On the Political Correctness of “g”

I’m a scientist now. Specifically, a scientist at a neuroscience company. But not a neuroscientist.  I know, confusing, but the point is that I’ll probably be writing mostly about neuroscience at this blog now.

One project I’ve been working on involves intelligence. For decades, there has been a war between the idea that intelligence is one thing—i.e., there is a “g” factor that powers all intellectual feats—and the idea that intelligence is many things—i.e., there are several independent factors that power different intellectual feats.

I have no idea which is true. The data behind the debate is complicated, and I have a feeling it won’t be unambiguously interpreted until we have a better understanding of the physical workings of the brain. But one thing that I find fascinating is that the “g” idea is seen as the politically incorrect position.

Why? I suppose it’s because it simplifies people’s intellectual ability to a single number, which makes people uncomfortable. If your g factor is low, everything you can possibly do with your mind is held back. Which, scientifically speaking, sucks.

What I don’t understand is why adding more factors is more politically correct. Let’s say there are two independent factors underlying intelligence: g1 and g2. If you’re below average on g1, well, there’s still a 50% chance that you’re below average on g2 as well, which means your mind is still behind on every possible intellectual feat. But hey, any given person still has that 50% chance of not being bad at everything. Is that the difference between acceptable and offensive? A coin flip’s worth of hope?

It’s like the old argument for common ground (kinda) between atheists and religious folks: “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do.” Similarly, little-g enthusiasts just believe in one (or more) fewer intelligence factors than their politically correct colleagues. They have even more common ground, because they agree that there is at least one measurable variation in intelligence. Is there really such a big difference between the positions? Can’t we all just get along?

I’m content to reserve judgement and follow the data in any direction, regardless of which direction is popular and deemed inoffensive for arbitrary reasons.

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Why Horror Movies Are Scary, and Why People Like Them Anyway

A while ago, I was contacted by a PR agency who had seen one of my talks about the psychology of horror. A British media company was putting together a Halloween marketing campaign, and wanted some advice on how to use some scariness to make it more effective. I wrote them the below summary of why people regularly expose themselves to horror. I have no idea if the campaign ever went anywhere, but I figure it makes for an interesting read, so here it is.

Why are horror movies scary?

The answer to this is less obvious than it first appears. It might seem self-evident that scary movies are scary because they have scary things in them. But that just shifts the question to “what makes things scary?” Plus, fear is, by definition, an emotional response to danger. People sitting in a comfortable chair with their friends, munching on popcorn, are in no danger. They know they are in no danger.

So why are they scared anyway?

1) Because horror movies show us things that we were born scared of. Millions of years of evolution have programmed us to be frightened by things like spiders, growling monsters, and darkness. Early people who weren’t scared of these things tended to die, so they never got a chance to be our ancestors. With the survivors’ genes in us, we can’t help but feel the fear that kept them alive.

2) Because horror movies show us things that we’ve learned to be scared of. We may not be born scared of knives, needles, or clowns, but a few bad real-life encounters with them and we learn to fear them pretty quick. Movies can take advantage of the lessons we’ve learned from being scared for real.

3) Because we get scared when people we like are scared. Horror movies show us shots of people being scared just as much as they show us what is scaring them. When we’ve grown to like a character, we can’t help but feel some empathy for them when they appear to be frightened.

4) Because filmmakers exaggerate. No matter how realistic, a scary image on a screen pales in comparison to the real thing. That is why filmmakers need to exaggerate to make up for our safety from real danger. Extra dark settings, disorienting camera angles, anticipatory music, and discordant sounds (think the violins in Psycho) all make a scary image even scarier.

5) Because our bodies tell us we’re scared. For all the reasons above, our brains and our bodies are tricked into thinking we’re really scared. Our heart rates go up, we sweat more, and we breathe faster. These bodily reactions feed back into our conscious experience of fear. Furthermore, horror movies are one of the most visceral types of film. In one study, horror was one of only two genres that had a significant and identifiable physiological response. (The other was comedy).

So why would people watch something that scares them?

Again, fear is an emotional response to danger. Usually one that makes us want to run away, or at least turn off the TV. Why would we not only keep watching a scary movie, but pay money to do it?

6) Because some people like the rush of being scared for its own sake. Studies have found that the more scared people report being during a movie, the more they enjoy it. For some fans of horror movies (but not everyone), excitement is fun, whether it’s from joy or fear. My research shows that people high in sensation seeking—who say they frequently seek out intense thrills—said they like the horror genre more than people low in sensation seeking.

7) Because some people like the relief when it’s all over. The happy moments of a horror movie can be just as important as the horrifying parts. A moment of relief after escaping the bad guy can seem even more positive than it would normally, because our hearts are still beating with excitement. The leftover emotion from being scared can translate into happiness when the source of fear is gone.

8) Because you can control your image by controlling your reactions to a horror film. In my study, even though everyone had about the same “gut reaction” to horror imagery (a negative one), what they said they liked varied a lot. People with rebellious sorts of personalities were proud to say they liked horror movies.

9) Because it helps us hook up. Although they have the same negative “gut reaction” to horror, men say they like the genre more than women. Research has supported the fact that men and women who act “appropriately” to frightening films—men being fearless and women being fearful—tend to be liked by the opposite sex more. Horror films are perfect for dates.

There you go. Just a few of the many reasons that we’re happy to be horrified.

David Sedaris

I don’t usually admire people. Maybe it’s cynicism or maybe it’s a large ego, but I see the vast majority of celebrities as equals; average people who got lucky.

Yet I found myself in awe of David Sedaris when I saw him perform live on Friday night at Centennial Hall. His way with words was inspiring. His sentences were carefully constructed yet natural, weaved into not-quite-fables that jump and twist yet always feel cohesive.

It was clear that it wasn’t just a well-rehearsed routine. While answering audience questions, he was able to produce pure improvised wit. And while reading from his diary—which was kinda like hearing someone read a blog, except one actually worth reading—he still had enough cognitive resources left to simultaneously ponder and write down notes for improvements to future shows. That sort of mental athleticism impresses me far more than any sports star or guidar shredder.

When I met him at the book signing after the show, somehow, within a minute, he had me confessing how much I cried when my dog Willow died. Then he predicted that I’d get a cat soon. So, you know, he’s not perfect.

Still, it was nice to admire someone for a change.

The Emotional Ramifications of Bleeps and Bloops

The iPhone needs more options for the new text message sound. There are only six beeps, bongs, and honks available, with no ability to add new ones.

I say this not out of a vain need for customization, but for the emotional well-being of iPhone users.

This is modern life:

You meet someone you like, and she likes you enough to give you her phone number. You send her an innocuous text, then wait with breath abated for a reply. BONG, an innocuous text in return. You do this back-and-forth a few times and soon each message contains not just neutral words but embedded emotion.

Eventually it’s BEEP BEEP here are your plans for the evening; DING! here comes a compliment you’ll remember for the rest of your life. You precede those consequences with that sound enough times, and they become inextricably linked. A smile hits your lips and your heart leaps into your throat with every buzz of your pocket.

Maybe you go on a few adventures. Maybe you screw. Maybe you make plans for the future. But nothing lasts forever, and when things inevitably go sour, all the positive associations with that tone become ambivalent, then negative. Finally, DONG! we need 2 talk.

Those associations are embedded deep, and they never quite go away. Alerts for even the most frivolous texts now make your mouth go dry; they’re Pavlov’s bell in reverse.

It doesn’t take long to cycle through all six tones.

Technology is so embedded in our lives that we must increasingly consider not only its practical ramifications, but the full spectrum of human emotion as well.

Podcamp London + Contemplative Goose

On Saturday I attended Podcamp London. A podcamp is a gathering of people interested in blogging, podcasting, social media, and other technologyish internetty stuff. It’s referred to as an “unconference”, because the format is unconventional. There are few rules, and anyone is free to throw a presentation onto the schedule. I guess I count as “anyone,” so I inserted myself into the timetable, and prepared a little presentation.

I talked to a packed room about internet fame, blogging, and how social media and the accessibility of the internet are changing the way creative people do their thing. I was a bit nervous, since I’d never done anything like that before, but I ended up enjoying the hell out of it.

If you wanna see my slides, you can get a clickable Quicktime movie (showing my spiffy slide transitions) here, or a PDF with all my secret notes (ruining the illusion that my witty jokes were improvised) here.

Actual audience reaction. I am mildly amusing.

I got a lot of flattering feedback, and some good suggestions for the coffee blog. From the always-creative Nik Harron came the idea for putting despair in coffee. That is, tears. I wonder if tears of shame taste difference than tears of mourning?

I imagine the former are a little more spicy.

It made no sense btw.

Also: I won a pool for predicting how many dongs would show up in Chatroulette in a 30 minute period (six). I’m like a psychic predicting how many children you’ll have, except it’s how many dongs you’ll see. (See also). It was good times.

There were more substantial thrills to be had, too. The sense of community was palpable. I have another psychic prediction: good things are coming in London Ontario’s future. There is an increasingly-less-underground group of diverse personalities who are passionate about making great things happen in this city and beyond. Upcoming projects like Changecamp London and UnLondon are just a few examples.

Between Podcamp itself and the sloppy after-party, I came across this Canada goose:

I’ve seen him there 3 or 4 times, always just standing there looking at his reflection in the window. He’s, like, a metaphor for life, man. Just staring, all day, pondering his place in this crumbling city. The goose is us, man. The goose is us.


Update May 10 9:30pm: I have been informed (thanks a lot @BillyW64) that the goose stares at his reflection because he thinks it’s his mate that he lost last year. There was a story about him on A Channel (I guess they interviewed the goose to obtain this information). The goose picture is now more sad-deep than intelligent-deep. Man.

Update May 11 3:15pm: Here is the fluffy A Channel story about the goose (thanks @joeradman, you are rad, man). Not sure about the veracity of the story or if it’s even the same goose (mine is in a totally different location). Maybe geese are just vain. Still, it’s sad to think about. There is also a Facebook page for him/her.

Me in Maclean’s. Also: Nuts.

Sooo there’s an article about me in Maclean’s Magazine (April 12th issue, page 62). It goes like so:

Plain old coffee can be boring, so Mike “Phronk” Battista of London, Ont., likes to put “weird things” in his (he keeps a blog about it). [etc.]

Conspicuously absent? The address of said blog. I guess there won’t be an influx of millions of visitors who will buy my crappy merchandise.

Oh well. At least when I’m old, I can brag to my grandkids about my greatest accomplishment. I’ll be all like, “STOP TALKING. Did you know that I was in Maclean’s?”

And they’ll be all like, “WTF is Maclean’s?”

And I’ll say, “It was one of Canada’s most popular magazines.”

And they’ll say, “WTF is a magazine?”

Then I will get angry and rant about the good old days when you had to physically leave the house to get information, then slowly absorb it from paper to your brain, rather than instantly downloading it into your neural implant. Then I’ll graphically demonstrate how the iPad can suck my wrinkly nuts.

Book Review: Marvellous Hairy, by Mark A. Rayner

The copy on the back of Marvellous Hairy bills it as a novel about a man who is turning into a monkey. However, it goes far beyond that. The story revolves around a giant, evil corporation nicknamed Gargantuan Enterprises and the people who want to bring it down, then before you know it, there are ghosts, kidnapping, lizards, sex, and drugs thrown in for good measure.

Let me make a confession: I don’t find monkeys inherently funny. Their similarity to humans is amusing, sure, but it’s been overdone. Given the premise of Marvellous Hairy, I was a bit worried that its humour would rely on “anything is funny if you mention the word monkey alongside it” school of thought. Luckily, its absurdity is only partially monkey-based, and it delivers some genuine funny. Many scenes had me smirking as hard as I have at any Douglas Adams novel (yeah, just smirking; it takes a lot for me to physically LOL at text).

A lot of the books I’ve reviewed recently, they’ve been trashily entertaining (see: Charlaine Harris), or had great ideas despite mediocre writing (see: Cory Doctorow). But Rayner is actually a damn good writer. Every paragraph is packed with clever wordplay and subtle allusions. E.g., “He had long greasy black hair that clung to his head like an octopus humping his skull” (ok ok, maybe not always subtle).

Not all is warm and fuzzy. The novel could have used some edits; the language can be wordy, the plot takes a while to get going, and a certain subplot doesn’t feel like it fully connects with the rest of the story. Also, the quasi-omnipotent first-person narrative is jarring, especially when it needs to be explained, though it does add to the surreal bizarreness of the whole thing.

That is where Marvellous Hairy shines: it is such a bizarre barrel of words that you can’t help but have fun reading it. Mark (full disclosure: I can go all first-name-basis because we’ve met IRL) recently tweeted that his next novel may be even sillier, and if that’s the case, I can’t wait to get my paws on whatever he comes up with.