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July 17, 2014

Lucy is Wrong; We Use Way More Than 10% of Our Brains

Scarlett Johansson as Lucy; Fandango
“It is estimated most human beings only use ten percent of their brain’s capacity,” lectures Professor Norman, played by actor Morgan Freeman, in the trailer for the new thriller Lucy. “Imagine if we could access 100 percent. Interesting things begin to happen.”

I know I haven’t earned my Ph.D. yet, Professor, but I beg to differ. You see, we all access 100% of our brains every day. And we don’t have to be telekinetic or memorize an entire deck of cards to do it.

In the film, which opens next Friday, Scarlett Johansson’s character Lucy is forced to work as a drug smuggler in a Taiwanese mob. The drug they’ve implanted into her body leaks into her system, allowing her to “access 100%” of her brain. Among other things, Lucy can move objects with her mind, choose not to feel pain, and memorize copious amounts of information.

In a way, the idea that we only use 10% of our brains is rather inspiring. It may motivate us to try harder or tap into some mysterious, intact reservoir of creativity and potential. There are even products that promise to unlock that other 90%.

As ludicrous as the claim is, however, 2/3 of the public and half of science teachers still believe the myth to be true. The notion is so widespread that when University College London neuroscientist Sophie Scott attended a first aid course, her instructor assured the class that head injuries weren’t dangerous because “90% of the brain [doesn’t] do anything.”

June 13, 2014

Tracy Morgan's Accident Tells Us What We Already Know about Drowsy Driving

David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons
The National Sleep Foundation has done a great job of terrifying citizens since the 1990s with its annual Sleep in America poll results. In 2005, 60% of adult drivers in the U.S. reported that they’d driven a vehicle while drowsy in the past year, and 37% said they had actually fallen asleep at the wheel. Startlingly, 11 million drivers (4% of the population) admitted to an accident or near-accident from actually dozing off at the wheel.

The outrage surrounding “30 Rock” comedian Tracy Morgan’s crash over the weekend is for good reason.

Kevin Roper, whose Wal-Mart truck struck Morgan’s limousine bus on the New Jersey Turnpike early Saturday morning, had reportedly not slept for over 24 hours when the crash occurred. As of Wednesday, Roper denied these claims, pleading not guilty during his arraignment. The multi-vehicle crash killed comedian James McNair and critically injured several others.

Driving while sleep-deprived is such a terrible idea that it begs the question of why anyone would attempt it in the first place. But indeed, while study after study confirms that Americans are sleepier than ever before, nearly one in 10 of us also commutes an hour or more to work everyday. Add in the stress of finances, parenting, maintaining a social life, and trying to fit in a few minutes of exercise. It’s hardly surprising that drowsy driving is commonplace.

May 28, 2014

Did Harry Potter have Psychosocial Short Stature?

Warner Bros.
“Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age…[he] had a thin face, knobbly knees…and wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose.”

And so we are introduced to The Boy Who Lived, the Chosen One—the famous Harry Potter. His seven books have been translated into 73 different languages and sold over 450 million copies worldwide.

But readers wouldn’t guess, after author J.K. Rowling’s introduction of Harry in Chapter 2, that the orphaned boy would be the one to defeat the powerful and devastating Dark Lord Voldemort. Snubbed by his only remaining family, bullied by his cousin and classmates, and residing in the cupboard under the stairs, Harry is short, skinny, and totally non-threatening.

And it’s clear to us why. His Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and cousin Dudley Dursley—to whom he was passed as an infant after the death of his parents— ensure that he’s properly malnourished at all times. After spending a day cleaning the Dursleys’ entire house and doing yardwork in the blazing July heat (on his 12th birthday, no less), Aunt Petunia prepares for Harry “two slices of bread and a lump of cheese” before sending him off to hide during their dinner party with the Masons. It’s no wonder he’s so small for his age.

But perhaps something other than the physical abuse held back his growth, too. Beyond the malnourishment, it’s possible that Harry Potter suffered from what is known as psychosocial short stature.

April 11, 2014

A Mad Man, Indeed: Don Draper on the Couch

AMC
When last we saw our fearless antihero, Don Draper, he was standing face-to-face with his crumbling, dilapidated childhood home. Surprisingly, his three children were by his side as he took these first tentative steps towards admitting his past life. In the episode's final moments, he shared a knowing glance with his oldest (and somewhat estranged) daughter, Sally.

In Season 7 of Mad Men, which launches this Sunday on AMC, we hope for some closure on the real Don Draper and the secret life he created for himself.

Draper was named #1 Most Influential Man by online magazine Ask Men in 2009 (ahead of real people, mind you), and Comcast has christened him one of TV's Most Intriguing Characters.

And rightfully so. Draper is the perfect character study for Drama 101, introduced to us in 1960 as the dapper, charming creative director for the fictional NYC advertising firm Sterling Cooper.

But as the series unfolds, it’s hard to ignore Don’s cynicism, arrogance, and womanizing tendencies. He drinks and smokes too much. He’s cheated on both of his wives (many, many times). He's left his children home alone (to deal with an intruder, no less), and Sally once caught him having sex with a neighbor. And let's not forget that he was basically fired in the last episode.

But perhaps most telling is that Don Draper's name is actually Dick Whitman, a Korean war deserter who switched Lt. Donald H. Draper’s dog tags with his own and created a new life for himself.

We love him. We hate him. And we definitely don’t understand him. Many questions remain, but perhaps the most puzzling of all is simply: who is Don Draper, and why is he the way he is?

March 11, 2014

Why We're Wired to Binge-Watch TV

In this day and age of microblogging, distracting smartphones, 140-character tweets, and compulsive multitasking, it seems a little backward that one of the top post-workday hobbies of young folks is to become completely engrossed in the complicated storylines of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and House of Cards for hours on end.

A new type of consumer has evolved in recent years—the love child of the Couch Potato and the Channel Surfer, raised by streaming devices and nurtured by entire seasons of shows available at the click of a remote.

For just a few dollars a months, subscribers to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video have access to thousands of streaming movies and TV shows updated regularly. And with Netflix’s new post-play feature, which prompts viewers to play the next episode just as the credits of the last one begin rolling, it’s easier than ever to succumb to the captivating lure of Walter White and Frank Underwood.

Indeed, the birth of the “binge-watcher” has been an intriguing, unexpected development in the past five years. Neuroscience, it turns out, can partially explain the phenomenon.

March 2, 2014

Internet Trolls are also Real-Life Trolls

Have you ever been minding your business on the Internet when a "troll" comes around just in time to ruin your day?

Sure, they're super annoying to deal with, and the anonymity of the Internet provides the perfect playground to hone their skills.

But a new study sheds light on the personality of The Troll. Indeed, they're real-life sadists and truly gain pleasure from their online antics.

Read more at my latest piece with The Guardian here!

February 18, 2014

Why Don't Figure Skaters Get Dizzy?

If you've been faithfully watching the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, you've probably found yourself asking the question, "Don't those figure skaters get dizzy?"

Well, the truth is: yes, they do.

But what causes dizziness, and, most importantly, how do figure skaters seem to recover from it so well? As it turns out, they've got some tricks up their sheer, sequined sleeves.

Check out my latest piece with NBC News Health to learn more here!