Monday, October 29, 2012

Ethicists to wrestle with zombies on Halloween

Among the questions the "Walking with the Dead" conference will tackle is why many people have embraced the zombie fad, such as these enthusiasts in Marietta Square on Saturday. 

By Carol Clark

Karen Rommelfanger’s husband got her hooked on “The Walking Dead.” She had resisted, but finally succumbed to the AMC TV series when her husband was watching an episode on zombie neurobiology set at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“He called out to me, ‘You’ve got to see this,’” says Rommelfanger, a neuroscientist and director of the Neuroethics Program at the Emory Center for Ethics.

The fictionalized researchers were gathered around a glorified brain scanner, discussing the “you” part of a brain, where thoughts reside, and whether the “you” part was gone.

“This is exactly the kinds of questions we talk about in neuroethics,” Rommelfanger says. “Is the brain the seat of personhood? What does ‘brain dead’ really mean?”

It wasn’t long before the Emory Center for Ethics coined the term “zombethics” and created a public forum to discuss them. “Walking with the Dead: An Ethics Symposium for the Living” is the brainchild of Rommelfanger and Cory Labrecque, a scholar of bioethics and religious thought at the Center for Ethics. All the reserved seats for the event on Wednesday, October 31, are filled, but people can still participate in the campus Zombie Walk, starting at the center at 11:30 am and proceeding up to Asbury Circle.

Zombies are becoming as emblematic of Atlanta as the Varsity drive-in. 

“The Walking Dead,” filmed in and around Atlanta, has resurrected zombies and turned them into visceral symbols of all sorts of modern-day fears.

“The show is full of ethics questions dressed up in zombie suits,” says Labrecque, who wrote his dissertation on radical life extension and teaches courses on personhood theory and religion and medicine.

A close friend recommended the series to him. “I was initially reluctant about wasting my time on a series about zombies, but was hooked after the first episode,” Labrecque says. “I watched the whole first season in one sitting.”

His fiancée was too afraid to watch the show. But after he described it to her, Labrecque says she wanted to know: “Would you shoot me if I was bitten by a zombie?”

(Apparently, he gave a satisfying response because the wedding went as planned on October 13.)

Since “The Walking Dead” is set in Atlanta, it seemed especially fitting to launch a zombethics conference here, Rommelfanger says.

Harvard psychiatrist Steve Schlozman will be among the panelists at the Emory conference. In the video below, he describes a zombie brain autopsy:

Zombies touch on fears beyond death, such as slowly disappearing to Alzheimer’s, or wasting away in a coma. “We are not equating real-life patients with zombies, we’re using zombies as an entry point to start a conversation about really difficult subjects,” Labrecque says.

The conference panelists include psychiatrists, philosophers, religious scholars, physicians, CDC officials, historians, ethicists and neuroscientists. They will grapple with questions like: When is a human being no longer a person? What is free will? What does end-of-life care look like for those for whom biological death is not the end? How should healthcare resources be allocated when pandemics hit? 

And, finally, what’s behind the public obsession with a gory series like “The Walking Dead?”

“Some scholars have suggested that it’s massive group therapy,” Rommelfanger says. “Zombies are a way to experience fears of death, degeneration and other scary things in ways that you can manage.”

Related:
The science and ethics of X-Men
Why robots should care about their looks

Photos by Carol Clark

Friday, October 26, 2012

When chemistry becomes a piece of cake


It's National Chemistry Week, when chemists show just how clever they really are by cooking up things like periodic tables made of cupcakes. Non-chemists are also invited to join in the festivities at Emory, which will hold its annual Mole Day party this evening at 5:30 pm in the courtyard between the Emerson and Atwood buildings. Bring your own beaker.

Related:
Sparking a love of chemistry

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Higher-math skills entwined with lower-order magnitude sense

While many animals understand the concept of less and more, only humans can learn formal math.

By Carol Clark

The ability to learn complex, symbolic math is a uniquely human trait, but it is intricately connected to a primitive sense of magnitude that is shared by many animals, finds a study to be published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“Our results clearly show that uniquely human branches of mathematics interface with an evolutionarily primitive general magnitude system,” says lead author Stella Lourenco, a psychologist at Emory University. “We were able to show how variations in both advanced arithmetic and geometry skills specifically correlated with variations in our intuitive sense of magnitude.”

Babies as young as six months can roughly distinguish between less and more, whether it’s for a number of objects, the size of objects, or the length of time they see the objects. This intuitive, non-verbal sense of magnitude, which may be innate, has also been demonstrated in non-human animals. When given a choice between a group of five bananas or two bananas, for example, monkeys will tend to take the bigger bunch.

“It’s obviously of adaptive value for all animals to be able to discriminate between less and more,” Lourenco says. “The ability is widespread across the animal kingdom – fish, rodents and even insects show sensitivity to magnitude, such as the number of items in a set of objects.”

Only humans, however, can learn formal math, including symbolic notations of number, quantitative concepts and computational operations. While the general magnitude system has been linked primarily to the brain’s intraparietal sulcus (IPS), higher math requires the use of more widely distributed areas of the brain.

For the PNAS study, the researchers wanted to build on work by others indicating that a lower-order sense of number is not just a separate function, but plays a role in the mental capacity for more complex math.

The dot test shows variation in people's ability to intuit number and area.

The researchers recruited 65 undergraduate college students to participate in an experiment. To test their knack for estimating magnitude of numbers, participants were shown images of dots in two different colors, flashed for only 200 milliseconds on a computer screen. They then had to choose which color had the greater number of dots. Most people can quickly distinguish that a group of 10 dots is greater than a group of five, but some people have a finer-grained number sense that allows them to discriminate between 10 and nine dots.

The participants were also shown dots of varying sizes and colors to test their ability to gauge magnitude of area.

They then completed a battery of standardized math tests.

The results showed that the more precise the participants’ abilities were at estimating the magnitude of a number, the better they scored in advanced arithmetic. The same correlation was found between precision at gauging magnitude of area and the geometry portion of the standardized math test.

“By better understanding the psychological mechanisms underlying math abilities such as arithmetic and geometry, we hope to eventually inform how we come to learn symbolic math, and why some people are better at it than others,” says study co-author Justin Bonny, an Emory graduate student of psychology. “It may then be possible to develop early interventions for those who struggle with specific types of math.”

U.S. teens lag in math skills compared to other industrialized countries. China ranked number one in math in 2010, the first year that the country participated in the Program for International Student Assessment, while the United States ranked number 31.

“Falling behind in math is a huge problem,” Lourenco says, “given that we live in an increasingly technological society and a globally competitive world.”

Related:
How babies use numbers, space and time

Top image: iStockphoto.com.

'No offense to anyone,' except women scientists

Karen Rommelfanger, program director of the Neuroethics Program at the Emory Center for Ethics, wrote an opinion piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education. An excerpt:


"What does it mean when a highly successful neuroscientist … states that he is disappointed there aren’t more “super model types” at a major conference? Here’s what he wrote:

My impression of the Conference of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. There are thousands of people at the conference and an unusually high concentration of unattractive women. The super model types are completely absent. What is going on? Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience? Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain? No offense to anyone. 

"There are some who will say that it is no surprise, given the large number of attendees (30,000 plus), that an ugly statement appeared on an individual’s Facebook page. Some might say it’s inevitable, and perhaps inconsequential, given how large the membership is, that you will find a bad seed. But dismissing [his] comments would be a mistake and represents part of the problem for women."

Click here to read the full article.

Related:
Academia's female brain drain 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Election markets take stock of presidential race

If buying shares in an election market sounds like online gambling, that's because it is, says economist Monica Capra. (Emory photo/video.)

By Kimber Williams, Emory Report

Ever wonder how a presidential candidate's stock is trading?

As voters weigh the odds of their candidates prevailing in a close race, an Emory economist suggests that beyond pundits and pollsters, the curious may also consult a lesser-known crystal ball: election markets.

Through election markets, also called prediction markets, voters put their money where their mouths are by buying "shares" that reflect a candidate's chances of winning — essentially betting in an online futures market about the nation's election outcome.

Though rarely referenced by news programs or political analysts, election markets are actually a viable tool that can be used in conjunction with polls and statistical models to help predict election outcomes, says Monica Capra, an associate professor of economics at Emory with research interests in behavioral and experimental economics.

"Basically, the prediction markets are futures markets, exchanges in which people trade asset shares — candidates, in this case — based upon what they believe will happen in the future," says Capra, who teaches about the topic in her experimental economics classes. "The idea that presidential markets can predict election outcomes comes from the fact that markets are aggregators of individual beliefs," she adds. "It's a perfect application for elections — we know when the election will take place and who the candidates are. Trades are made on the belief of who will win."

Election trading typically takes place through online websites, such as Intrade.com, based in Ireland, Betfair.com in England, and the University of Iowa Electronic Markets, where spectators follow the fortunes of their candidates — or other real-world events — by tracking how they're "trading" in the eyes of the public, or bettors.

This week, for example, activity at Intrade.com showed the odds of President Barack Obama winning re-election improving throughout Tuesday night's debate, rising from 61.7 percent before the debate to 64.1 percent shortly afterward — a trend noted on the other sites, as well.

If it sounds like online gambling, that's because it is, acknowledges Capra, who doesn't play the market herself, nor require her students to play it. But as an economist, she does consult it: beneath the profit motive lies a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the American voter. And there can be value in listening to the betting public.

"The fact that there is money on the table gives people more inspiration to gather information and do some homework," Capra says. 

"Markets are information aggregators," she explains. "People arrive with different sets of information and beliefs that are revealed through their trading behavior and captured by the market. That idea is what makes predictive markets work. Basically, it's an economist's crystal ball."

The system works like this: Let's say you want to bet on the likelihood that Mitt Romney will win the 2012 presidential race. You buy "shares" — this week, they're running around $3.66 on Intrade. If he wins, all shares jump to $10 each and you make money. If he loses, all shares immediately plunge to $0 and you lose.

Predictive market sites also post a probability for each candidate winning. This week, for instance, Obama's shares were running about $6.32, which puts him at a 63.1 percent chance of winning. In contrast, Romney's shares were selling at $3.67 each, with a 36.9 percent chance of victory. That can change in an instant.

With websites updating trading around the clock, "it's a market that never closes," Capra observes. However, she offers an important caveat: predictive markets traders don't necessarily represent the average voter. While a political pollster may seek a representative sample of the population, predictive market traders in the Iowa Electronic Market, for instance, tend to be predominantly male, younger, wealthier and more educated than the average voter.

"But as long as you have people informed and motivated to trade in order to make money, that's all you need for the market to work well," she adds, suggesting that traders are more likely to make choices based on solid data rather than emotional impulse when money is at stake.

Capra says she consults predictive markets every day. "Right now, Gallup polls give the edge to Romney," she notes. "But InTrade says Obama will win — his predicted percentage rose both during and after this week's debate. The fact that he did much better in this debate was reflected by people immediately buying shares. The second debate also appeared to stop the upward movement of Romney shares."

So how accurate are online election markets? Though researchers are divided on the topic, Capra says she considers them a valid predictive tool: "As an economist, you have three main sources for predicting election outcomes: forecasting models, daily polls and prediction markets. If I had to choose one, I would choose prediction markets."

Monday, October 22, 2012

'Still crazy' for Paul Simon's pop psychology



Emory psychologist Marshall Duke, who is 70, came of age listening to the music of Paul Simon, who just turned 71. As a scientist who studies the importance of stories and rituals to the human experience, Duke is fascinated by what he calls Simon’s “theory of mind,” or his uncanny capacity to understand what it is to be someone else and to tell the stories of people across generations.

“The songs he writes are not necessarily contemporaneous with his own age,” Duke says. He cites “Old Friends,” written by Simon during his 20s, as just one example:

Old friends sat on their park bench like bookends / Winter companions / The old men lost in their overcoats / Waiting for the sunset / The sounds of the city sifting through trees settle like dust on the shoulders of the old friends / Can you imagine us, years from today, sharing a park bench quietly? / How terribly strange to be 70

“As I turned 70 a few weeks ago,” Duke says. “I realized how profound the words were, even though they were written by a young man.”

Duke describes Simon’s song “Slip Slidin’ Away” as “a verbal equivalent of the skull that is placed at the bottom of the crucifix paintings in the Renaissance, which says, ‘Be aware, life is temporary, life is fragile.’” A few of the lyrics:

We work our jobs / Collect our pay / Believe we’re gliding down the highway / When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away.

“Paul Simon understands that we’re all still crazy after all these years,” Duke says. “He understands that we don’t ever lose the childishness that belongs to us as a gift when we’re little. It’s something that allows us, even when we’re astounded that we’re 70, to hold onto some of the behaviors and fun of being seven.”

Paul Simon will deliver the 2013 Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature at Emory, February 10-12. The series of free public talks will include Simon's reflections on his early music. Click here for more information.

Related:
Margaret Atwood on aliens and angels
Stories your parents should have told you
The dawn of collective human unconsciousness

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Sharing ideas about the concept of fairness

You've got just two pieces of Halloween candy left in the bowl. Who are you going to give them to?

By Carol Clark

Ask a three-year-old to divide pieces of a favorite candy between himself and two other children and he will likely question why he should share any at all. “At that age, children basically self-maximize. They have a guiltless selfishness,” says Emory psychologist Philippe Rochat, who studies the emergence of a moral sense in children.

By the age of five, children tend to be more principled in the way that they regard others. A five-year-old, for example, may go so far as to split the candies in half to ensure everyone gets an equal share.

“Something else interesting happens around the age of seven,” Rochat says. “The earlier tendency to self-maximize regains power as children start aligning themselves with groups. They generate inequity by favoring their own group when it comes to sharing.” 

Emory is inviting the public to an October 18-19 event, the "Fairness Conference: An Interdisciplinary Reflection on the Meanings of Fairness." An international group of scholars, from psychology, law, anthropology, ethics, philosophy, economics and politics will offer their views on the concept of fairness. Click here to see the full schedule and to register for the free event, to be held at the Silverbell Pavilion of the Emory Conference Center.

Fairness is the foundation of what makes us sociable and able to live together, but it can be hard to define.

“It is something that we often take for granted, as ingrained into our being,” Rochat says. “But ideas about what’s fair change through child development, across cultures and amid different political and economic circumstances. The conference aims to bring light and clarity to the subject from multiple scientific perspectives.”

Jerome Bruner, an educational psychologist from New York University, will give the keynote entitled “The Ambiguities of Fairness.” His presentation will cover how the violation of fairness was handled by the ancient Greeks, a group of islanders in remote Melanesia and in contemporary Sicily – the source of the proverb “Vengeance is a dish that must be served cold.”

In addition to Emory researchers, the speakers include scholars from the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Yale, Lebanese American University, and the Universidad Autonoma de Entre Rios, Argentina.

President Jimmy Carter will give a presentation at the conference entitled “Fairness and Equity in Politics and Human Affairs.”

The issue of fairness will grow increasingly important as the human population increases, Rochat says. Climate change, pollution, diminishing resources, global commerce and immigration are just a few of the issues that will put more pressure on the question of fairness.

“We want to give a scientific rooting to a problem that affects every part of society,” Rochat says. “Much of the tension in the current U.S. presidential election, for example, boils down to different views of what is fair. How much tax should the rich pay? How much support should the poor get?”

Related:
First blush: When babies get embarrassed

Images: iStockphoto.com.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Physicists crack another piece of the glass puzzle

The experiment showed how particles on the verge of becoming a glass move like cars trying to get out of a grid-locked parking lot.

By Carol Clark

When it comes to physics, glass lacks transparency. No one has been able to see what’s happening at the molecular level as a super-cooled liquid approaches the glass state – until now. Emory University physicists have made a movie of particle motion during this mysterious transition.

Their findings, showing how the rotation of the particles becomes decoupled from their movement through space, are being published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences.

“Cooling a glass from a liquid into a highly viscous state fundamentally changes the nature of particle diffusion,” says Emory physicist Eric Weeks, whose lab conducted the research. “We have provided the first direct observation of how the particles move and tumble through space during this transition, a key piece to a major puzzle in condensed matter physics.”

Weeks specializes in “soft condensed materials,” substances that cannot be pinned down on the molecular level as a solid or liquid, including everyday substances such as toothpaste, peanut butter, shaving cream, plastic and glass.

Scientists fully understand the process of water turning to ice. As the temperature cools, the movement of the water molecules slows. At 32 F, the molecules lock into crystal lattices, solidifying into ice. In contrast, the molecules of glasses do not crystallize.The movement of the glass molecules slows as the temperature cools, but they never lock into crystal patterns. Instead, they jumble up and gradually become glassier, or more viscous. No one understands exactly why.

The phenomenon leaves physicists to ponder the molecular question of whether glass is a solid, or merely an extremely slow-moving liquid.

This purely technical physics question has stoked a popular misconception: That the glass in the windowpanes of some centuries-old buildings is thicker at the bottom because the glass flowed downward over time.

“The real reason the bottom is thicker is because they hadn’t yet learned how to make perfectly flat panes of glass,” Weeks says. “For practical purposes, glass is a solid and it will not flow, even over centuries. But there is a kernel of truth in this urban legend: Glasses are different than other solid materials."


Shattering myths: For all practical purposes, glass is a solid. But physicists are still struggling to explain how, and when, a liquid transitions into a glassy material.

To explore what makes glasses different, the Weeks lab uses mixtures of water and tiny plastic balls, each about the size of the nucleus of a cell. This model system acts like a glass when the particle concentration is increased.

A major drawback to this model system is that actual glass molecules are not spherical, but irregularly shaped.

“When the hot molten liquid that forms a glass cools down, it’s not just that the viscosity becomes enormous, growing by a factor of a billion, there is something different about how the molecules are moving,” Weeks says. “We wanted to set up an experiment that would allow us to see that movement, but spheres move differently than irregular shapes.”

In 2011, however, the physics lab of David Pine, at New York University, developed a way to join clusters of these tiny plastic balls together to form tetrahedrons.

Kazem Edmond, while a graduate student at Emory, added these tetrahedral particles to the glass model system and led the experiments. Using a confocal microscope, he digitally scanned the samples as the viscosity increased, creating up to 100 images per second.

The result was three-dimensional movies that showed the movement and the behavior of the tetrahedrons as the system reached a glassy state.



The movie and data from the experiment provide the first clear picture of the particle dynamics for glass formation. As the liquid grows slightly more viscous, both rotational and directional particle motion slows. The amount of rotation and the directional movements of the particles remain correlated.

“Normally, these two types of motion are highly coupled,” Weeks says. “This remains true until the system reaches a viscosity on the verge of being glass. Then the rotation and directional movements become decoupled: The rotation starts slowing down more.”

He uses a gridlocked parking lot as an analogy for how the particles are behaving. “You can’t turn your car around, because it’s not a sphere shape and you would bump into your neighbors. You have to wait until a car in front of you moves, and then you can drive a bit in that direction. This is directional movement, and if you can make a bunch of these, you may eventually be able to turn your car. But turning in a crowded parking lot is still much harder than moving in a straight line.”

Previous research has inferred this decoupling of movement by experimenting with actual molecular glasses. The Weeks lab used a simple model system to scale up glassy material so that you can actually watch the decoupling process happening.

“Glass is important in everyday life,” Weeks says. “The more we understand its fundamental nature, the more we may be able to improve it and use it in different ways. One reason that smart phones are getting smaller and better, for example, is that stronger and thinner glass is being developed.”

Related:
Crystal-liquid interface made visible for the first time
A microcosm of awesome

Images: iStockphoto.com.

Emory physics: A microcosm of awesome


Emory physicist Eric Weeks loves his lab, and his graduate students. In fact, he is featured in a video (see above) extolling the awesomeness of Kazem (rhymes with "microcosm") Edmond, who recently got his PhD at Emory and is now a post-doc at NYU.

Weeks specializes in soft condensed matter, or "squishy stuff." He also appears to have a soft side when it comes to promoting his students.

Weeks and Kazem Edmonds just made a breakthrough in the physics of glass, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Related:
Seeing the border between states of matter

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

How fear skews our spatial perception

"Fear can alter even basic aspects of how we perceive the world around us," says psychologist Stella Lourenco.

By Carol Clark

That snake heading towards you may be further away than it appears. Fear can skew our perception of approaching objects, causing us to underestimate the distance of a threatening one, finds a study published in Current Biology.

“Our results show that emotion and perception are not fully dissociable in the mind,” says Emory psychologist Stella Lourenco, co-author of the study. “Fear can alter even basic aspects of how we perceive the world around us. This has clear implications for understanding clinical phobias.”

Lourenco conducted the research with Matthew Longo, a psychologist at Birkbeck, University of London.

People generally have a well-developed sense for when objects heading towards them will make contact, including a split-second cushion for dodging or blocking the object, if necessary. The researchers set up an experiment to test the effect of fear on the accuracy of that skill.

The more fearful someone reported feeling of spiders, the more they underestimated time-to-collision of a looming spider.

Study participants made time-to-collision judgments of images on a computer screen. The images expanded in size over one second before disappearing, to simulate “looming,” an optical pattern used instinctively to judge collision time. The study participants were instructed to gauge when each of the visual stimuli on the computer screen would have collided with them by pressing a button.

The participants tended to underestimate the collision time for images of threatening objects, such as a snake or spider, as compared to non-threatening images, such as a rabbit or butterfly.

The results challenge the traditional view of looming, as a purely optical cue to object approach. “We’re showing that what the object is affects how we perceive looming. If we’re afraid of something, we perceive it as making contact sooner,” Longo says.

“Even more striking,” Lourenco adds, “it is possible to predict how much a participant will underestimate the collision time of an object by assessing the amount of fear they have for that object. The more fearful someone reported feeling of spiders, for example, the more they underestimated time-to-collision for a looming spider. That makes adaptive sense: If an object is dangerous, it’s better to swerve a half-second too soon than a half-second too late.”

The researchers note that it’s unclear whether fear of an object makes the object appear to travel faster, or whether that fear makes the viewer expand their sense of personal space, which is generally about an arm’s length away.

“We’d like to distinguish between these two possibilities in future research. Doing so will allow us to shed insight on the mechanics of basic aspects of spatial perception and the mechanisms underlying particular phobias,” Lourenco says.

Related:
Psychologists closing in on claustrophobia
How babies perceive numbers, space and time

Images: iStockphoto.com

Friday, October 5, 2012

Religion and science make case for monogamy

Couples only: Animals pair up with a mate and enter Noah's Ark two-by-two, to ensure survival in the face of disaster.

John Witte Jr, director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory, wrote about monogamy for the Washington Post blog “Guest Voices.” Below is an excerpt:

“Creationists and evolutionists don’t agree on much, but they both believe that monogamy is the most ‘natural’ form of reproduction for the human species. This seems counterintuitive. Yes, the Bible recounts the story of creation, but it also describes the rampant polygamy of Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon and other titans of the faith. Yes, nesting birds, voles, and a few other animals are monogamous, but most mammals reproduce with one dominant male controlling a large harem of females. Polygamy seems ‘natural,’ monogamy ‘supernatural.’

“Yet, for the past millennium, Christians and post-Christian liberals alike – Aquinas, Calvin, Locke, Hume, and Jefferson -- all agreed that God created humans to reproduce by becoming ‘two in one flesh,’ not three or four. And modern evolutionary scientists, from Claude Lèvi-Strauss to Bernard Chapais, have concluded the same: that pair-bonding is part of the ‘deep structure’ of human reproduction that humans have evolved as their best strategy for survival and success. …

“The Western tradition reminds us that the biblical polygamists did not fare well. Think of the endless family discord of Abraham with Sarah and Hagar, or Jacob with Rachel and Leah. Think of King David who murdered Uriah the Hittite to add the shapely Bathsheba to his already ample harem. Or King Solomon with his thousand wives, whose children ended up raping, abducting, and killing each other. Anthropologists point to similar problems in modern polygamous households. They show further that young girls are often tricked or coerced into marrying older wealthy men and that women and children of modern polygamy are often poorly educated, impoverished, and chronically dependent on welfare.”

Read the whole article on the Washington Post site.

Related:
The eternal tensions of religion and science
Marriage: A powerful heart drug in short supply
The science of love and attraction

Image: iStockphoto.com.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Studying statistics pays off for poker player



Jonathan Schoder took up poker as a hobby when he was 13. “I’m pretty good with numbers,” he says, explaining why he was drawn to the game.

When he was accepted into Emory, at age 18, Schoder didn’t want to take out student loans. So he decided to defer entering school for a year to earn his tuition through poker.

“It was all online,” he says of his year-long poker quest. “I had three screens set up at home and I was playing 24 games at a time.”

Schoder, now a junior at Emory majoring in finance and economics, made enough to cover his college tuition during that year, and he continues playing poker in his spare time. He says that his academic focus on statistics has made him an even better poker player.

This past summer, he decided to test those skills by entering the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Friends pitched in for the $10,000 stake needed to enter the tournament. “I found backers by posting it on Facebook. It took me about four hours,” Schoder says.

The bet paid off, for Schoder and his friends: He placed 36th and won nearly a quarter-million dollars at the tournament.

“I have a deep understanding of statistics,” Schoder says of his poker success. “There’s a lot of statistical models that I had to run to figure out how my opponents were playing and then play a different style against every single person. It’s a lot of looking at different percentages and then knowing how to figure out those percentages. I would say that school helped me out with poker more than poker helped me out with school.”

After he graduates, Schoder plans to become a venture capitalist. “It’s something meaningful that I can be happy about doing at the end of the day,” he says. “While poker is a lot of fun, venture capitalism has both aspects of happiness and fun."

Related:
Math's in your cards, so deal with it
Lottery study zeroes in on risk

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Integration: A dream that's dying

A 1950s' stamp honoring desegragation.
Decades after the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation, U.S. schools lack true integration, note sociologists Amanda Lewis, at Emory University, and John Diamond, at Harvard. They co-wrote an opinion piece on the topic for the Huffington Post. Following is an excerpt:

“Recent reports by the U.S. Department of Education and UCLA's Civil Rights Project describe alarming segregation levels for both Latino and black students nationally, with most attending schools that are majority non-white and almost 40 percent of both groups attending schools that are more than 90 percent non-white. Most experience ‘double segregation’ -- attending schools that are segregated by race and class. While most white children, even poor white children, don't attend high-poverty schools, most black and brown children, even middle-class ones, do. And high-poverty schools almost always lag behind in measures of resources and success -- they have less experienced and qualified teachers, more decrepit buildings, less access to technology and advanced curricula, and few or outdated textbooks.

“Beyond this lies a more obscured truth: Even ‘desegregated,’ schools are typically not truly integrated. Manifesting what social scientists call ‘second-generation segregation,’ these schools are re-segregated internally through ability grouping or tracking. In the post-Brown v. Board of Ed era, tracking has become what UNC sociologist Karolyn Tyson describes in her book Integration Interrupted as a ‘legally permissible way to separate students by race.’ And tracking matters.

“Decades of research has found vast differences in the quality of education in high and low tracks and shows that poor and minority students are placed disproportionately in the bottom groups or lower tracks.”

Read the whole article in the Huffington Post.

Related:
Analysis finds benefits to racial quotas in Brazilian higher education
Racial segregation fuels achievement gap in U.S. schools

Image: iStockphoto.com.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Compassion meditation may boost neural basis of empathy

The idea behind the compassion-based meditation is that "the feelings we have about people can be trained in optimal ways," says Lobsang Tenzin Negi, who developed the protocol.

By Carol Clark

A compassion-based meditation program can significantly improve a person’s ability to read the facial expressions of others, finds a study published by Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. This boost in empathic accuracy was detected through both behavioral testing of the study participants and through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of their brain activity.

“It’s an intriguing result, suggesting that a behavioral intervention could enhance a key aspect of empathy,” says lead author Jennifer Mascaro, a post-doctoral fellow in anthropology at Emory University. “Previous research has shown that both children and adults who are better at reading the emotional expressions of others have better relationships.”

The meditation protocol, known as Cognitively-Based Compassion Training, or CBCT, was developed at Emory by study co-author Lobsang Tenzin Negi, director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership. Although derived from ancient Tibetan Buddhist practices, the CBCT program is secular in content and presentation.

The research team also included senior author Charles Raison, formerly a psychiatrist at Emory’s School of Medicine and currently at the University of Arizona, and Emory anthropologist James Rilling.

Research shows that people better at reading the emotions of others have better relationships.

When most people think of meditation, they think of a style known as “mindfulness,” in which practitioners seek to improve their ability to concentrate and to be non-judgmentally aware of their thoughts and feelings. While CBCT includes these mindfulness elements, the practice focuses more specifically on training people to analyze and reinterpret their relationships with others.

“The idea is that the feelings we have about people can be trained in optimal ways,” Negi explains. “CBCT aims to condition one’s mind to recognize how we are all inter-dependent, and that everybody desires to be happy and free from suffering at a deep level.”

Study participants were healthy adults without prior meditation experience. Thirteen participants randomized to CBCT meditation completed regular weekly training sessions and at-home practice for eight weeks. Eight randomized control subjects did not meditate, but instead completed health discussion classes that covered mind-body subjects like the effects of exercise and stress on well-being.

To test empathic accuracy before and following CBCT, all participants received fMRI brain scans while completing a modified version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET). The RMET consists of black-and-white photographs that show just the eye region of people making various expressions. Those being tested must judge what the person in the photograph is thinking or feeling. 

Eight out of the 13 participants in the CBCT meditation group improved their RMET scores by an average of 4.6 percent, while the control participants showed no increase, and in the majority of cases, a decrease in correct answers for the RMET.

The meditators, in comparison to those in the control group, also had significant increases in neural activity in areas of the brain important for empathy, including the inferior frontal gyrus and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. These changes in brain activity accounted for changes in the empathic accuracy scores of the participants.

“These findings raise the intriguing possibility that CBCT may have enhanced empathic abilities by increasing activity in parts of the brain that are of central importance for our ability to recognize the emotional states of others,” Raison says. “An important next step will be to evaluate the effects of CBCT on diverse populations that may particularly benefit from enhanced empathic accuracy, such as those suffering from high-functioning autism or severe depression.”

Findings from the current study add to a growing database indicating that the CBCT style of meditation may have physical and emotional effects relevant to health and well-being. For example, previous research at Emory found that practicing CBCT reduced emotional distress and enhanced physical resilience in response to stress in both healthy young adults and in high-risk adolescents in foster care.

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