Saturday, February 25, 2012

Catch a ride on the Euthanasia Coaster

The Euthanasia Coaster is an art concept for a steel roller coaster designed to kill its passengers. In 2010, it was designed and made into a scale model by Julijonas Urbonas, a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art in London. Urbonas, who has worked at an amusement park, stated that the goal of his concept roller coaster is to take lives "with elegance and euphoria". As for practical applications of his design, Urbonas mentioned "euthanasia" or "execution". John Allen, who served as president of the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, inspired Urbonas with his description of the ideal roller coaster as one that "sends out 24 people and they all come back dead". As a hypothetical means of euthanasia, the design led to concern from anti-euthanasia associations such as Care Not Killing.
The design starts with a steep-angled lift to the 510-metre (1,670 ft) top, which would take two minutes for the 24-passenger train to reach. From there, a 500-metre (1,600 ft) drop would take the train to 360 kilometres per hour (220 mph), close to its terminal velocity, before flattening out and speeding into the first of its seven slightly clothoid inversions. Each inversion would have a smaller diameter than the one before in order to inflict 10 g to passengers while the train loses speed. After a sharp right-hand turn the train would enter a straight, where unloading of bodies and loading of passengers could take place.
[edit] Pathophysiology

The Euthanasia Coaster would kill its passengers through prolonged cerebral hypoxia, or insufficient supply of oxygen to the brain. The ride's seven inversions would inflict 10 g on its passengers for 60 seconds – causing g-force related symptoms starting with gray out through tunnel vision to black out and eventually g-LOC, g-force induced loss of consciousness. Depending on the tolerance of an individual passenger to g-forces, the first or second inversion would cause cerebral anoxia, rendering the passengers brain dead.[citation needed] Subsequent inversions would serve as insurance against unintentional survival of passengers.
[edit] Exhibition

Urbonas' concept drew media attention when shown as part of the HUMAN+ display at the Science Gallery in Dublin from April through June 2011. The display, designated as its 2011 'flagship exhibition' by the Science Gallery, aims to show the future of humans and technology. Within this theme, the Euthanasia Coaster highlights the issues that come with life extension.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Navigating Love and Autism

Navigating Love and Autism

GREENFIELD, Mass. — The first night they slept entwined on his futon, Jack Robison, 19, who had since childhood thought of himself as “not like the other humans,” regarded Kirsten Lindsmith with undisguised tenderness.

She was the only girl to have ever asked questions about his obsessive interests — chemistry, libertarian politics, the small drone aircraft he was building in his kitchen — as though she actually cared to hear his answer. To Jack, who has a form of autism called Asperger syndrome, her mind was uncannily like his. She was also, he thought, beautiful.

So far they had only cuddled; Jack, who had dropped out of high school but was acing organic chemistry in continuing education classes, had hopes for something more. Yet when she smiled at him the next morning, her lips seeking his, he turned away.

“I don’t really like kissing,” he said.

Kirsten, 18, a college freshman, drew back. If he knew she was disappointed, he showed no sign.

On that fall day in 2009, Kirsten did not know that someone as intelligent and articulate as Jack might be unable to read the feelings of others, or gauge the impact of his words. And only later would she recognize that her own lifelong troubles — bullying by students, anger from teachers and emotional meltdowns that she felt unable to control — were clues that she, too, occupied a spot on what is known as the autism spectrum.

But she found comfort in Jack’s forthrightness. If he did not always say what she wanted to hear, she knew that whatever he did say, he meant. As he dropped her off on campus that morning, she replayed in her head the e-mail he had sent the other day, describing their brief courtship with characteristic precision.

“Is this what love is, Kirsten?” he had asked.

Only since the mid-1990s have a group of socially impaired young people with otherwise normal intelligence and language development been recognized as the neurological cousins of nonverbal autistic children. Because they have a hard time grasping what another is feeling — a trait sometimes described as “mindblindness” — many assumed that those with such autism spectrum disorders were incapable of, or indifferent to, intimate relationships. Parents and teachers have focused instead on helping them with school, friendship and, more recently, the workplace.

Yet as they reach adulthood, the overarching quest of many in this first generation to be identified with Asperger syndrome is the same as many of their nonautistic peers: to find someone to love who will love them back.

The recent recognition that their social missteps arise from a neurological condition has lifted their romantic prospects, they say, allowing them to explain behavior once attributed to rudeness or a failure of character — and to ask for help. So has the recent proliferation of Web sites and forums where self-described “Aspies,” or “Aspergians,” trade dating tips and sometimes find actual dates. Lessons learned with the advent of social skills classes and therapies, typically intended to help them get jobs, are now being applied to the more treacherous work of forging intimacy.

The months that followed Jack and Kirsten’s first night together show how daunting it can be for the mindblind to achieve the kind of mutual understanding that so often eludes even nonautistic couples. But if the tendency to fixate on a narrow area of interest is sometimes considered a drawback, it may also explain one couple’s single-minded determination to keep trying.

A Meeting

Kirsten was first introduced to Jack in the fall of 2008 by her boyfriend at the time, who jumped up from their table at Rao’s Coffee in Amherst, Mass., to greet his friend, who was dressed uncharacteristically in a suit that hung from his lean frame.

Jack, it turned out, was on his way to court. A chemistry whiz, he had spent much of his adolescence teaching himself to make explosives and setting them off in the woods in experiments that he hoped would earn him a patent but that instead led the state police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to charge him with several counts of malicious explosion.

By the following spring, he would be cleared of all the charges and recruited by the director of the undergraduate chemistry program at the University of Massachusetts, who was impressed by a newspaper account of Jack’s home-built laboratory. Kirsten’s boyfriend, a popular Amherst High senior, had offered to serve as a character witness for his former classmate, and the three spent much time together that year.

The boyfriend told Kirsten that Jack had Asperger syndrome: his condition may have blinded him to the possibility that the explosions, which he recorded and posted on YouTube, could well be viewed by law enforcement authorities as anything other than the ambitious chemistry experiments he saw them.

But if Kirsten noticed that Jack held himself stiffly, spoke with an unusual formality and rarely made eye contact, she gave little thought to his condition, other than to note that it ran in families: his father, John Elder Robison, is the author of “Look Me in the Eye,” a best-selling 2007 memoir about his own diagnosis of Asperger’s at age 39.

After reading of the intense interests that often come with the condition — the elder Mr. Robison’s passion for Land Rovers, he had written, was the basis for his successful business servicing luxury vehicles — Kirsten and her boyfriend made light: “I have Asperger’s for McDonald’s,” she would joke. But Jack was all too familiar with the book’s more sobering stories, too: about the despair his father felt in his youth as he looked at happy couples around him and his rocky marriage to Jack’s mother, which ended in divorce.

“All these young Aspergians want to know how to succeed at dating,” John Robison told his son after his speaking engagements. And as a high school girlfriend broke up with Jack over the course of that year, Jack began to wonder more urgently about the same question.

Kirsten’s two previous boyfriends had broken up with her, too, and her current boyfriend was an unlikely match — a charismatic extrovert with soulful blue eyes who thrived on meeting new people. But when she admitted at the outset of their senior year in high school that she envied his social ease, he had embraced the role of social coach.

Years of social rejection had made her, in his view, overly eager to please. “People will take advantage of you if you act that way,” he warned. “If you don’t watch out, you’ll be a natural doormat.”

Noting her tendency to speak in a monotone, he urged her to be more expressive. He sought to quiet her hand movements, gave her personal hygiene tips (“You can’t do that,” he told her flatly when she used her fingers to scoop up food she had dropped on a table at Taco Bell and ate it) and pointed out the unspoken social cues she often missed. He elbowed her as she spoke for long minutes to an acquaintance about her interest in animal physiology. “When people look away,” he explained, “it means they’re not interested.”

And sometimes, he was plainly upset by what he perceived as her rudeness. “I can’t believe you did that,” he huffed when his mother asked Kirsten how she was and she did not reciprocate.

Much of the time, Kirsten embraced the tutoring, which he punctuated with unabashed displays of affection. “I love this girl!” the boyfriend once proclaimed, tackling her on his mother’s couch. Diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at age 11, she never heard the word autism. They were convinced that with some effort she could become as socially adept as he was.

But she also chafed at his frequent instructions, which required constant, invisible exertion to obey. And she despaired of ever living up to his most urgent request: that she share her innermost feelings with him.

“Just don’t filter,” he said one night, lying in bed with her.

“It’s like the blue screen of death,” she said, describing her difficulty conveying her emotion with a widely used term for a Windows computer crash. “There are no words there.”

“You’re not a robot,” he insisted, intending to comfort her. “I know you can do this. You’re a human being.”

But not, she thought, the kind he wanted her to be.

In contrast to her boyfriend’s emotional probing, Jack’s enthusiasm for facts — like how far his green laser pointer could reach across the University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst — came as a relief. So, too, did his apparent lack of concern for fitting in. A supporter of President Obama, she found herself admiring Jack’s anti-Obama bumper sticker, which almost invariably elicited angry honks in left-leaning Amherst but once got him out of a ticket.

If Jack had trouble reading Kirsten’s expressions and body language, he also noticed that she had what he considered a perfect smile. On his laptop, he showed her bootleg episodes of his favorite TV show, “Breaking Bad,” about a chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine producer. And on the evenings when he argued libertarian positions with Kirsten’s boyfriend, a liberal Democrat, he often found himself disappointed when she went to bed early.

One afternoon in the fall of 2009 he asked if she was free to meet between classes at UMass, where she was enrolled as a freshman and he was studying chemistry for an associate’s degree. They talked about their childhoods in Amherst, both social outcasts even among their geeky classmates, offspring of academics. Jack’s poor grades reflected the hours he spent reading chemistry Web sites rather than doing homework; one teacher had suggested to Kirsten’s mother, an administrator at UMass, that she would be “a perfect candidate for home-schooling.”

Kirsten told Jack, at some length, of her desire to be a medical examiner. He replied, at even greater length, about chemistry, his interest having shifted from explosives to designing new compounds for medical use. Sometimes, as they circled the campus, she broke in with questions “What’s that?” she wanted to know when his descriptions grew technical, or “Why?” Accustomed to being treated with something more akin to polite fascination when he held forth on his favorite subjects — he often felt, he said, like a zoo animal — he checked to be sure her interest was genuine before providing detailed answers.

Jack, Kirsten noticed, bit his lips, a habit he told her came from not knowing how he was supposed to arrange his face to show his emotions. Kirsten, Jack noticed, cracked her knuckles, which she later told him was her public version of the hand-flapping she reserved for when she was alone, a common autistic behavior thought to ease stress.

Their difficulty discerning unspoken cues might have made it harder to know if the attraction was mutual. Kirsten stalked Jack on Facebook, she later told him, but he rarely posted. In one phone conversation, Jack wondered, “Is she flirting with me?” But he could not be sure.

But Jack, who had never known how to hide his feelings, wrote Kirsten an e-mail laying them out. And when Kirsten’s boyfriend pleaded with her to tell him what was wrong, she did, sobbing. She could not explain, she said. She knew only that she felt as if she had found her soulmate.

Road Bumps

From the beginning, their physical relationship was governed by the peculiar ways their respective brains processed sensory messages. Like many people with autism, each had uncomfortable sensitivities to types of touch or texture, and they came in different combinations.

Jack recoiled when Kirsten tried to give him a back massage, pushing deeply with her palms.

“Pet me,” he said, showing her, his fingers grazing her skin. But Kirsten, who had always hated the feeling of light touch, shrank from his caress.

“Only deep pressure,” she showed him, hugging herself.

He tried to kiss her, but it was hard for her to enjoy it, so obvious was his aversion. To him, kissing felt like what it was, he told her: mashing your face against someone else’s. Neither did he like the sweaty feeling of hand-holding, a sensation that seemed to dominate all others whenever they tried it.

“I’m sorry,” he said helplessly.

They found ways to negotiate sex, none of them perfect. They kept trying.

What mattered more to Kirsten was how comfortable she felt for the first time in a relationship. Even if she did something wrong, she believed, Jack would not leave her. When he remarked on her obliviousness after she chattered on one day about vertebrate anatomy to their neighbor — “Matson was totally bored,” he informed her — there was no judgment, only pride that he had managed to notice. “Is that why he was yawning?” she asked, laughing with him.

She moved out of her dorm and into his apartment that fall. Despite his distaste for her habit of scavenging, he did not complain when she decorated his bare living room with a plastic orange, magnetic trains and a Wolverine action figure rescued from the sidewalk. And when he rejected her suggestion that a cat would make the apartment cozier, she did not push it.

She liked his large hands, with their long, tapered fingers and wide knuckles, and thought he was the most interesting person she had ever met.

“You’re very pretty,” he told her frequently, looking up from his computer on their kitchen table to appreciate her tall, slender frame, her big eyes bright under her dark bangs.

For his part, Jack rejoiced to find that Kirsten did not hold certain social expectations that had caused him anxiety with a high school girlfriend. He apologized, for instance, that he failed to get her a Christmas present because he had not been able to think of what she would like.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said with a shrug. “I can tell you what to get me next time.”

She tolerated his discomfort with public displays of affection, though she pushed for more in private. When he explained that his lack of expression did not mean a lack of warmth for her — he often simply forgot — she devised a straightforward strategy to help him.

“When I put my hand on your leg,” she said, “you put your arm on my back.”

It was the disagreements that spiraled into serious conflicts when they could not understand and, then, find a way to comfort each other that threatened to break them apart. One might start over Kirsten’s request that Jack hug her when she came home from school, or his perception that she was already angry at him when she came through the door.

“The more we argue, the worse it gets,” Jack said once, close to despair.

One night as Kirsten cooked dinner, he peered into the pan where she was sautéing vegetables to comment on the way she had cut the cauliflower.

“It’s too big,” he explained. “It won’t cook through.”

“It’s better when it’s not all mushy,” she insisted.

“No,” he said. “You’re just doing it wrong.”

Eventually, Kirsten, unable to contain her tears, fled to the living room.

“What I want,” she told him when they analyzed their clashes in less-fraught moments, “is to be held and rocked and comforted.”

But Jack, believing himself accused of a slight he had not made, could not bring himself to touch her.

He needed to be apart, to cool down.

Once, he had tried to do as she requested, stiffly wrapping his arms around her, against all that seemed natural to him. But when it only seemed to elicit more tears, he did not try again.

Instead, he hovered near her. “Stop crying,” he would say, pacing the perimeter of the small apartment and returning to where she sat.

He could not distract himself at those moments, even with the chemistry entries on Wikipedia, or an old episode of “Breaking Bad.”

The Diagnosis

Looking for clues to fix her new relationship, Kirsten began frequenting autism Web sites like, where hundreds of messages a day are posted. “Eligible Odd-Bods,” read one. Another, “Are relationships harder for Aspies?”

In the library, she paged through autism guidebooks, few of which contained any information about relationships, not to mention sex. But as she read about the manifestations of the condition, she recognized them — and not only in Jack.

A passage about the difficulty that people with autism have reading facial expressions reminded her of being mocked by a friend at age 5 with whom she had agreed to draw “angry ghosts.” The friend’s ghost had zigzag lines for scowling lips and a knitted brow. Kirsten, unsure how to depict anger, had drawn a blank-faced ghost with a dialogue box above its head that read “Grrr.”

In one chapter about the repetitive behavior and thought-process “ruts” that are common among autistic people, she saw her own difficulty climbing out of her black moods. Many children of her generation who probably had Asperger’s, she read, were misdiagnosed with A.D.H.D. because autism carried more of a stigma. Girls with the condition, one theory went, were overlooked because their shyness was tolerated more and “mother hen” friends might shield them from the worst social isolation, as had happened to Kirsten.

And then there was the characteristic of autism — focusing on a detail rather than the whole — that seemed to define the nitpicky arguments she and Jack had daily, even hourly, it sometimes seemed. There was the one, for example, when they were trying to recount something that had happened at a particular hotel, but could not advance past the semantics of its size.

“The hotel was miles wide,” Kirsten had started. “And — ”

“It was not ‘miles’ wide,” Jack had broken in. “It was maybe an acre, but not a mile wide, I can guarantee it.”

“I don’t think you can guarantee it,” she had retorted — and so on.

These fights, which Jack had dubbed “Aspie arguments,” were not soul-sapping, like the ones where he could not comprehend her need for a certain kind of comfort and she could not abide his inability to give it. But the cumulative effect was exhausting. It had been Jack’s similar escalation of arguments with his father that had prompted John Robison to send him to the therapist who gave him the Asperger’s diagnosis at age 15.

No prescription would come with a diagnosis, Kirsten knew. The only drugs for autism treated side effects, like depression or anxiety; she already had medication for A.D.H.D. It might help her get more time for assignments at school, where the constant effort of social interaction sometimes left her drained and struggling even with tasks that should be easy for her. But mostly, she wanted to know if there was an explanation for the awkwardness that had plagued her for so long.

Her answer came in the fall of 2010, the result of a six-hour battery of questionnaires and puzzles and a visit with a psychologist. “Lack of awareness of self-impact,” the report read. “Diminished expression of ordinary social graces.” She had left, the doctor wrote, “without a parting word.”

Many others with the same diagnosis, she knew, were more impaired than she. In online forums, she encountered skeptics who saw Asperger’s as an excuse for rudeness — or, worse, a means of pathologizing essentially normal behavior and diverting resources from those who were truly challenged. Her ex-boyfriend, she suspected, felt similarly about her own diagnosis when she reported the news.

But Kirsten took heart in the official acknowledgment and the community it made her a part of. She changed her account setting at from “undiagnosed” to “Asperger syndrome” and persuaded her mother to pay for a therapist who specialized in treating people on the autism spectrum.

And between classes one day in the library that fall, she read the first chapters of “Thinking in Pictures,” the autobiography of Temple Grandin, the autistic animal scientist whose life story was made into an HBO movie. Kirsten, too, had always thought in pictures.

People with autism, Dr. Grandin suggested, can more easily put themselves in the shoes of an animal than in those of another person because of their sensory-oriented and visual thought process. Suddenly, Kirsten yearned for the kind of uncomplicated comfort and affection that came with a small furry animal.

She would talk to Jack again about a cat, she thought, closing the book.

A Meltdown

Kirsten’s diagnosis brought her closer to Jack.

Alex Plank, 25, the founder of the WrongPlanet Web site, also had Asperger’s and had enlisted Jack in the production of Autism Talk TV, featuring video interviews with autism experts.

Kirsten now joined them, and as they traveled to conferences, Alex’s tales of his own romantic ups and downs — echoed by many on his Web site — gave them perspective on their own dramas. “It’s easy for me to get a girl’s number,” he told them. “I can build attraction. But attraction isn’t enough.”

Still, Kirsten’s wish for more physical affection from Jack was proving harder to manage. Once, during a family gathering at his father’s house, she saw Mr. Robison put his arms around the woman he had been dating and would soon marry. That, she thought with a pang, was more than Jack would do unprompted even if there was no one around.

If she didn’t ask him so much, he would do it more, Jack countered. Didn’t she understand how fake it felt when he knew he was “supposed” to do it?

Yet when the opportunity arose to date other people, they did not take it. This past spring, a male student sitting next to Kirsten in anthropology class passed her a tic-tac-toe board he had drawn during a lecture. She played along, but when he asked her, “Do you have a boyfriend?” she replied, “Yes,” and that was the end of it. Nor did Jack, asked to lunch by his female lab partner, show any interest.

But at Fox Lane Middle School in Bedford, N.Y., where Jack and Kirsten, now Internet mini-celebrities, were invited to speak about autism, the staff asked them, “Have you ever thought about dating each other?”

“We’re so platonic,” Kirsten complained to Jack later. “They didn’t even know.”

Nor was she the only one now craving affection. “Why do you pet Tybalt more than me?” he asked after a visit to her mother’s house, referring to the family dog named for the Shakespeare character.

The talk about the cat, when she raised the issue again last spring, was not much of a talk. He was allergic, Jack told her. And the apartment already felt too small. It was obvious to him that it made no sense.

Yet he had grown up with a cat, Kirsten pointed out. His allergies were not so bad. She could keep him supplied with Zyrtec. If he wouldn’t hold her when she was sad, at least she could cuddle a cat.

It was obvious to her, too.

“I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” Jack told her.

They could both see the meltdown coming. This time, as she huddled, sobbing, in a chair in the living room, he stretched out next to her on the couch.

“Go in the other room,” she told him. “You don’t have to be here.”

But he wouldn’t leave.

Exploring Therapies

Jack and Kirsten considered autism a part of who they are, and fundamental to what drew them to each other.

But for a time this past summer, Jack became captivated by the idea of designing an empathy drug. On the nights when he was not manipulating the virtual economy of the computer game Eve Online, which he often played late into the night after Kirsten had gone to bed, he read all he could find on the hormone oxytocin, which has been linked to trust and social interaction.

A small study suggesting that some of the social difficulties associated with Asperger syndrome could be relieved temporarily by inhaling an oxytocin nasal spray had generated media interest the year before.

But to Jack, the more interesting possibility was a drug that worked on the same principle as the popular antidepressants called S.S.R.I.’s, whose effect could last considerably longer than a spray.

“I’m sure people are working on it,” he told Kirsten, showing her an obscure Wikipedia entry he had found on the subject one night. “But no one’s published anything so far as I could tell.”

He explained, in his animated way, why the chemistry should work, and also, why it might not.

Then he paused.

“I wonder if I took it, whether I would be better at being affectionate,” he said.

“I wonder,” she said, “what effect it would have on me.”

They had both undergone a different experimental treatment, for a study at Harvard Medical School. Jack’s father believed that earlier studies with that procedure, which delivered current to areas of the brain, had given him a temporary insight into other people he had not had previously. But they had noticed no such effect on themselves.

And Kirsten had been working hard with her own therapist to develop strategies for soothing herself. When she found herself in a bad-mood rut, she had agreed with her therapist, she would visualize Twilight Sparkle, the nerdy intellectual character in the animated children’s show “My Little Pony” — of which her knowledge bordered on encyclopedic and whose goofiness made her laugh. She also kept a list of “twisted thoughts” that she sought to resist when they came, like her tendency to presume Jack was angry when he was making a neutral observation.

“I think it’s helping,” he told her.

A cat, she thought, would help more. In recent weeks, she had been showing him irresistibly cute pictures of kittens from a forum on called “aww.” But she did not mention the cat that night. Instead, she asked if he would come to bed with her rather than staying up to play Eve.

“Will you pet me if I come to bed?” he asked.

She agreed.

Giving Ground

Around Thanksgiving, Jack began to think that he should let Kirsten get a cat. Maybe he would keep the idea a secret, he thought, and make it a Christmas gift. He wasn’t sure.

But Kirsten, taking matters into her own hands, stopped by the animal shelter one day to see if it was possible to get a hypoallergenic cat.

There is no such thing, she told him on arriving home, but females, the shelter staff had told her, are less allergenic — so perhaps that was an option.

“Forget it, then,” Jack said absently.

He had not meant it as a final word. But Kirsten, feeling tears welling up, employed one of the new strategies she had discussed in therapy: going out for a drive, rather than wallowing.

Jack called on her cellphone almost as soon as she pulled out of their street.

“What are you doing?” he asked. “Are you — leaving?”

Trying to control her voice, she said nothing. And then, she managed, “No.”

She was driving into Amherst, hoping to see a friend.

In the apartment alone, he paced, the phone to his ear.

“Kirsten,” he said. “Just come back. We’ll get the cat.”

He did have one requirement: it had to be able to chase a laser pointer.

Dating Advisers

On a day early this month, before their planned trip to the animal shelter, Kirsten and Jack stood before a group of young adults with autism at the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support in Philadelphia, answering their questions while Jack’s father addressed their parents in a different room. “Did you ever think you would be alone?” one teenager wanted to know.

Kirsten answered first. “I thought I was going to be alone forever,” she said. “Kids who picked on me said I was so ugly I’m going to die alone.”

Her blunt tip on dating success: “A lot of it is how you dress. I found people don’t flirt with me if I wear big man pants and a rainbow sweatshirt.”

Then it was Jack’s turn to answer, in classic Aspie style. “I think I sort of lucked out,” he said. “I have no doubt if I wasn’t dating Kirsten I would have a very hard time acquiring a girlfriend that was worthwhile.”

A mother who had slipped into the room put up her hand.

“Where do you guys see your relationship going in the future?” she asked. “No pressure.”

Kirsten looked at Jack. “You go first,” she said.

“I see it going along the way it is for the foreseeable future,” Jack said.

One of the teenagers hummed the Wedding March.

“So I guess you’re saying, there is hope in the future for longer relationships,” the mother pressed.

Kirsten gazed around the room. A few other adults had crowded in.

“Parents always ask, ‘Who would like to marry my kid? They’re so weird,’ ” she said. “But, like, another weird person, that’s who.”

The Cat

The next morning, Kirsten woke up from a nightmare: they were late to get the cat, and she couldn’t reach Jack. She was riding a motorbike with pedals in weird places, and she couldn’t find the animal shelter.

In fact, they would have just enough time to reach the shelter before it closed after getting breakfast and buying a laser pointer with a lower-intensity red beam than his green one to test the prospective adoptees. In the car, Kirsten noticed a blinking “E” on the gas gauge, and the couple had the following exchange:

Kirsten: Oh, we need to get gas. Do you want to stop at the 7-Eleven?

Jack: No, we’ll stop on the way back.

Kirsten: How can you not get stressed when that thing is blinking?

Jack: I’m not intimidated by liquid crystal displays.

Kirsten: You know what I mean, you get anxious about everything.

Jack: I know we have at least 20 miles of gas.

Kirsten: We have to drive seven miles there, and then seven back.

Jack: No, we have three miles back.

Kirsten: Should we just stop at 7-Eleven?

Both of them breathed a sigh of relief when the only female kitten at the shelter pounced without hesitation on the red laser beam Jack shined into her cage. At home, however, she ran straight under the old-fashioned bathtub.

Jack bent down and scooped up the kitten, holding her up to the mirror above the sink. Kirsten stroked her black fur in his arms, their hands touching briefly across the kitten’s back, and in the reflection.

“Are you looking at yourself in the mirror?” Jack asked the kitten. “Are you smart enough to recognize yourself?”

They stood for a moment together, awaiting the reaction.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Brain Cell Malfunction in Schizophrenia Identified

(Dec. 28, 2011) — Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute have discovered that DNA stays too tightly wound in certain brain cells of schizophrenic subjects. The findings suggest that drugs already in development for other diseases might eventually offer hope as a treatment for schizophrenia and related conditions in the elderly.

The research, now available online in the new Nature journal, Translational Psychiatry, shows the deficit is especially pronounced in younger people, meaning treatment might be most effective early on at minimizing or even reversing symptoms of schizophrenia, a potentially devastating mental disorder associated with hallucinations, delusions, and emotional difficulties, among other problems.

"We're excited by the findings," said Scripps Research Associate Professor Elizabeth Thomas, a neuroscientist who led the study, "and there's a tie to other drug development work, which could mean a faster track to clinical trials to exploit what we've found."

A Promising New Field

Over the past few years, researchers have increasingly recognized that cellular-level changes not tied to genetic defects play important roles in causing disease. There is a range of such so-called epigenetic effects that change the way DNA functions without changing a person's DNA code.

One critical area of epigenetic research is tied to histones. These are the structural proteins that DNA has to wrap around. "There's so much DNA in each cell of your body that it could never fit in your cells unless it was tightly and efficiently packed," said Thomas. Histone "tails" regularly undergo chemical modifications to either relax the DNA or repack it. When histones are acetylated, portions of DNA are exposed so that the genes can be used. The histone-DNA complexes, known as chromatin, are constantly relaxing and condensing to expose different genes, so there is no single right or wrong configuration. But the balance can shift in ways that can cause or exacerbate disease.

DNA is the guide that cellular machinery uses to construct the countless proteins essential to life. If portions of that guide remain closed when they shouldn't because histones are not acetylated properly, then genes can be effectively turned off when they shouldn't be with any number of detrimental effects. Numerous research groups have found that altered acetylation may be a key factor in other conditions, from neurodegenerative disorders such as Huntington's disease and Parkinson's disease to drug addiction.

A Good Idea

Thomas had been studying the roles of histone acetylation in Huntington's disease and began to wonder whether similar mechanisms of gene regulation might also be important in schizophrenia. In both diseases, past research in the Thomas lab had shown that certain genes in sufferers were much less active than in healthy people. "It occurred to me that we see the same gene alterations, so I thought, 'Hey, let's just try it,'" she said.

Working with lead author Bin Tang, a postdoctoral fellow in her lab, and Brian Dean, an Australian colleague at the University of Melbourne, Thomas obtained post-mortem brain samples from schizophrenic and healthy brains held at medical "Brain Banks" in the United States and Australia. The brains come from either patients who themselves agreed to donate some or all of their bodies for scientific research after death, or from patients whose families agreed to such donations.

A great deal of epigenetic research has focused on chemical alterations to DNA itself. Histone alterations have been much more difficult to study because such research requires that the histones and DNA remain chemically intact. Many researchers feared that these bonds were disrupted in the brain after death. However, Thomas's group was able to develop a technique for maintaining the histone-DNA interactions. "While many people thought this was lost, we were able to show that indeed these interactions are preserved in post-mortem brain, allowing us to carry out these studies," said Thomas.

Compared to healthy brains, the brain samples from subjects with schizophrenia showed lower levels of acetylation in certain histone portions that would block gene expression. Another critical finding was that in younger subjects with schizophrenia, the problem was much more pronounced.

Need for New Treatment Options

Just what causes the acetylation defects among schizophrenic subjects -- what keeps certain pages of the DNA guide closed -- isn't clear, but from a medical perspective it doesn't matter. If researchers can reliably show that acetylation is a cause of the problem, they can look for ways to open the closed guide pages and hopefully cure or improve the condition in patients.

Thomas sees great potential. Based on the more pronounced results in younger brains, she believes that treatment with histone deacetylase inhibitors might well prove helpful in reversing or preventing the progression of the condition, especially in younger patients. Current drugs for schizophrenia tend to treat only certain symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, and the drugs have major side effects including movement problems, weight gain, and diabetes. If deacetylase inhibitors effectively treat a root cause of the disease and prove sufficiently non-toxic, they might improve additional symptoms and provide a major expansion of treatment options.

Interestingly, some of the cognitive deficits that plague elderly people look quite similar biologically to schizophrenia, and the two conditions share at least some brain abnormalities. So deacetylase inhibitors might also work as a treatment for age-related problems, and might even prove an effective preventive measure for people at high risk of cognitive decline based on family history or other indicators.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Creative people are just high functioning schizophrenics
New research shows a possible explanation for the link between mental health and creativity. By studying receptors in the brain, researchers at Karolinska Institute have managed to show that the dopamine system in healthy, highly creative people is similar in some respects to that seen in people with schizophrenia.

High creative skills have been shown to be somewhat more common in people who have mental illness in the family. Creativity is also linked to a slightly higher risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Certain psychological traits, such as the ability to make unusual or bizarre associations are also shared by schizophrenics and healthy, highly creative people. And now the correlation between creativity and mental health has scientific backing.

"We have studied the brain and the dopamine D2 receptors, and have shown that the dopamine system of healthy, highly creative people is similar to that found in people with schizophrenia," says associate professor Fredrik Ullen from Karolinska Institutet's Department of Women's and Children's Health, co-author of the study that appears in the journal PLoS ONE.

Just which brain mechanisms are responsible for this correlation is still something of a mystery, but Dr Ullen conjectures that the function of systems in the brain that use dopamine is significant; for example, studies have shown that dopamine receptor genes are linked to ability for divergent thought. Dr Ullen's study measured the creativity of healthy individuals using divergent psychological tests, in which the task was to find many different solutions to a problem.

"The study shows that highly creative people who did well on the divergent tests had a lower density of D2 receptors in the thalamus than less creative people," says Dr Ullen. "Schizophrenics are also known to have low D2 density in this part of the brain, suggesting a cause of the link between mental illness and creativity."
The thalamus serves as a kind of relay centre, filtering information before it reaches areas of the cortex, which is responsible, amongst other things, for cognition and reasoning.

"Fewer D2 receptors in the thalamus probably means a lower degree of signal filtering, and thus a higher flow of information from the thalamus," says Dr Ullen, and explains that this could a possible mechanism behind the ability of healthy highly creative people to see numerous uncommon connections in a problem-solving situation and the bizarre associations found in the mentally ill.

"Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box," says Dr Ullen about his new findings.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Record Labels and Human Psychology

Record Labels Waged War On Human Psychology…And Lost
he major record labels and the RIAA could have averted a PR nightmare and saved themselves millions of dollars by hiring a few behavioral economists instead of lawyers to advise them. The basis of all human economic transactions are psychological. Our animal spirits animate markets. The lawsuits the RIAA waged against consumers several years ago were designed to prevent people from downloading free, illegal music. They largely had the opposite effect. The obvious stupidity of the strategy is that you’re beating people over the head, then saying “Now, buy my product!”

The more profound aspect of that is that the RIAA could spend every last penny they’re worth and they still wouldn’t stop the inevitable death of the CD . Not because people don’t want to pay $17 for a CD, but because $17 doesn’t make sense anymore in the context of how human beings make rational choices. The whole file sharing phenomenon (and legal music downloading) is largely driven by a powerful psychological aversion to being cheated.

It turns out that free is so powerful not because it’s free, but because it allows us to minimize the risk of being cheated. Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely conducted an interesting experiment to understand “free”, which he writes about in his book Predictably Irrational. First, he and his colleagues sold random college students two kinds of chocolates. One was Lindt Truffles from Switzerland. The second was Hersheys Kisses. The truffles were 15 cents and the Kisses were 1 cent. The students reasoned that the difference in price between the two chocolates was due to quality. 73% chose the truffles and 27% chose the Kisses.

Then Ariely did something interesting. He introduced free into the experiment. He lowered the price of each chocolate by 1 cent, so the truffles were now 14 cents and the Kisses were free. All of a sudden, preference for the Kisses skyrocketed.

Ariely concluded that free is so enticing because it eliminates the risk of buyer’s remorse, or what I like to call the “Oh, crap!” factor. Nobody wants to buy something and then discover that it’s not what they expected. Even if the price of that thing is just a few cents, the psychological aversion still exists. When something is free, that risk is eliminated entirely. It may still not be what you expected, but at least you didn’t lose anything by paying for it.

The world of marketing is largely based on the concept of convincing people to overcome their natural aversion to being cheated. Companies hire high-priced consultants and agencies to help them craft brands that people will trust. Money-back guarantees are another popular tactic to get people to buy risk-free.

You can see examples of the “Oh, crap!” factor in everyday life. In his spectacular book Free, Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson gives the example of Most people still prefer to buy shoes in stores because they want to try them on and make sure they fit and look good on their feet before buying . Zappos became a multi-billion dollar company by eliminating the psychological barrier to buying shoes online by letting people try out and return shoes as many times as they want. So it’s even better than buying shoes in the real world because some of the other costs associated with buying shoes like getting in your car, dealing with traffic, talking to a rude cashier, etc are eliminated.

The record industry has fared so poorly largely because it sells a high risk product that competes with copies of the product that carry far fewer risks. Everybody knows that labels fill CD albums with fluff. And everybody hates it. Sites like Amazon that let you sample albums for free before buying them take some of the risk out of buying. But why would you buy the entire album if you only like a few songs on it? That’s where the whole buy-one-song iTunes model has become a powerful force. Buy what you want, ignore the rest. Or even better, download it for free on some file sharing site.

But free isn’t completely free. Just because something doesn’t cost money doesn’t mean there aren’t other hidden costs. If you download a free mp3, you could be dealing with poor quality, viruses, problematic file formats or maybe the wrong song. And then finding a good version takes time. That’s a cost too.

The reason Steve Jobs and Apple have been so spectacularly successful at reinventing the music business is because they’re the only ones who’ve managed to invent a hardware and software platform that mitigates the risk factors involved in owning music. And they made it sexy and stylish. Apple didn’t win on technology. Nobody does, ultimately. They won on business smarts. And business is based largely on manipulating psychology.

Many younger people get all their music from free file sharing sites. Part of the reason is that they have less money and more time than older people, who’s busier lives encourage them to pay for things that save them time. Younger people are willing to spend time to understand technology and deal with the costs that come with free music. I think free music has also become an expectation for younger people. There’s an entire group of people under the age of about 30 who believe that music should be free because that’s the world they’ve grown up in. So that’s where the future lies.

The labels lost because they waged war on human psychology. Apple won because it adapted to human psychology.

Why We Lie So Well

Survival of the Fibbest: Why We Lie So Well


Your child tells you he didn't eat a cookie despite the tell-tale crumbs all over his mouth. You call your boss to say you're taking "a sick day," feigning a cough while on the phone. You're both lying, but is it the same?

Whether we're 2 years old or 62, our reasons for lying are mostly the same: to get out of trouble, for personal gain and to make ourselves look better in the eyes of others. But a growing body of research is raising questions about how a child's lie is different from an adult's lie, and how the way we deceive changes as we grow.
The Lying Life

Research suggests we begin lying as toddlers and keep on as adults, but how we deceive changes as we age. View chart
[LAB] Getty Images

Developmental psychologists are trying to understand lying through behavior. Neuroscientists are tracking which regions of the brain are activated when we spin lies. Their results could shed light on issues from why a tween lies to your face about breaking a vase to whether young children can be trusted to give eye-witness testimony in court. One intriguing new study suggests that lying may spring from a completely different part of the brain in children compared with adults.

What has become clear from studies including the work of Kang Lee, a professor at the University of Toronto and director of the Institute of Child Study, is that lying is a sign of normal maturation.

Parents and teachers who catch their children lying "should not be alarmed—and their children are not going to turn out to be pathological liars," says Dr. Lee, who has spent the last 15 years studying how lying changes as kids get older, why some people lie more than others as well as which factors can reduce lying. "The fact that their children tell lies is a sign that they have reached a new developmental milestone."

Dr. Lee and Victoria Talwar, a colleague he often collaborates with at McGill University, conducted a series of studies in which they bring children into a lab with hidden cameras. Children and young adults age 2 to 17 are enticed to lie by being told not to peek at a toy—often a plush purple Barney dinosaur—that is put behind the child's back. The test giver then leaves the room for one minute, ostensibly to answer a phone call, giving the child ample time to peek at the toy. Whether or not the child sneaks a look is caught on tape.
For Parents: the Truth About Lying

* Lying is normal and isn't a problem unless kids lie frequently and consistently.
* Ask a child to promise to tell the truth. Children who promise are much more likely to tell the truth than kids who aren't asked to promise.
* Lying shouldn't be ignored. When a lie comes to light, be explicit with children that it is wrong to lie.

* Don't set up children to lie. If you know they committed a transgression, don't ask if they did it. Instead, ask why they did it.
* If a child confesses, thank them for telling you the truth. If kids are only punished for lying, they will be more likely to lie in the future, according to studies.

* Stories with an ending that show truth-telling as a good thing appear more effective at damping lying than fear- or punishmentbased stories (e.g., Pinocchio's nose grows longer when he lies).

Source: American Pain Foundation

For young kids, the temptation to cheat is "tremendous" and 90% peek in these experiments. Even adolescents and adults are tempted in similar situations, says Dr. Lee.

When the test giver returns to the room, the child is asked if he or she peeked. At age 2, about a quarter of children will lie and say they didn't. By 3, half of kids will lie, and by 4, that figure is 90%, studies show.

This trend continues until kids are about 15. By that age, nearly everyone who cheated in the experiment will lie about it. The good news: The number of liars begins to decline beyond this age. By 17, the percentage that lies drops to about 70%.

Researchers have also examined why some kids lie more than others, and have found that it isn't related to better moral values or religious upbringing. Rather, it's kids with better cognitive abilities who lie more. That's because to lie you also have to keep the truth in mind, which involves multiple brain processes, such as integrating several sources of information and manipulating that information, according to Shawn Christ, a neuropsychologist at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The ability to lie—and lie successfully—is thought to be related to development of brain regions that allow so-called "executive functioning," or higher order thinking and reasoning abilities. Kids who perform better on tests that involve executive functioning also lie more.

To get a clearer picture of potential differences between adult and child lying, recently Markus Kruesi and colleagues at the Medical University of South Carolina scanned the brains of a couple dozen children ages 10 to 16 and adults ages 19 to 40 while they were telling the lies and telling the truth.

As the children and adults lied, the researchers expected to see increased blood flow due to neural activity in the frontal regions of the brain, where executive functioning is thought to be carried out. That happened in adult scans, but none of the frontal regions in the children's brains showed the activity.

While it is too early to know why these differences exist, Dr. Kruesi is looking into whether other areas of the brain, such as those tied to emotion, might be more active when children lie.

When it comes to covering up their lies up, studies show that kids learn quite young that they need to disguise their lying, and very quickly adopt truthful-looking behaviors—like not looking away when questioned. Dr. Talwar's work has shown that it's hard even for a young child's own parent to detect when the child is lying just by looking at the child's behaviors.

But young kids often give themselves away verbally, according to recent research by Drs. Lee and Talwar. Kids may say they didn't peek at the Barney doll, but when the experimenter asks, "What do you think the toy is?" the children blurt out, "Barney." When asked how they knew, many children then confess.

Starting around five, children begin to understand that such an answer gives their deception away, so they pretend to guess or come up with better reasons for why they knew the answer. Even so, the logic may be flawed. Dr. Lee recounted how one little girl asked to place her hand underneath a blanket that was over the toy before she answered the question. After feeling the toy but not seeing it, she said, "It feels purple, so it's Barney!"

By seven, the majority of kids can conceal their lying and cheating very well. "The time to catch a liar is before eight years of age," says Dr. Lee.

So what's a parent to do after that? Some studies suggest there is no long-term effect of parenting on lying behavior, but the work of Dr. Talwar and her colleague Angela Crossman at the John Jay College at the City College of New York shows that a certain type of parenting style seems to discourage lying. They suggest parents discuss why there are rules against lying. Also, parents who point out when kids lie—and also acknowledge when children come clean—can foster more truth-telling, says Dr. Talwar.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Moral Life of Babies

The Moral Life of Babies

Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the “naughty” one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.

This incident occurred in one of several psychology studies that I have been involved with at the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University in collaboration with my colleague (and wife), Karen Wynn, who runs the lab, and a graduate student, Kiley Hamlin, who is the lead author of the studies. We are one of a handful of research teams around the world exploring the moral life of babies.

Like many scientists and humanists, I have long been fascinated by the capacities and inclinations of babies and children. The mental life of young humans not only is an interesting topic in its own right; it also raises — and can help answer — fundamental questions of philosophy and psychology, including how biological evolution and cultural experience conspire to shape human nature. In graduate school, I studied early language development and later moved on to fairly traditional topics in cognitive development, like how we come to understand the minds of other people — what they know, want and experience.

But the current work I’m involved in, on baby morality, might seem like a perverse and misguided next step. Why would anyone even entertain the thought of babies as moral beings? From Sigmund Freud to Jean Piaget to Lawrence Kohlberg, psychologists have long argued that we begin life as amoral animals. One important task of society, particularly of parents, is to turn babies into civilized beings — social creatures who can experience empathy, guilt and shame; who can override selfish impulses in the name of higher principles; and who will respond with outrage to unfairness and injustice. Many parents and educators would endorse a view of infants and toddlers close to that of a recent Onion headline: “New Study Reveals Most Children Unrepentant Sociopaths.” If children enter the world already equipped with moral notions, why is it that we have to work so hard to humanize them?

A growing body of evidence, though, suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone. Which is not to say that parents are wrong to concern themselves with moral development or that their interactions with their children are a waste of time. Socialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be.

Smart Babies
Babies seem spastic in their actions, undisciplined in their attention. In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau called the baby “a perfect idiot,” and in 1890 William James famously described a baby’s mental life as “one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” A sympathetic parent might see the spark of consciousness in a baby’s large eyes and eagerly accept the popular claim that babies are wonderful learners, but it is hard to avoid the impression that they begin as ignorant as bread loaves. Many developmental psychologists will tell you that the ignorance of human babies extends well into childhood. For many years the conventional view was that young humans take a surprisingly long time to learn basic facts about the physical world (like that objects continue to exist once they are out of sight) and basic facts about people (like that they have beliefs and desires and goals) — let alone how long it takes them to learn about morality.

I am admittedly biased, but I think one of the great discoveries in modern psychology is that this view of babies is mistaken.

A reason this view has persisted is that, for many years, scientists weren’t sure how to go about studying the mental life of babies. It’s a challenge to study the cognitive abilities of any creature that lacks language, but human babies present an additional difficulty, because, even compared to rats or birds, they are behaviorally limited: they can’t run mazes or peck at levers. In the 1980s, however, psychologists interested in exploring how much babies know began making use of one of the few behaviors that young babies can control: the movement of their eyes. The eyes are a window to the baby’s soul. As adults do, when babies see something that they find interesting or surprising, they tend to look at it longer than they would at something they find uninteresting or expected. And when given a choice between two things to look at, babies usually opt to look at the more pleasing thing. You can use “looking time,” then, as a rough but reliable proxy for what captures babies’ attention: what babies are surprised by or what babies like.

The studies in the 1980s that made use of this methodology were able to discover surprising things about what babies know about the nature and workings of physical objects — a baby’s “naïve physics.” Psychologists — most notably Elizabeth Spelke and Renée Baillargeon — conducted studies that essentially involved showing babies magic tricks, events that seemed to violate some law of the universe: you remove the supports from beneath a block and it floats in midair, unsupported; an object disappears and then reappears in another location; a box is placed behind a screen, the screen falls backward into empty space. Like adults, babies tend to linger on such scenes — they look longer at them than at scenes that are identical in all regards except that they don’t violate physical laws. This suggests that babies have expectations about how objects should behave. A vast body of research now suggests that — contrary to what was taught for decades to legions of psychology undergraduates — babies think of objects largely as adults do, as connected masses that move as units, that are solid and subject to gravity and that move in continuous paths through space and time.

Other studies, starting with a 1992 paper by my wife, Karen, have found that babies can do rudimentary math with objects. The demonstration is simple. Show a baby an empty stage. Raise a screen to obscure part of the stage. In view of the baby, put a Mickey Mouse doll behind the screen. Then put another Mickey Mouse doll behind the screen. Now drop the screen. Adults expect two dolls — and so do 5-month-olds: if the screen drops to reveal one or three dolls, the babies look longer, in surprise, than they do if the screen drops to reveal two.

A second wave of studies used looking-time methods to explore what babies know about the minds of others — a baby’s “naïve psychology.” Psychologists had known for a while that even the youngest of babies treat people different from inanimate objects. Babies like to look at faces; they mimic them, they smile at them. They expect engagement: if a moving object becomes still, they merely lose interest; if a person’s face becomes still, however, they become distressed.

But the new studies found that babies have an actual understanding of mental life: they have some grasp of how people think and why they act as they do. The studies showed that, though babies expect inanimate objects to move as the result of push-pull interactions, they expect people to move rationally in accordance with their beliefs and desires: babies show surprise when someone takes a roundabout path to something he wants. They expect someone who reaches for an object to reach for the same object later, even if its location has changed. And well before their 2nd birthdays, babies are sharp enough to know that other people can have false beliefs. The psychologists Kristine Onishi and Renée Baillargeon have found that 15-month-olds expect that if a person sees an object in one box, and then the object is moved to another box when the person isn’t looking, the person will later reach into the box where he first saw the object, not the box where it actually is. That is, toddlers have a mental model not merely of the world but of the world as understood by someone else.

These discoveries inevitably raise a question: If babies have such a rich understanding of objects and people so early in life, why do they seem so ignorant and helpless? Why don’t they put their knowledge to more active use? One possible answer is that these capacities are the psychological equivalent of physical traits like testicles or ovaries, which are formed in infancy and then sit around, useless, for years and years. Another possibility is that babies do, in fact, use their knowledge from Day 1, not for action but for learning. One lesson from the study of artificial intelligence (and from cognitive science more generally) is that an empty head learns nothing: a system that is capable of rapidly absorbing information needs to have some prewired understanding of what to pay attention to and what generalizations to make. Babies might start off smart, then, because it enables them to get smarter.

Nice Babies
Psychologists like myself who are interested in the cognitive capacities of babies and toddlers are now turning our attention to whether babies have a “naïve morality.” But there is reason to proceed with caution. Morality, after all, is a different sort of affair than physics or psychology. The truths of physics and psychology are universal: objects obey the same physical laws everywhere; and people everywhere have minds, goals, desires and beliefs. But the existence of a universal moral code is a highly controversial claim; there is considerable evidence for wide variation from society to society.

In the journal Science a couple of months ago, the psychologist Joseph Henrich and several of his colleagues reported a cross-cultural study of 15 diverse populations and found that people’s propensities to behave kindly to strangers and to punish unfairness are strongest in large-scale communities with market economies, where such norms are essential to the smooth functioning of trade. Henrich and his colleagues concluded that much of the morality that humans possess is a consequence of the culture in which they are raised, not their innate capacities.

At the same time, though, people everywhere have some sense of right and wrong. You won’t find a society where people don’t have some notion of fairness, don’t put some value on loyalty and kindness, don’t distinguish between acts of cruelty and innocent mistakes, don’t categorize people as nasty or nice. These universals make evolutionary sense. Since natural selection works, at least in part, at a genetic level, there is a logic to being instinctively kind to our kin, whose survival and well-being promote the spread of our genes. More than that, it is often beneficial for humans to work together with other humans, which means that it would have been adaptive to evaluate the niceness and nastiness of other individuals. All this is reason to consider the innateness of at least basic moral concepts.

In addition, scientists know that certain compassionate feelings and impulses emerge early and apparently universally in human development. These are not moral concepts, exactly, but they seem closely related. One example is feeling pain at the pain of others. In his book “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” Charles Darwin, a keen observer of human nature, tells the story of how his first son, William, was fooled by his nurse into expressing sympathy at a very young age: “When a few days over 6 months old, his nurse pretended to cry, and I saw that his face instantly assumed a melancholy expression, with the corners of his mouth strongly depressed.”

There seems to be something evolutionarily ancient to this empathetic response. If you want to cause a rat distress, you can expose it to the screams of other rats. Human babies, notably, cry more to the cries of other babies than to tape recordings of their own crying, suggesting that they are responding to their awareness of someone else’s pain, not merely to a certain pitch of sound. Babies also seem to want to assuage the pain of others: once they have enough physical competence (starting at about 1 year old), they soothe others in distress by stroking and touching or by handing over a bottle or toy. There are individual differences, to be sure, in the intensity of response: some babies are great soothers; others don’t care as much. But the basic impulse seems common to all. (Some other primates behave similarly: the primatologist Frans de Waal reports that chimpanzees “will approach a victim of attack, put an arm around her and gently pat her back or groom her.” Monkeys, on the other hand, tend to shun victims of aggression.)

Some recent studies have explored the existence of behavior in toddlers that is “altruistic” in an even stronger sense — like when they give up their time and energy to help a stranger accomplish a difficult task. The psychologists Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello have put toddlers in situations in which an adult is struggling to get something done, like opening a cabinet door with his hands full or trying to get to an object out of reach. The toddlers tend to spontaneously help, even without any prompting, encouragement or reward.

Is any of the above behavior recognizable as moral conduct? Not obviously so. Moral ideas seem to involve much more than mere compassion. Morality, for instance, is closely related to notions of praise and blame: we want to reward what we see as good and punish what we see as bad. Morality is also closely connected to the ideal of impartiality — if it’s immoral for you to do something to me, then, all else being equal, it is immoral for me to do the same thing to you. In addition, moral principles are different from other types of rules or laws: they cannot, for instance, be overruled solely by virtue of authority. (Even a 4-year-old knows not only that unprovoked hitting is wrong but also that it would continue to be wrong even if a teacher said that it was O.K.) And we tend to associate morality with the possibility of free and rational choice; people choose to do good or evil. To hold someone responsible for an act means that we believe that he could have chosen to act otherwise.

Babies and toddlers might not know or exhibit any of these moral subtleties. Their sympathetic reactions and motivations — including their desire to alleviate the pain of others — may not be much different in kind from purely nonmoral reactions and motivations like growing hungry or wanting to void a full bladder. Even if that is true, though, it is hard to conceive of a moral system that didn’t have, as a starting point, these empathetic capacities. As David Hume argued, mere rationality can’t be the foundation of morality, since our most basic desires are neither rational nor irrational. “ ’Tis not contrary to reason,” he wrote, “to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” To have a genuinely moral system, in other words, some things first have to matter, and what we see in babies is the development of mattering.

Moral-Baby Experiments
So what do babies really understand about morality? Our first experiments exploring this question were done in collaboration with a postdoctoral researcher named Valerie Kuhlmeier (who is now an associate professor of psychology at Queen’s University in Ontario). Building on previous work by the psychologists David and Ann Premack, we began by investigating what babies think about two particular kinds of action: helping and hindering.

Our experiments involved having children watch animated movies of geometrical characters with faces. In one, a red ball would try to go up a hill. On some attempts, a yellow square got behind the ball and gently nudged it upward; in others, a green triangle got in front of it and pushed it down. We were interested in babies’ expectations about the ball’s attitudes — what would the baby expect the ball to make of the character who helped it and the one who hindered it? To find out, we then showed the babies additional movies in which the ball either approached the square or the triangle. When the ball approached the triangle (the hinderer), both 9- and 12-month-olds looked longer than they did when the ball approached the square (the helper). This was consistent with the interpretation that the former action surprised them; they expected the ball to approach the helper. A later study, using somewhat different stimuli, replicated the finding with 10-month-olds, but found that 6-month-olds seem to have no expectations at all. (This effect is robust only when the animated characters have faces; when they are simple faceless figures, it is apparently harder for babies to interpret what they are seeing as a social interaction.)

This experiment was designed to explore babies’ expectations about social interactions, not their moral capacities per se. But if you look at the movies, it’s clear that, at least to adult eyes, there is some latent moral content to the situation: the triangle is kind of a jerk; the square is a sweetheart. So we set out to investigate whether babies make the same judgments about the characters that adults do. Forget about how babies expect the ball to act toward the other characters; what do babies themselves think about the square and the triangle? Do they prefer the good guy and dislike the bad guy?

Here we began our more focused investigations into baby morality. For these studies, parents took their babies to the Infant Cognition Center, which is within one of the Yale psychology buildings. (The center is just a couple of blocks away from where Stanley Milgram did his famous experiments on obedience in the early 1960s, tricking New Haven residents into believing that they had severely harmed or even killed strangers with electrical shocks.) The parents were told about what was going to happen and filled out consent forms, which described the study, the risks to the baby (minimal) and the benefits to the baby (minimal, though it is a nice-enough experience). Parents often asked, reasonably enough, if they would learn how their baby does, and the answer was no. This sort of study provides no clinical or educational feedback about individual babies; the findings make sense only when computed as a group.

For the experiment proper, a parent will carry his or her baby into a small testing room. A typical experiment takes about 15 minutes. Usually, the parent sits on a chair, with the baby on his or her lap, though for some studies, the baby is strapped into a high chair with the parent standing behind. At this point, some of the babies are either sleeping or too fussy to continue; there will then be a short break for the baby to wake up or calm down, but on average this kind of study ends up losing about a quarter of the subjects. Just as critics describe much of experimental psychology as the study of the American college undergraduate who wants to make some extra money or needs to fulfill an Intro Psych requirement, there’s some truth to the claim that this developmental work is a science of the interested and alert baby.

In one of our first studies of moral evaluation, we decided not to use two-dimensional animated movies but rather a three-dimensional display in which real geometrical objects, manipulated like puppets, acted out the helping/hindering situations: a yellow square would help the circle up the hill; a red triangle would push it down. After showing the babies the scene, the experimenter placed the helper and the hinderer on a tray and brought them to the child. In this instance, we opted to record not the babies’ looking time but rather which character they reached for, on the theory that what a baby reaches for is a reliable indicator of what a baby wants. In the end, we found that 6- and 10-month-old infants overwhelmingly preferred the helpful individual to the hindering individual. This wasn’t a subtle statistical trend; just about all the babies reached for the good guy.

(Experimental minutiae: What if babies simply like the color red or prefer squares or something like that? To control for this, half the babies got the yellow square as the helper; half got it as the hinderer. What about problems of unconscious cueing and unconscious bias? To avoid this, at the moment when the two characters were offered on the tray, the parent had his or her eyes closed, and the experimenter holding out the characters and recording the responses hadn’t seen the puppet show, so he or she didn’t know who was the good guy and who the bad guy.)

One question that arose with these experiments was how to understand the babies’ preference: did they act as they did because they were attracted to the helpful individual or because they were repelled by the hinderer or was it both? We explored this question in a further series of studies that introduced a neutral character, one that neither helps nor hinders. We found that, given a choice, infants prefer a helpful character to a neutral one; and prefer a neutral character to one who hinders. This finding indicates that both inclinations are at work — babies are drawn to the nice guy and repelled by the mean guy. Again, these results were not subtle; babies almost always showed this pattern of response.

Does our research show that babies believe that the helpful character is good and the hindering character is bad? Not necessarily. All that we can safely infer from what the babies reached for is that babies prefer the good guy and show an aversion to the bad guy. But what’s exciting here is that these preferences are based on how one individual treated another, on whether one individual was helping another individual achieve its goals or hindering it. This is preference of a very special sort; babies were responding to behaviors that adults would describe as nice or mean. When we showed these scenes to much older kids — 18-month-olds — and asked them, “Who was nice? Who was good?” and “Who was mean? Who was bad?” they responded as adults would, identifying the helper as nice and the hinderer as mean.

To increase our confidence that the babies we studied were really responding to niceness and naughtiness, Karen Wynn and Kiley Hamlin, in a separate series of studies, created different sets of one-act morality plays to show the babies. In one, an individual struggled to open a box; the lid would be partly opened but then fall back down. Then, on alternating trials, one puppet would grab the lid and open it all the way, and another puppet would jump on the box and slam it shut. In another study (the one I mentioned at the beginning of this article), a puppet would play with a ball. The puppet would roll the ball to another puppet, who would roll it back, and the first puppet would roll the ball to a different puppet who would run away with it. In both studies, 5-month-olds preferred the good guy — the one who helped to open the box; the one who rolled the ball back — to the bad guy. This all suggests that the babies we studied have a general appreciation of good and bad behavior, one that spans a range of actions.

A further question that arises is whether babies possess more subtle moral capacities than preferring good and avoiding bad. Part and parcel of adult morality, for instance, is the idea that good acts should meet with a positive response and bad acts with a negative response — justice demands the good be rewarded and the bad punished. For our next studies, we turned our attention back to the older babies and toddlers and tried to explore whether the preferences that we were finding had anything to do with moral judgment in this mature sense. In collaboration with Neha Mahajan, a psychology graduate student at Yale, Hamlin, Wynn and I exposed 21-month-olds to the good guy/bad guy situations described above, and we gave them the opportunity to reward or punish either by giving a treat to, or taking a treat from, one of the characters. We found that when asked to give, they tended to chose the positive character; when asked to take, they tended to choose the negative one.

Dispensing justice like this is a more elaborate conceptual operation than merely preferring good to bad, but there are still-more-elaborate moral calculations that adults, at least, can easily make. For example: Which individual would you prefer — someone who rewarded good guys and punished bad guys or someone who punished good guys and rewarded bad guys? The same amount of rewarding and punishing is going on in both cases, but by adult lights, one individual is acting justly and the other isn’t. Can babies see this, too?

To find out, we tested 8-month-olds by first showing them a character who acted as a helper (for instance, helping a puppet trying to open a box) and then presenting a scene in which this helper was the target of a good action by one puppet and a bad action by another puppet. Then we got the babies to choose between these two puppets. That is, they had to choose between a puppet who rewarded a good guy versus a puppet who punished a good guy. Likewise, we showed them a character who acted as a hinderer (for example, keeping a puppet from opening a box) and then had them choose between a puppet who rewarded the bad guy versus one who punished the bad guy.

The results were striking. When the target of the action was itself a good guy, babies preferred the puppet who was nice to it. This alone wasn’t very surprising, given that the other studies found an overall preference among babies for those who act nicely. What was more interesting was what happened when they watched the bad guy being rewarded or punished. Here they chose the punisher. Despite their overall preference for good actors over bad, then, babies are drawn to bad actors when those actors are punishing bad behavior.

All of this research, taken together, supports a general picture of baby morality. It’s even possible, as a thought experiment, to ask what it would be like to see the world in the moral terms that a baby does. Babies probably have no conscious access to moral notions, no idea why certain acts are good or bad. They respond on a gut level. Indeed, if you watch the older babies during the experiments, they don’t act like impassive judges — they tend to smile and clap during good events and frown, shake their heads and look sad during the naughty events (remember the toddler who smacked the bad puppet). The babies’ experiences might be cognitively empty but emotionally intense, replete with strong feelings and strong desires. But this shouldn’t strike you as an altogether alien experience: while we adults possess the additional critical capacity of being able to consciously reason about morality, we’re not otherwise that different from babies — our moral feelings are often instinctive. In fact, one discovery of contemporary research in social psychology and social neuroscience is the powerful emotional underpinning of what we once thought of as cool, untroubled, mature moral deliberation.

Is This the Morality We’re Looking For?
What do these findings about babies’ moral notions tell us about adult morality? Some scholars think that the very existence of an innate moral sense has profound implications. In 1869, Alfred Russel Wallace, who along with Darwin discovered natural selection, wrote that certain human capacities — including “the higher moral faculties” — are richer than what you could expect from a product of biological evolution. He concluded that some sort of godly force must intervene to create these capacities. (Darwin was horrified at this suggestion, writing to Wallace, “I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child.”)

A few years ago, in his book “What’s So Great About Christianity,” the social and cultural critic Dinesh D’Souza revived this argument. He conceded that evolution can explain our niceness in instances like kindness to kin, where the niceness has a clear genetic payoff, but he drew the line at “high altruism,” acts of entirely disinterested kindness. For D’Souza, “there is no Darwinian rationale” for why you would give up your seat for an old lady on a bus, an act of nice-guyness that does nothing for your genes. And what about those who donate blood to strangers or sacrifice their lives for a worthy cause? D’Souza reasoned that these stirrings of conscience are best explained not by evolution or psychology but by “the voice of God within our souls.”

The evolutionary psychologist has a quick response to this: To say that a biological trait evolves for a purpose doesn’t mean that it always functions, in the here and now, for that purpose. Sexual arousal, for instance, presumably evolved because of its connection to making babies; but of course we can get aroused in all sorts of situations in which baby-making just isn’t an option — for instance, while looking at pornography. Similarly, our impulse to help others has likely evolved because of the reproductive benefit that it gives us in certain contexts — and it’s not a problem for this argument that some acts of niceness that people perform don’t provide this sort of benefit. (And for what it’s worth, giving up a bus seat for an old lady, although the motives might be psychologically pure, turns out to be a coldbloodedly smart move from a Darwinian standpoint, an easy way to show off yourself as an attractively good person.)

The general argument that critics like Wallace and D’Souza put forward, however, still needs to be taken seriously. The morality of contemporary humans really does outstrip what evolution could possibly have endowed us with; moral actions are often of a sort that have no plausible relation to our reproductive success and don’t appear to be accidental byproducts of evolved adaptations. Many of us care about strangers in faraway lands, sometimes to the extent that we give up resources that could be used for our friends and family; many of us care about the fates of nonhuman animals, so much so that we deprive ourselves of pleasures like rib-eye steak and veal scaloppine. We possess abstract moral notions of equality and freedom for all; we see racism and sexism as evil; we reject slavery and genocide; we try to love our enemies. Of course, our actions typically fall short, often far short, of our moral principles, but these principles do shape, in a substantial way, the world that we live in. It makes sense then to marvel at the extent of our moral insight and to reject the notion that it can be explained in the language of natural selection. If this higher morality or higher altruism were found in babies, the case for divine creation would get just a bit stronger.

But it is not present in babies. In fact, our initial moral sense appears to be biased toward our own kind. There’s plenty of research showing that babies have within-group preferences: 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language. And studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.

The notion at the core of any mature morality is that of impartiality. If you are asked to justify your actions, and you say, “Because I wanted to,” this is just an expression of selfish desire. But explanations like “It was my turn” or “It’s my fair share” are potentially moral, because they imply that anyone else in the same situation could have done the same. This is the sort of argument that could be convincing to a neutral observer and is at the foundation of standards of justice and law. The philosopher Peter Singer has pointed out that this notion of impartiality can be found in religious and philosophical systems of morality, from the golden rule in Christianity to the teachings of Confucius to the political philosopher John Rawls’s landmark theory of justice. This is an insight that emerges within communities of intelligent, deliberating and negotiating beings, and it can override our parochial impulses.

The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology. There is no need to posit divine intervention. A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development, of the accumulation of rational insight and hard-earned innovations. The morality we start off with is primitive, not merely in the obvious sense that it’s incomplete, but in the deeper sense that when individuals and societies aspire toward an enlightened morality — one in which all beings capable of reason and suffering are on an equal footing, where all people are equal — they are fighting with what children have from the get-go. The biologist Richard Dawkins was right, then, when he said at the start of his book “The Selfish Gene,” “Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly toward a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.” Or as a character in the Kingsley Amis novel “One Fat Englishman” puts it, “It was no wonder that people were so horrible when they started life as children.”

Morality, then, is a synthesis of the biological and the cultural, of the unlearned, the discovered and the invented. Babies possess certain moral foundations — the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness. Regardless of how smart we are, if we didn’t start with this basic apparatus, we would be nothing more than amoral agents, ruthlessly driven to pursue our self-interest. But our capacities as babies are sharply limited. It is the insights of rational individuals that make a truly universal and unselfish morality something that our species can aspire to.

Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale. His new book, “How Pleasure Works,” will be published next month.