September 18, 2014

Mental Rotation

Mental Rotation

Mental rotation is the ability to rotate mental representations of two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects. The ability is somewhat localized to the right cerebral hemisphere, largely in the same areas as perception, and is associated with spatial processing and general intelligence but not verbal skills.

Mental rotation is the brain moving objects in order to understand what they are and where they belong. It has been studied to try to figure out how the mind recognizes objects in the environment. Researchers call these objects stimuli. A stimulus then would be any object or image seen in the person’s environment that has been altered in some way. Mental rotation then takes place for the person to figure out what the altered object is. Continue reading

September 17, 2014

Error Management Theory

Johnny Bravo

Error Management (EM) is an extensive theory of perception and cognitive biases that was created by psychologists David Buss and Martie Haselton. They describe a set of heuristics (mental shortcuts) that have survived evolutionary history because they hold slight reproductive benefits. The premise of the theory is built around the drive to reduce or manage costly reproductive errors. According to the theory, when there are differences in the cost of errors made under conditions of uncertainty, selection favors ‘adaptive biases,’ which ensure that the less costly survival or reproductive error will be committed.

When faced with uncertainty, a subject can make two possible errors: type I (false-positive or playing it safe, e.g. a fire alarm that later turns out to be a false alarm) and type II (false-negative or siding with skepticism, e.g. ignoring an often faulty fire alarm during an actual emergency). Error Management Theory asserts that evolved ‘mind-reading’ agencies will be biased to produce more for the first type of error, which explains the ‘sexual overperception bias,’ the tendency for men to incorrectly assume a platonic gesture from a woman is a sexual signal. Continue reading

September 16, 2014

Stereotypes of Blondes

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Blonde hair has several stereotypes associated with it. In women is has been considered attractive and desirable, but is also associate with the negative stereotypes of the women ‘who relies on her looks rather than on intelligence.’ The latter stereotype of a ‘dumb blonde’ is exploited in ‘blonde jokes.’ In cognitive linguistics, the stereotype uses expressivity of words to affect an emotional response which determines a gender role of a certain kind. In feminist critique, stereotypes like the blonde bombshell or the dumb blonde’ are seen as negative images that undermine the power of women.

Some blonde jokes rely on sexual humor to portray or stereotype their subjects as promiscuous. Many of these are rephrased ‘Valley girl’ or ‘Essex girl’ jokes. Others are based on long-running ethnic jokes, such as humor denigrating the intelligence of Polish people. Similar jokes about stereotyped minorities have circulated since the seventeenth century with only the wording and targeted groups changed. In 20th century, a class of meta-jokes about blondes (i.e. jokes about blonde jokes) has emerged where a blonde person complains about the unfairness of the stereotype propagated by blonde jokes, with a punch line actually reinforcing the stereotype. Continue reading

September 15, 2014

Defensive Pessimism

the antidote

Defensive pessimism is a cognitive strategy identified by social psychologist Nancy Cantor and her students in the mid-1980s. Individuals use defensive pessimism as a strategy to prepare for anxiety provoking events or performances. When implementing defensive pessimism, individuals set low expectations for their performance, regardless of how well they have done in the past. Defensive pessimists then think through specific negative events and setbacks that could adversely influence their goal pursuits. By envisioning possible negative outcomes, defensive pessimists can take action to avoid or prepare for them, advantageously harnessing anxiety that might otherwise harm their performance.

The strategy is utilized in a variety of domains. In public speaking venues defensive pessimists can alleviate anxiety by imagining possible obstacles such as forgetting the speech, being thirsty, or staining their shirt before the event. Because defensive pessimists have thought of these problems, they can appropriately prepare to face the challenges ahead. The speaker could, for instance, create note cards with cues about the speech, place a cup of water on the podium to alleviate thirst, and bring a bleach pen to remove shirt stains. These preventative actions both reduce anxiety and promote superior performance. Continue reading

September 12, 2014

Marginal Utility

diminishing returns by ed stein

paradox of value

In economics, ‘utility’ is the amount of satisfaction received from consuming (using) goods and services, and ‘marginal’ refers to a small change, starting from some baseline level. Marginal utility describes the change in utility from consuming more or less of a product. Economists sometimes speak of a law of ‘diminishing marginal utility,’ meaning that consuming the first unit usually has a higher utility than every other unit. When the number of units that are consumed increases, their marginal utility decreases (and vice versa).

As 20th century English economist Philip Wicksteed explained the term, ‘Marginal considerations are considerations which concern a slight increase or diminution of the stock of anything which we possess or are considering.’ ‘Marginal cost’ is the cost of producing one more unit of a good. The ‘marginal decision rule’ states that a good or service should be consumed at a quantity at which the marginal utility is equal to the marginal cost (i.e. at a cost that justifies the satisfaction derived from the product). Continue reading

September 11, 2014

Simulator Sickness

radial g

vr sickness

Simulator sickness is a condition where a person exhibits symptoms similar to motion sickness (e.g. headache, drowsiness, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, sweating) caused by playing computer/simulation/video games. Researchers the University of Minnesota had students play the first person shooter ‘Halo’ for less than an hour, and found that up to 50 percent felt sick afterwards. The phenomenon was well known in popular culture before it was known as simulation sickness. In the 1983 comedy film ‘Joysticks,’ the manager of a local video arcade says, ‘The reason why I never play any of these games, well, they make me physically ill. I mean, every time I look in one of the screens, they make me dizzy.’

In 1995, the US Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences published the results of a study of 742 pilot exposures from 11 military flight simulators. Half of the pilots reported post-effects of some kind. Symptoms dissipated in under an hour for one third, after four hours for six percent, after six hours for four percent, and one percent reported cases of spontaneously occurring flashbacks.

Continue reading

September 10, 2014

Stella Liebeck

stella award

Hot Cup

Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, also known as the McDonald’s coffee case, was a 1994 product liability lawsuit that became a flash point in the tort reform debate in the US. A New Mexico civil jury awarded $2.86 million to plaintiff Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman who suffered third-degree burns in her pelvic region when she accidentally spilled hot coffee in her lap after purchasing it from a McDonald’s restaurant. Liebeck was hospitalized for eight days while she underwent skin grafting, followed by two years of medical treatment.

Liebeck’s attorneys argued that at 180–190 °F coffee was defective, claiming it was too hot and more likely to cause serious injury than coffee served at any other establishment. The jury damages included $160,000 to cover medical expenses and $2.7 million in punitive damages. The trial judge reduced the final verdict to $640,000, and the parties settled for a confidential amount before an appeal was decided. The case was said by some to be an example of frivolous litigation; ABC News called it, ‘the poster child of excessive lawsuits,’ while legal scholar Jonathan Turley said it was ‘a meaningful and worthy lawsuit.’

Continue reading

September 9, 2014

Food Coma

meat coma

Postprandial [pohst-pran-dee-uhlsomnolence [som-nuh-luhns] (colloquially known as a food coma) is a normal state of drowsiness or lassitude following a meal. It has two components: a general state of low energy related to activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (can be thought of as ‘rest and digest’ as opposed to the ‘fight-or-flight’ effects of the sympathetic nervous system) in response to mass in the gastrointestinal tract, and a specific state of sleepiness caused by hormonal and neurochemical changes related to the rate at which glucose enters the bloodstream and its downstream effects on amino acid transport in the central nervous system.

In response to the arrival of food in the stomach and small intestine, the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system increases and the activity of the sympathetic nervous system decreases. This shift in the balance of autonomic (involuntary) tone towards the parasympathetic system results in a subjective state of low energy and a desire to be at rest, the opposite of the fight-or-flight state induced by high sympathetic tone. The larger the meal, the greater the shift in autonomic tone towards the parasympathetic system, regardless of the composition of the meal. Continue reading

September 8, 2014

Charles Proteus Steinmetz


Charles Proteus Steinmetz (1865 – 1923) was a mathematician and electrical engineer known as the Wizard of Schenectady. He fostered the development of alternating current that made possible the expansion of the electric power industry in the US, formulating mathematical theories for engineers.

He made ground-breaking discoveries in the understanding of hysteresis (the lag time when magnetizing a ferromagnetic material) that enabled engineers to design better electromagnetic apparatus equipment, especially electric motors for use in industry. Continue reading

September 7, 2014

God’s Algorithm

rubik iconostasis

God’s algorithm is a notion originating in discussions of ways to solve the Rubik’s Cube puzzle, but which can also be applied to other combinatorial (sequential move) puzzles and mathematical games. It refers to any algorithm which produces a solution having the fewest possible number of moves, the idea being that an omniscient being would know an optimal step from any given configuration. The notion applies to puzzles that can assume a finite number of ‘configurations,’ with a relatively small, well-defined arsenal of ‘moves’ that may be applicable to configurations and then lead to a new configuration.

An algorithm for finding optimal solutions for Rubik’s Cube was published in 1997 by computer scientist Richard Korf. While it had been known since 1995 that 20 was a lower bound on the number of moves for the solution in the worst case, it was proved in 2010 through extensive computer calculations that no configuration requires more than 20 moves. Thus 20 is a sharp upper bound on the length of optimal solutions. This number is known as God’s number.

September 5, 2014



Silence is the lack of audible sound or presence of sounds of very low intensity. By analogy, the term also refers to an absence of communication, including in media other than speech. Silence is also used as ‘total communication,’ in reference to nonverbal communication and spiritual connection. It is an important factor in many cultural spectacles, as in rituals, both positive and negative. For example, in a Christian Methodist faith organization quiet reflection during a sermon might mean indicate assent, while in a Southern Baptist church, silence might mean disagreement with what is being said, or perhaps disconnectedness from the congregated community. A common way to remember a tragic incident is a commemorative moment of silence.

In discourse analysis, speakers use brief absences of speech to mark the boundaries of prosodic units (segments of speech that occurs with a single pitch and rhythm contour). Silence in speech can be hesitation, stutters, self-correction—or deliberate slowing of speech to clarify or aid processing of ideas. These are short silences; longer pauses in language occur in interactive roles, turn-taking, or reactive tokens (short utterance that indicate a listener is following a conversation). Continue reading

September 4, 2014


purr by Gemma Correll

A purr is a continuous, soft, vibrating sound made in the throat by most species of felines. Domestic cat kittens can purr as early as two days of age. This tonal rumbling can characterize different personalities in domestic cats and is often believed to indicate a positive emotional state, however, felines sometimes purr when they are ill, tense, or experiencing traumatic or painful moments. Purring varies between cats (for example by loudness and tone), and from species to species, but can be characterized as a tonal buzzing.

The term ‘purring’ has been used liberally in literature, and it has been claimed that many non-cats including viverrids (civet, mongoose, genet), bears, badgers, and hyaenas purr. Others are reported to purr only at specific times, for example rabbits, squirrels, guinea pigs, tapirs, ring-tailed lemurs, elephants, raccoons and gorillas are claimed to purr while eating. However, using a strict definition of purring that continuous sound production must alternate between pulmonic egressive and ingressive airstream (breathing in and out) and usually go on for minutes, a 2002 study reached the conclusion that until then only ‘purring cats’ (Felidae) and two species of genets, Genetta tigrina, and most likely also Genetta genetta, had been documented to purr. Continue reading

September 3, 2014

Directed Attention Fatigue

last child in the woods

Directed attention fatigue (DAF) is a neurological phenomenon that results from overuse of the brain’s inhibitory attention mechanisms, which handle incoming distractions while maintaining focus on a specific task. The greatest threat to a given focus of attention is competition from other stimuli that can cause a shift in focus. This is because one maintains focus on a particular thought by inhibiting all potential distractions and not by strengthening that central mental activity.

Directed attention fatigue occurs when a particular part of the brain’s global inhibitory system is overworked due to the suppression of increasing numbers of stimuli. This temporary condition is not a clinical illness or a personality disorder. It is rather a temporary exhaustion of mental resources. According to inhibition theory it is natural for one to alternate imperceptibly between periods of attention (work) and distraction (non-work) while completing a task. Even when every undertaking is unique, each incoming stimulus calls upon the same directed attention mechanism. Continue reading

September 2, 2014

Only Nixon Could Go to China

nixon and mao by Edel Rodriguez

The phrase ‘Nixon goes to China‘ or ‘It took Nixon to go to China’ is a historical reference to President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to the People’s Republic of China, where he met with Chairman Mao Zedong.

As a political metaphor, it refers to the ability of a politician with an unassailable reputation among his supporters for representing and defending their values to take actions that would draw their criticism and even opposition if taken by someone without those credentials. Although Nixon’s example is that of a hardliner taking steps toward peace with a traditional enemy (the most common application of the metaphor), it could also be applied to a reputedly cautious diplomat defying expectations by taking military action, or a political leader reforming aspects of the political system of which they have been strong supporters. Continue reading

August 30, 2014


wim hof

Human echolocation

A superhuman is a person with extraordinary and unusual capabilities enabling feats beyond anything a layperson could conceivably achieve, even through extensive training. Superhuman can mean an improved human, for example, by genetic modification, cybernetic implants, nanotechnology, or natural evolution. Occasionally, it could mean an otherwise ‘normal’ human with purported super-abilities, such as psychic/psionic powers, levitation or flight, herculean strength, or unique proficiency at some task.

Superhuman can also mean something that is not human, but considered to be ‘superior’ to humans in some ways. This might include a robot that easily passed the Turing test (an indicator of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior) that possessed greater than human strength, which is already common in robots today. A very intelligent or strong alien could be considered superhuman. In its most basic sense it means anything beyond (typical) human capabilities, e.g. a tiger may be described as having ‘superhuman strength.’ Continue reading


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