Saturday, November 27, 2010

Week 6 : Let's impress people with love !

It’s been five weeks now that we have been trying to give you some key topics to impress your guests. Talking about stunning subjects can make you sound cultivated. But as you may have noticed it yourself, every now and then, some people that know plenty can seem rather limited when it comes to real thinking. That’s why this week we’ll develop ideas about a question that may be very interesting to deal with during a dinner as it’s often the opportunity to meet and seduce people…And the question is :

Is Love blind?

To make a catchy treatment of this question we’ll oppose a philosophical and a scientific approach. We chose a text of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that deals with this question because he is famous so that your friends will not be lost during your “passionate speech”. The opposite answer to the question will come from a scientific research of neurobiology.

1712 - Jean-Jacques Rousseau, philosopher,
born in Geneva, Switzerland
One of the major French philosophers, and most of all the composer of 18th-century Romanticism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about it in his novel Emile: Or, On Education. This writing is a treatise about education and human nature. It is composed of five books about Emile’s life to illustrate his education. The fourth book is about adolescence, it is in this part that Rousseau broaches “sentiment”, said to be the last part of education, and raises the issue of knowing whether Love is blind. 

Here is an excerpt from the book that shows that Love cannot be blind for all the judgments it implies and that we’ll explain after you read the text. You also have the choice not to read it if you don’t have much time, however we advise you to just because it is remarkably written.

« The direction of the instinct is uncertain. One sex is attracted by the other; that is the impulse of nature. Choice, preferences, individual likings, are the work of reason, prejudice, and habit; time and knowledge are required to make us capable of love; we do not love without reasoning or prefer without comparison. These judgments are none the less real, although they are formed unconsciously.
True love, whatever you may say, will always be held in honour by mankind; for although its impulses lead us astray, although it does not bar the door of the heart to certain detestable qualities,
although it even gives rise to these, yet it always presupposes certain worthy characteristics, without which we should be incapable of love. This choice, which is supposed to be contrary to reason, really springs from reason. We say Love is blind because his eyes are better than ours, and he perceives relations which we cannot discern. All women would be alike to a man who had no idea of virtue or beauty, and the first comer would always be the most charming. Love does not spring from nature, far from it; it is the curb and law of her desires; it is love that makes one sex indifferent to the other, the loved one alone excepted. »

For those that understand the French language they’ll sure appreciate the beauty of this essay in its original version. We couldn’t not show you this. Plus, you can even show more off if you say you read it in French…

           « Le penchant de l'instinct est indéterminé. Un sexe est attiré vers l'autre, voilà le mouvement de la nature. Le choix, les préférences, l'attachement personnel sont l'ouvrage des lumières, des préjugés, de l'habitude ; il faut du temps et des connaissances pour nous rendre capables d'amour, on n'aime qu'après avoir jugé, on ne préfère qu'après avoir comparé. Ces jugements se font sans qu'on s'en aperçoive, mais ils n'en sont pas moins réels. Le véritable amour, quoi qu'on en dise, sera toujours honoré des hommes ; car, bien que ses emportements nous égarent, bien qu'il n'exclue pas du coeur qui le sent des qualités odieuses et même qu'il en produise, il en suppose pourtant toujours d'estimables sans lesquelles on serait hors d'état de le sentir. Ce choix qu'on met en opposition avec la raison nous vient d'elle ; on a fait l'amour aveugle parce qu'il a de meilleurs yeux que nous, et qu'il voit des rapports que nous ne pouvons apercevoir. Pour qui n'aurait nulle idée de mérite ni de beauté, toute femme serait également bonne, et la première venue serait toujours la plus aimable. Loin que l'amour vienne de la nature, il est la règle et le frein de ses penchants. »

In other words, one of the first arguments is that to love implies to prefer someone and we do not prefer without comparing. Comparison implies reason so love is not unrelated to reason thus love cannot be blind. Tastes are the result of your life experience; it is something that is proper to someone. All the more we grow up, all the more we distinguish what we really like or not.

Moreover, we all have different minds that’s why we process what we see, what we learn in different ways. You will never like exactly the same things as someone else because you haven’t had the same life. And at the same time, have you ever experienced the fact of being surprised to love something or someone? It means that even if you realise that with Experience you become more aware of your tastes you are not conscious of the entire process.

To conclude, the sentence “We say Love is blind because his eyes are better than ours” means that if we know what we prefer, we don’t always know why. Because we know our tastes are developed during our life it means they are the result of an education. And as we said previously, what we like or dislike is proper to ourselves in a way that is not conscious so that we don’t understand. And when our Reason is excluded from understanding Love we believe erroneously that Love is unreasonable, blind.
This thought leads to the famous quote of Blaise Pascal “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”. Many other things can be said about this text but I focused essentially on answering our weekly question.

Now, let’s see what science has to say about what love triggers on our brain with two groups of neuroscientist that figured out that love was blind though their experiments on men and women.
A study led by New York neuroscientists on the effects of love on the brain consisted in observing trough MRI the brain zone affected by the vision of the beloved. Mostly female responded drastically by activating the brain zone of the “motivation and reward” system just like drug consumption. It implies also the inefficiency of the judgment system.

Concerning men, a Canadian experiment consisted in choosing between getting an amount of money immediately or a bigger amount but later in the year. The best choice would be to choose the bigger amount. But during the experiment, men were shown attractive women pictures and women attractive men pictures. Only some men failed in choosing which made the scientists think they were unable to think appropriately about the situation as long as they were attracted to a woman. 
We can conclude from those studies that scientific community can be easily incline to believe that love is blind or at least that is put blinkers on our eyes. 

With these two symetrically opposed points of view you have now a basis to confront with your friends about this question. However never forget to give your personnal opinion on this passionate subject. If we had to discuss about love in such terms we would consider the the real question as to redefine love. Is it just a feeling? A notion ? An utopia ? Could it be different things according to people? Is it when Passion and Reason meet or split? Enjoy the diner...


Science. 2003 Nov 21;302(5649):1320.
Society for Neuroscience meeting. Caudate-over-heels in love
Proceedings of the Royal Society B december 2003

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Week 5 : Let's impress people with the Stanford prison experiment

          Your friends may have heard about the famous Stanley Milgram experiment, in which, participants were ordered to give fake electric shocks to an actor  (without knowing that they were fake), and so, at a higher voltage each time the actor didn't succeed to answer a memory question; ending with a lethal electric shock.

The results of this experiment were a huge surprise, indeed 65% of the participants  follow the order until the end and did not rebel.

But have your friends heard about the Stanford prison experiment ? Which is just as astonishing !

  • The experiment 

This experiment occurred in 1971 and directed by Psychology professor Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University.

The goal was to study the psychological effects of the prison on people who embody the role of guards and prisoners.
Professor Philip Zimbardo

Professor Philip Zimbardo and his team selected 24 male, they judge psychologically stable and healthy, among 74 people who respond to the offer to participate for a two-weeks prison simulation paid 15$ (It correspond to almost 75$ nowadays).

The roles between guards and prisoners were given randomly and then everything has been establish so that they embody their role.

Prisoners were realistically arrested at home, the police took their fingerprint and they had to wear uncomfortable clothes, no underwear and also a chain on their ankle.

As regards for the guards, the researchers gave them batons and military clothes, and then they tell the guards that they were in charge of the prison and that they could manage it the way they want. But of course they have been forbid to use violence.

  • The results

The experiment should last two weeks but it has been stop after only 6 days, indeed the experiment rapidly turned out to be a dangerous mess. From day 2 the prisoners start to rebel but the guards succeed to eradicate the riot and start to work unpaid extra hours. No more rebellion occurred but the treatment of the prisoners gets worse and worse

The guards begin to make the prisoners accomplish humiliating task such as cleaning toilets with the hands.

They used psychological tactics such as a the establishment of a "privilege cell" in oder to make the prisoners believe that they were informers among them. They also strip them naked, sexually taunt them and do others degrading activities.
Finally one-third of the guards revealed sadistic behavior.

This situation triggered many severe emotional break down among the prisoners, and the professor Philip Zimbardo himself acted improperly by refusing to release some seriously disturbed prisoners for a while. The experiment would have probably last longer if Christina Maslach didn't beg Zimbardo to stop it immediately after she interviewed some prisoners.

  • Personal commentaries 

This experiment is to us really scary, it's looks like a descent into hell. Obviously the first thing we had in mind was "How would we have react ?" but the fact is that we cannot know because it's seems that the personality is a minor factor in such situation.
We are used to think that we are simply good people but no one is immune to horrifying behavior. Which is quite disturbing and difficult to accept, don't you think ? Aren't we not the master of our behavior in a crisis ?

The second though we had in mind was "Are we more likely to act the good way now that we know about those experiments?". Give us your answers.

We regret that some of the participants suffer from severe emotional disturbance, and so, only for an experiment. Moreover there is many critics to do against the researchers, on the paper, the experiment was fine but they made some mistakes.
For example they should never accept the guards to do extra hours, because the camera were turn off so they were not able to control them. And as you can guess the worst thing happened at night.

But, in the other hand, it is also very interesting because it ask many questions and gives some part of the answer. We would say that this experiment is even more fascinating that the Milgram experiment because, both of them talk about blind obedience and diffusion of personal responsibility, but the Stanford prison experiment talks also about the importance of costumes to feel out of oneself, sadistic tendencies, passive tolerance and conformity to group.
Finally the thing that concerns us the most is, why the prisoners embodied their role of the victim so much. Why they felt like they deserved it ?

Our advises would be to watch the German movie "Das experiment" by Oliver Hirschbiegel. This is a stunning movie, inspired by the Stanford prison experiment, in which you can feel the rising of abuse of power from the inside. The beginning is very close to the real experiment but of course the end is much more dramatic. It's a movie after all.
Besides, another movie entitled "The Stanford Prison Experiment" is in production and will probably be released in 2011.

The optimistic conclusion would be to notice that if no one is intrinsically good, it also mean that no one is intrinsically bad.

Webography :

Monday, November 15, 2010

Week 4 : Let's impress people with Siberian Foxes

The Silver Fox experiment

This story started in 1959 in the Institute of Cytology and Genetics of the (former-)U.S.S.R. Academy of Science in Novosibirsk, Siberia. A Russian scientist called Dmitry K. Belyaev, director of this institute, intended to carry out experiments on animal domestication process. The most famous case of domestication is the case of Canis lupus (wolf) becoming Canis familiaris (dog).
In order to chose a proper subject for his experimentations he wanted an animal that could be genetically close to the dog and the wolf and at the same time that still hasn’t been domesticated, just like foxes. As Siberia was abundant in silver foxes bred for their fur, it was the opportunity for Belyaev to work on his project with these foxes.
Dmitry Belyaev with some of his domesticated silver foxes, in 1984.

His experimental process was quite simple to understand and to set up. In every litter he would select the fox cubs that showed no aggressiveness and the less fear towards homo sapiens as possible. The results came quite quickly, that is to say that in a remarkably small number of generations (10 to 15 generations) some physical characteristics appeared to differ from usual foxes.

Only by selecting foxes on behaviour it changed their physical aspect. Those changes led to the fact that foxes look more “cute”. Indeed they had juvenile characteristics : floppy ears, large skull for their length, curved tail. Also they had lack of pigmentation as their new ecological niche (cages) didn’t require to stay hidden. In other words they looked more like
          White areas on the fur                                curved tail                                         floppy ears

            Keeping juvenile traits as adult is called neoteny. This is a natural process that makes babies look cute so that their parent have a greater tendency to take care of them. Very easy to demonstrate that the more it looks cute the more we want to take care of it.

Let’s make a simple test : if you were a parent and you had two kids (supposedly the pair of pictures below) and you had to decide to take care the most about one of them. To which one do you thing you would pay more attention?

As a conclusion this experiment showed that selecting individuals by behavioural traits ( here tameness, friendliness with humans) triggered physical changes. Those changes are to be compared with wolves and dogs. Wolves have been keeping mainly the same aspect and behaviour for a long time (like foxes that were not selected). Dogs show much more difference with wolves in a juvenile way (like selected foxes in few generations). This can explain how today there is plenty of dog breeds, with different physical characteristics.

Dmitry Belyaev died in 1985 and the experiment are from that year under the direction of Lyudmila N. Trut (picture below). It is now 50 years that these experiments last for the good of genetic and metabolic researches. After all, even if they are still helpful to science progress and cause no physical pain on foxes they still involve animals in cage. Some are even sold as pets.
Once a wise man1 said "the day we'll realize animals have a thought without language we'll die of shame for locking them up in zoos" This is the dilemma it is all about.

Bibliography :

 Lyudmila N. Trut, Early Canid Domestication: The Farm-Fox Experiment, American Scientist, volume 87

1The wise man is Boris Cyrulnik an etholog, quoted from La fabuleuse aventure des hommes et des animaux with Karine Lou Matignon, Frédéric Fougea.

Webography :

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Week 3 : Let's impress with Synesthesia (Part 2)

How to talk about synesthesia


"Don't shut the door please, I don't like the taste of it ", "Klein blue smell like a lily of the valley" " Your music is a firework of color"

Well as you can see synesthesia can be a very pleasent feeling and your friends concerned by beauty will necessarily envy those synesthetes that can experience enchanting sensations they will never feel. Actually they could by consuming psychedelic drugs but we highly recommend not to have such a behavior.

For them you will have to focus on exquisite talks such as in the videos below:


Well while you aesthetic friends were fine with thoses information, your scientific-minded friends will be more skeptical and will ask for proofs. No problem, a lot of experiments have been made, one of those is to ask non-synesthetes and synesthetes to find the geometric shape made by the "2"s on the picture below on the left.

It will be very long to non-synesthetes to find out while it is almost instantaneous for synesthetes because they see the left picture like the one on the right. 

Those interested in neuroscience will be glad to see in synesthesia a perfect example to demonstrate that the brain is fragmented in areas and that these areas can interact between them.

Each area is dedicated to a function

Those links between different area of the brain does not affect only synesthetes for example, in the picture below, acording to you, which shape is called Kiki and which one is called Bouba ?

95% to 98% of people answer the same thing, Kiki for the angular shape (on the left) and Bouba for the rouded one (on the right). Isn't it amazing ?!


They will appreciate to learn that some famous artists were synesthetes and that of course it had influenced their works, people such as:

               Jean Sibelius
               Nikolaï Rimski-Korsakov
               Olivier Messiae
               Franz Liszt
               Vassily Kandinsky (not sure)

 or contemporary such as:

               Pharell Williams
               Thom York (Radiohead)
               Richard D. James (Fall out Boys). 

You can easily refer to the poem "Voyelles" by Rimbaud and " Correspondances" by baudelaire but actually none of both were synesthete. 

But the most important would be to advise to read the book "Born On A Blue Day" an autobiography by Daniel Tammet, which may be the most intense case of synethesia, where he reveals a lot about his synesthesia and much more (he is an incredible character and his life is quite amazing).