Why you want to wash your hands when you feel guilty — Ideas.TED.com

SCIENCE – Robert Sapolsky –  May 10, 2017


Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky shows us the surprising ways that our brains get mixed up between the physical and metaphorical — and how this can pit us against each other.

When humans put pigment to wall in Lascaux Cave more than 17,000 years ago, the point was to minimize the distance between object and representation, to be as close as possible to possessing the real horse. To gain its power, as imbued in a symbol.

The clearest human mastery of symbolism comes with our use of language. Suppose you are being menaced by something and thus scream your head off. Someone listening can’t tell if it’s in response to a suicide bomber or Komodo dragon. Most animal communication is about such present-tense emotionality.

Symbolic language brought huge evolutionary advantages. This can be seen even in the starts of symbolism of other species. When vervet monkeys, for instance, spot a predator, they don’t generically scream. They use distinct vocalizations, different “protowords,” where one means “Predator on the ground, run up the tree!” and another means “Predator in the air, run down the tree!” Evolving the cognitive capacity to make that distinction is useful, as it prompts you to run away from danger. Language pries apart a message from its meaning, and as our ancestors improved at this separation, their advantages accrued.

Our brains are winging it and improvising on the fly when dealing with metaphor.

The height of the symbolic features of language is our use of metaphor. Metaphors are everywhere in language — we may literally and physically be “in” a room, but we are only metaphorically inside something when we are “in” a good mood, “in” cahoots with someone or “in” love. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when ordering all of them on deck, and that June doesn’t really bust out all over. These capacities evolved so recently that our brains are, if you will, winging it and improvising on the fly when dealing with metaphor. As a result, we are pretty lousy at distinguishing between the metaphorical and literal, at remembering that “it’s only a figure of speech” — with enormous consequences for our best and worst behaviors.

If humans (or any other mammal) bite into rancid food, the insular cortex lights up and processes gustatory disgust, causing us to spit it out, gag, feel nauseated, make a revolted facial expression. Ditto for revolting smells. We wrinkle our nose, raise our upper lip, narrow our eyes. All of this behavior is intended to protect us from toxins and infectious pathogens.

As humans we do some fancier things. When we think about rancid food, the insula activates; when we look at faces showing disgust, the same occurs. Most important, if you think about a truly reprehensible act, the same occurs. The insula mediates visceral responses to norm violations; the more activation, the more condemnation. This is visceral, not just metaphorically visceral. When I heard about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, “feeling sick to my stomach” wasn’t a mere figure of speech. When I imagined the reality of the murder of 20 first-graders and the six adults protecting them, I felt nauseous. The insula not only prompts the stomach to purge itself of toxic food, it also prompts the stomach to purge the reality of a nightmarish event. The distance between the symbolic message and the meaning disappears.

Hearing about virtuous moral acts makes drinks taste better.

This linking of visceral and moral disgust is bi-directional. As shown in a number of studies, contemplating a morally disgusting act leaves more than a metaphorical bad taste in your mouth — people eat less immediately afterward, and a neutral-tasting beverage drunk afterward is rated as having a more negative taste (conversely, hearing about virtuous moral acts made the drink taste better).

The physiological core of gustatory disgust is to protect yourself against pathogens. The core of the intermixing of visceral and moral disgust is a sense of threat as well. A socially conservative stance about, say, gay marriage is not just that it is simply wrong in an abstract sense, but that it constitutes a threat — to the sanctity of marriage and family values.

This element of threat is shown in a great study in which subjects either did or didn’t read an article about the health risks of airborne bacteria. All then read a history article that used imagery of America as a living organism, with statements like “Following the Civil War, the United States underwent a growth spurt.” Those who read about scary bacteria before thinking about the US as an organism were then more likely to express negative views about immigration (without changing attitudes about an economic issue).

First you’re disgusted by how Others smell, a gateway to then being disgusted by how Others think.

My guess is that people with a stereotypically conservative exclusionary stance about immigration rarely have the sense that they feel disgusted that people elsewhere in the world would want to come to the United States for better lives. Instead, there is threat by the rabble, the unwashed masses, to the American way of life. How cerebral is this intertwining of visceral and moral disgust? Does the insula get involved in moral disgust only if it’s of a particularly gruesome nature — blood and guts, body parts?

It is clear that the intertwining of visceral and moral disgust is, at the least, greatest when the latter taps into core disgust. To repeat a neat quote from psychology professor Paul Rozin, “Disgust serves as an ethnic or out-group marker.” First you’re disgusted by how Others smell, a gateway to then being disgusted by how Others think.

Literal cleanliness and orderliness can release us from abstract cognitive and affective distress — just consider how, during moments where life seems to be spiraling out of control, it can be calming to organize your clothes, clean the living room, get the car washed. The ability of literal cleanliness to alter cognition was shown in one study. Subjects examined an array of music CDs, picked 10 that they liked, and ranked them in order of liking. They were then offered a free copy of one of their midrange choices (number five or six). Subjects were then distracted with some other task and then asked to re-rank the ten CDs. They showed a common psychological phenomenon, which was to now overvalue the CD they’d been given, ranking it higher on the list than before. Unless they had just washed their hands (ostensibly to try a new brand of soap), in which case no re-ranking occurred. Clean hands, clean slate.

We intertwine physical and moral purity when it comes to our own actions. In one of my all-time favorite psychology studiesChen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto and Katie Liljenquist of Northwestern University demonstrated that the brain has trouble distinguishing between being a dirty scoundrel and being in need of a bath. Subjects were asked to recount either a moral or an immoral act in their past. Afterward, as a token of appreciation, the researchers offered the volunteers a choice between the gift of a pencil and a package of antiseptic wipes. The folks who had just wallowed in their ethical failures were more likely to go for the wipes. Another study, showing the same effect when people were instructed to lie, demonstrated that the more adversely consequential the lie was presented as being, the more washing subjects did. Lady Macbeth and Pontius Pilate weren’t the only ones to at least try to absolve their sins by washing their hands, and this phenomenon of embodied cognition is referred to as the “Macbeth effect.”

In one study, liars were more likely to pick complimentary cleansing products than subjects who were truthful.

This effect is remarkably concrete. In another study, subjects were instructed to lie about something — with either their mouths (i.e., to tell a lie) or their hands (i.e., to write down a lie). Afterward, remarkably, liars were more likely to pick complimentary cleansing products than control subjects who communicated something truthful: the immoral mouthers were more likely to pick a mouthwash sample; the immoral scribes, hand soap. Furthermore, as shown with neuroimaging, when contemplating mouthwash versus soap, those who’d just spoken a lie activated parts of the sensorimotor cortex related to the mouth (i.e., the subjects were more aware of their mouths at the time); those who had written the lie activated the cortical regions mapping onto their hand.

Another fascinating study showed the influence of culture in the Macbeth effect. The studies previously cited were carried out with European or American subjects. When the same is done with East Asian subjects, the urge afterward is to wash the face, rather than the hands. If you are going to save face, it should be a clean one.

Finally, this intermixing of moral and physical hygiene affects the way we actually behave. That original study on contemplating one’s moral failings and the subsequent desire to wash hands included a second experiment. As before, subjects were told to recall an immoral act of theirs. Afterward subjects either did or didn’t have the opportunity to clean their hands. Those who were able to wash were less likely to respond to a subsequent (experimentally staged) request for help. In another study, merely watching someone else wash their hands in this situation (versus watching them type) also decreased helpfulness afterward (although to a lesser extent than the subject washing). Many of our moments of prosociality, of altruism and Good Samaritanism, are acts of restitution, attempts to counter our antisocial moments. What these studies show is that if those metaphorically dirtied hands have been unmetaphorically washed in the interim, they’re less likely to reach out to try to balance the scales.

Our brains’ confusion of the metaphorical with the literal literally matters. We know that there is an array of mechanisms used by various species for recognizing kin and degree of relatedness — e.g., genetically shaped pheromonal signatures and imprinting on the female whose birdsong you heard a lot while you were still inside an egg. And we’ve seen among other primates there are cognitive components as well. For instance, male baboons’ degree of paternalism can be predicted by their likelihood of being the father.

By the time we get to humans, the process is mostly cognitive. We can think our way to deciding who is a relative, who is an Us. And thus, we can be manipulated into thinking that some individuals are more related to us, and others less so, than they actually are — there are numerous ways to get someone to think that an Other is so different they barely count as human. But as propagandists and ideologues have long known, if you want to get someone to feel that an Other hardly counts as human, there is only one way to do it: engage the insula. And the surest way to do that is with metaphor.

Excerpted from the new book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky. Reprinted with permission from Penguin Press, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. © 2017 Robert Sapolsky.


BOOK REVIEW: All Joe Knight | Kevin Morris | Grove Atlantic Press

9780802125781- all joe knight-kevin morris
All Joe Knight by Kevin Morris
Grove Atlantic Press, December  2016
ISBN 978080212578, Fiction

I am Joe, sometimes Joey. Ordinary Joe. Average Joe. Joe Blow. Joseph Michael Knight, Jr. Joe Knight. All night long. All Knight Long. All Knight.

1961. Outside Philadelphia, a soon-to-be father runs into a telephone pole while driving drunk; nine months later, his widow dies in a smashed-up T-Bird. From the start, the orphaned Joe Knight is a blank slate. Taken in by a kindly aunt in a tough-skinned suburb, Joe finds his family in high school with the Fallcrest basketball team—the kind of team that comes around once in a lifetime. All these kids want is to make it to the Palestra, UPenn’s cathedral of college basketball.

Fast forward thirty years. Joe is newly divorced with one daughter and certain he is unfit for love. Ever since he sold the ad firm that he built from the ground up for millions of dollars, he spends his time at a local business school or going to strip clubs, the only place it seems he can quiet his mind. A former Fallcrest teammate, Chris Scully, who is now district attorney advises Joe of a Justice Department investigation into the deal that made Joe rich years ago. The deal that Joe brought all of his former Fallcrest basketball teammates in on, except for Scully. Details emerge about Joe’s alleged wrongdoing, forcing Joe to come to term with the secret that has tormented him for decades.

Excerpt from ALL JOE KNIGHT by Kevin Morris:

Truth is I’ve made enough money and cut off enough strings that I don’t have to do anything and I like it. Coming up the way I did, from where I did, I am not burdened by a sense of sympathy or the guilt of a free pass. Truth is the math is simple: I don’t care enough about changing the general state of things to do anything. If you tuck enough away and are just carrying yourself, there is really not much anyone can do to you, especially if you are not pushing into anyone else’s world. That’s the great thing about America—the freedom to succeed and the freedom to be let alone once you do.

I think about kids once in a while, like who is the kid out there who is me, just forty years later. That passes unanswered. My own kid, she’ll be okay, I have her fixed up, and she doesn’t really want much from me anyway. Truth is there’s nothing about the status quo that on balance makes me want to do anything differently than live life in this nice-ass apartment, above what’s left of the greene country towne that will never be burnt, always wholesome. Truth is I have ridden a wave generated by a miracle wind-machine born in this brick city five lifetimes ago. All this freedom. Truth is I will probably die like this, another American man who got what he wanted.

Kevin  Morris is the author of the acclaimed story collection White Man’s Problems. He previously wrote for Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Filmmaker magazine, produced the well-regarded documentary Hands on a Hardbody and was co-producer of  The Book of Mormon, a Tony Award winning play.

Advanced Reader Book Review and Excerpt | Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng, whose 2014 debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, was a stunning success, will release her follow-up novel, Little Fires Everywhereon September 12, 2017.
Little Fires Everywhere, follows Elena Richardson, a tightly-wound rule follower, whose carefully planned world is shaken up when a mysterious, alluring single mother, Mia Warren, moves to Shaker Heights and rents a house from the Richardsons with Pearl her teenage daughter.  Elena is already suspicious of Mia, but when an attempted adoption of a Chinese-American baby divides the town in two — with Elena and Mia on opposite sides — she’s determined to figure out her tenant’s secrets once and for all, no matter the cost. 

EXCERPT from Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow—and now, at last, there was something new and sensational to discuss. A little after noon on that Saturday morning in May, the shoppers pushing their grocery carts in Heinen’s heard the fire engines wail to life and careen away, toward the duck pond. By a quarter after twelve there were four of them parked in a haphazard red line along Parkland Drive, where all six bedrooms of the Richardson house were ablaze, and everyone within a half mile could see the smoke rising over the trees like a dense black thundercloud. Later people would say that the signs had been there all along: that Izzy was a little lunatic, that there had always been something off about the Richardson family, that as soon as they heard the sirens that morning they knew something terrible had happened. By then, of course, Izzy would be long gone, leaving no one to defend her, and people could—and did—say whatever they liked. At the moment the fire trucks arrived, though, and for quite a while afterward, no one knew what was happening. Neighbors clustered as close to the makeshift barrier—a police cruiser, parked crosswise a few hundred yards away—as they could and watched the firemen unreel their hoses with the grim faces of men who recognized a hopeless cause. Across the street, the geese at the pond ducked their heads underwater for weeds, wholly unruffled by the commotion.

Mrs. Richardson stood on the tree lawn, clutching the neck of her pale-blue robe closed. Although it was already afternoon, she had still been asleep when the smoke detectors had sounded. She had gone to bed late, and had slept in on purpose, telling herself she deserved it after a rather difficult day. The night before, she had watched from an upstairs window as a car had finally pulled up in front of the house. The driveway was long and circular, a deep horseshoe arc bending from the curb to the front door and back—so the street was a good hundred feet away, too far for her to see clearly, and even in May, at eight o’clock it was almost dark, besides. But she had recognized the small tan Volkswagen of her tenant, Mia, its headlights shining. The passenger door opened and a slender figure emerged, leaving the door ajar: Mia’s teenage daughter, Pearl. The dome light lit the inside of the car like a shadow box, but the car was packed with bags nearly to the ceiling and Mrs. Richardson could only just make out the faint silhouette of Mia’s head, the messy topknot perched at the crown of her head. Pearl bent over the mailbox, and Mrs. Richardson imagined the faint squeak as the mailbox door opened, then shut. Then Pearl hopped back into the car and shut the door. The brake lights flared red, then winked out, and the car puttered off into the growing night. With a sense of relief, Mrs. Richardson had gone down to the mailbox and found a set of keys on a plain ring, with no note. She had planned to go over in the morning and check the rental house on Winslow Road, even though she already knew that they would be gone.

It was because of this that she had allowed herself to sleep in, and now it was half past twelve and she was standing on the tree lawn in her robe and a pair of her son Trip’s tennis shoes, watching their house burn to the ground. When she had awoken to the shrill scream of the smoke detector, she ran from room to room looking for him, for Lexie, for Moody. It struck her that she had not looked for Izzy, as if she had known already that Izzy was to blame. Every bedroom was empty except for the smell of gasoline and a small crackling fire set directly in the middle of each bed, as if a demented Girl Scout had been camping there. By the time she checked the living room, the family room, the rec room, and the kitchen, the smoke had begun to spread, and she ran outside at last to hear the sirens, alerted by their home security system, already approaching. Out in the driveway, she saw that Trip’s Jeep was gone, as was Lexie’s Explorer, and Moody’s bike, and, of course, her husband’s sedan. He usually went into the office to play catch-up on Saturday mornings. Someone would have to call him at work. She remembered then that Lexie, thank god, had stayed over at Serena Wong’s house last night. She wondered where Izzy had gotten to. She wondered where her sons were, and how she would find them to tell them what had happened.

From Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Celeste Ng, 2017.