” the patient. But the hand remains where it is. “It’s gotten tangled up in the sheets,” the man explains.

The doctor points out that his arm is lying free and unencumbered on top of the sheets.

“Well, yes,” the man says. “But I just don’t feel like lifting it right now.”

The inability to recognize one’s own disability is a disorder called anosognosia, and it offers an unusually clear window into that peculiarly infuriating and astonishing aspect of human psychology: our seemingly boundless capacity for delusion. Faced with stark and unambiguous information that a part of their body is paralyzed, anosognosia patients can effortlessly produce a stream of arguments as to why this is simply not the case. They’re not lying; they themselves actually believe in the validity of their claims.

The disorder sounds bizarre, but we all do something similar on a daily basis. Though we’d like to think that we mold our beliefs to fit with the reality that surrounds, but there’s a natural human impulse to do the reverse: to mold our reality so that it fits with our beliefs, no matter how flimsy their justification may be. Continue reading The Grandeur of Delusion

MIND TRAPS: The fatal mistake of hanging on too long — UPDATE

Alert reader Serbia Milan has dug up a bunch of fascinating historic film clips of the USS Akron tragedy of May 11, 1932, when 2 sailors died after holding on too long to the mooring lines of a US Navy dirigible.

Continue reading MIND TRAPS: The fatal mistake of hanging on too long — UPDATE

Laughter’s Secret Purpose

[This piece originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of The Brain from Discover magazine.]

While a trilling ha-ha-ha or hearty chortle might seem like the simplest and most effortless thing in the world, but laughter is actually a multifaceted neurological process that recruits circuitry from all over the brain. And despite its tremendous familiarity, laughter has received little attention from science, at least until recently. Sophie Scott, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University College, London, and her colleagues are using brain scans and field studies to document the diversity of human laughing behavior. They find that laughter is both universal and deep-seated, playing a crucial role in the social bonds that have helped us survive as a species. Laughter makes us happy because it ties us together, she believes. When it comes to parsing its cognitive significance, she finds the old verse has it right: Laugh, and the world laughs with you.

Laughter seems pretty simple: Something funny happens, and we laugh. What is the deeper aspect you are studying?

If you ask people what makes them laugh, they’ll tell you that they laugh at jokes. But if you go out in the field and observe people laughing, you’ll see that most of this behavior occurs in conversation. When you laugh, you’re saying that not only do you find something amusing, but that you’re agreeing with somebody, that you’ve got something in common with them, or that you’re part of the same group. It’s a social emotion: You laugh more if you’re with other people than if you’re on your own.  You laugh more with people that you like, you laugh more if you’re with people you would like to like you. Most of the work of laughter is to help you form bonds with people, maintain those bonds, and demonstrate that the bonds exist. Continue reading Laughter’s Secret Purpose

Slate: About That Overpopulation Problem

Photo by Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP/Getty Images.

[This piece originally appeared on on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013]

The world’s seemingly relentless march toward overpopulation achieved a notable milestone in 2012: Somewhere on the planet, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the 7 billionth living person came into existence.

Lucky No. 7,000,000,000 probably celebrated his or her birthday sometime in March and added to a population that’s already stressing the planet’s limited supplies of food, energy, and clean water. Should this trend continue, as the Los Angeles Times noted in a five-part series marking the occasion, by midcentury, “living conditions are likely to be bleak for much of humanity.”

A somewhat more arcane milestone, meanwhile, generated no media coverage at all: It took humankind 13 years to add its 7 billionth. That’s longer than the 12 years it took to add the 6 billionth—the first time in human history that interval had grown. (The 2 billionth, 3 billionth, 4 billionth, and 5 billionth took 123, 33, 14, and 13 years, respectively.) In other words, the rate of global population growth has slowed. And it’s expected to keep slowing. Indeed, according to experts’ best estimates, the total population of Earth will stop growing within the lifespan of people alive today.