All posts by Tom Bartlett


The Evolution of Aww

Zooey Deschanel (Dimitrios Kambouris, Getty Images)

We live in the golden age of cute. As one scholar recently put it, cuteness has become a “dominant aesthetic category in digital culture.” Hard to argue with that. Even if you steer clear of toddler pics on Facebook, even if you’ve never clicked on Reddit’s popular “aww” category, your elderly former neighbor will still email you a random photo of, say, three adorable piglets peeking out of a coffee mug.

That last one may be specific to me, but…


Here Come the Neurothugs! Run!

One of Francis Bacon's self portraits

In this New Atlantis essay about art and science, Roger Scruton coins a word: neurothugs.

Neurothugs are researchers who believe that, when it comes to beauty, there is “such a thing as the fMRI of the beholder, and this does contain the secret of the image in the frame.”

As thugs go, the neuro-variety are among the least threatening. At most they might try to convince you that a brain scan means more than it does. They probably won’t rough you up in an alley.

Scruton, a visiting professor of p…


The Sweet Kisses of Embodied Cognition

Best lollipops
I wandered into a session on embodied cognition at last week’s Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference, and I walked away thinking what I heard can’t possibly be true.

I mean, it just can’t be. Can it?

Research on embodied cognition—the idea, basically, that the body strongly influences the mind in multiple ways we’re not aware of (though not everyone agrees with that definition)—is a fairly new field, and in the last few years it has produced a number of head-scratching resu…


Gaming vs. God



Whether violent video games make you more aggressive has been much debated. Much less discussed is whether video games make you an atheist.

OK, not make you an atheist—that’s too strong. But a new study in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion does find that playing video games reduces a sense of the numinous, i.e., the feeling that there is a force out there beyond ourselves and the physical world.

In the study, two Canadian researchers first had 56 undergraduates ta…


Wait, So Does Meditation Actually Work or Not?

Depending on which news account you read, a recently published meta-analysis of meditation studies either confirmed the therapeutic value of the practice or proved that it’s not so great after all. For example, Time reported that the studies reviewed showed we need to take meditation “more seriously as medicine,” while an Australian news site emphasized that meditation “lacked evidence of leading to better health.”

So should we all assume the lotus position or what?

First, some context. The an…


Does Familiarity Breed Contempt or Fondness?

Two Male FriendsYou meet someone new. You have lunch, maybe see a movie. Along the way you discover things about the other person. It’s not as if you’re keeping a list of this person’s habits and traits—that would be weird—but you’re accumulating information nonetheless.

So here’s the question: As you get to know each other, will you generally like this other person more or less?

Assuming that you don’t discover something unexpectedly awful, like a fondness for hurling bricks at squirrels, the answer is proba…


The Magic Ratio That Wasn’t

Positivity-9780307393746 (1)The 2009 book Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life, by Barbara Fredrickson, was praised by the heavyweights of psychology. Daniel Gilbert said it provided a “scientifically sound prescription for joy.” Daniel Goleman extolled its “surefire methods for transforming our lives.” Martin E.P. Seligman, often called the father of positive psychology, raved that “this book, like Barb, is the ‘real thing.’”

But the top-notchness of the research that underpin…


The ‘Secret’ Milgram Experiments

Stanley Milgram with his shock machine

Stanley Milgram with his shock machine

In the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram set out to see whether ordinary people would administer painful shocks to a stranger if told to do so by someone in a white lab coat. He found that most people (65 percent) would continue to administer the shocks even when the stranger protested, complained of a heart condition, and stopped responding. The shocks were fake, and the stranger was an actor, but what the findings seemed to say about human nature was real and …


‘The Strangest Conference I Ever Attended’

David Birnbaum believes he has unified the fields of religion and science. He told me so in an e-mail. A book he wrote, Summa Metaphysica, Volumes I and II, “unifies the two fields—elegantly—and seemlessly” (sic).

In April of last year, Bard College devoted a three-day* conference to the role of metaphysics in science and religion, prompted by the “reflections flowing” from Birnbaum’s books, according to a program e-mailed to participants from prestigious institutions including Dartmouth, Grinn…


Humans Are Animals: 8-Year-Old vs. Misinformed Teacher

iStock_000018741582Medium (4)

My friend’s 8-year-old son had an interesting day at school recently. During science class, the teacher—who, it should be noted, was a substitute—asked the third graders to name the habitat of an animal of their choice: the sea for sharks, trees for squirrels, etc. My friend’s son picked a house because, as he explained to the teacher, human beings are animals too. The teacher corrected him. Humans, she said, are not animals. “Yeah, they are,” the boy replied. “No, they’re not,” she told him, a…