The neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran speculates that the quip about men preferring blonds may have a biological seed of truth to it: paler women more easily show signs of disease, while the darker complexions of swarthier women can better disguise their imperfections. More health information allows a better choice, and thus is preferable.
Briefly glimpsed people are more beautiful. In other words, if you catch a glimpse of someone rounding a corner or driving past quickly, your perceptual system will tell you they are more beautiful than you would otherwise judge them to be.
Odor carries a great deal of information, including information about a potential mate’s age, sex, fertility, identity, emotions, and health. The information is carried by a flotilla of drifting molecules. In many animal species, these compounds drive behavior almost entirely; in humans, the information often lies beneath the radar of conscious perception, but nonetheless influences our behavior.
When a male vole repeatedly mates with a female, a hormone called vasopressin is released in his brain. The vasopressin binds to receptors in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, and the binding mediates a pleasurable feeling that becomes associated with that female. This locks in the monogamy which is known as pair-bonding. If you block this hormone, the pair-bonding goes away. Amazingly, when researchers crank up the levels of vasopressin with genetic techniques, they can shift polygamous species to monogamous behavior.
The Greek poet Alcaeus of Mytilene coined a popular phrase En oino aletheia (In wine there is the truth), which was repeated by the Roman Pliny the Elder as In Vino Veritas. The Babylonia Talmund contains a passage in the same spirit: “In came wine, out went a secret.” It later advises, “In three things is a man revealed: in his wine goblet, in his purse, and in his wrath.” The Roman historian Tacitus claimed that the Germanic peoples always drank alcohol while holding councils to prevent anyone from lying.
When trying to understand the strange details of human behavior, psychologists and economists sometimes appeal to a “dual-process” account. In this view, the brain contains two separate systems: one is fast, automatic, and below the surface of conscious awareness, while the other is slow, cognitive, and conscious. (See “Thinking, Fast and Slow” as well as “Blink”)
In earlier times in our evolution, there was no real way to interact with others at a distance any farther than that allowed by hands, feet, or possibly a stick. That distance of interaction was salient and consequential, and this is what our emotional reaction reflects. In modern times, the situation differs: generals and even soldiers commonly find themselves far removed from the people they kill.
People “discount’ the future, an economic term meaning that rewards closer to now are valued more highly than rewards in the distant future. Delaying gratification is difficult. And there is something very special about right now—which always holds the highest value.
So when we talk about a virtuous person, we do not necessarily mean someone who is not tempted but, instead, someone who is able to resist that temptation. We mean someone who does not let that battle tip to the side of instant gratification. We value such people because it is easy to yield to impulses, and inordinately difficult to ignore them.
Freely made decisions that bind you in the future are what philosophers call a Ulysses contract.
Biology never checks off a problem and calls it quits. It reinvents solutions continuously.
The interpretive mechanism of the left hemisphere is always hard at work, seeking the meaning of events. It is constantly looking for order and reason, even when there is none—which leads it continually to make mistakes.
Evolution favors pattern seeking, because it allows the possibility of reducing mysteries to fast and efficient programs in the neural circuitry.
In the animal kingdom, most animals do certain things very well (say, prying seeds from the inside of a pine cone), while only a few species (such as humans) have the flexibility to dynamically develop new software. Although the ability to be flexibly sounds better, it does not come for free—the trade-off is a burden of lengthy childrearing. To be flexible like an adult human requires years of helplessness as an infant. Human mothers typically bear only one child at a time and have to provide a period of care that is unheard-of (and impracticable) in the rest of the animal kingdom.
The main lesson we can extract from biology is that it’s better to cultivate a team of populations that attack the problem in different, overlapping manners. The team-of-rivals framework suggests that the best approach is to abandon the question “What’s the most clever way to solve that problem?” in favor of “Are there multiple, overlapping ways to solve that problem?”
To know oneself may require a change of definition of “to know.” Knowing yourself now requires the understanding that the conscious you occupies only a small room in the mansion of the brain, and that it has little control over the reality constructed for you.
Reductionism is not the right viewpoint for everything, and it certainly won’t explain the relationship between the brain and the mind. This is because of a feature known as emergence. When you put together large numbers of pieces and parts, the whole can become something greater than the sum. The concept of emergent properties means that something new can be introduced.
Scientists often talk of parsimony (as in “the simplest explanation is probably correct,” also known as Occam’s razor), but we should not get seduced by the apparent elegance of argument from parsimony; this line of reasoning has failed in the past at least as many times as it has succeeded.
If our brains were simple enough to be understood, we wouldn’t be smart enough to understand them.