Born This Way

We revel in the idea that personal politics are perfectly deliberative, never more than in a year when Barack Obama and Mitt Romney—two dispassionate rationalists with great confidence in their skills of persuasion—will cross the country to win over their fellow citizens’ hearts and minds. But the comforting metaphor of a grand national debate to determine where the swing voters will end up has never seemed so out of sync with trending science. After all, what is the point of everything that happens between now and November 6 if our wiring dictates how we vote?

More articles about politics

The Neuroscience of Bob Dylan's Genius

At first glance, the moment of insight can seem like an impenetrable enigma. We are stuck and then we’re not, and we have no idea what happened in between. It’s as if the cortex is sharing one of its secrets. The question, of course, is how these insights happen.

Odd Blood: Serodiscordancy, or, Life With an HIV-Positive Partner

started doing my homework the moment the conversation from the Hyatt computer lab ended, after I told him, repeatedly, that it wasn’t a big deal to me. Sure, I’d never slept with someone I’d known was positive before, but I had met people online, all of them incredibly friendly, who were open about their status, generous with my questions, even before I’d met Chad. Either the night of or the night after the Hyatt conversation, I call one of them. Even after admitting that he was a little sad to hear that I’d been taken (how to respond to this, I had no idea), he told me about friends of his in situations like mine. He pointed me to websites, or really just to thebody.com. He told me that those friends in their situations like mine were still the way they started, with one partner still negative, even after years together.

Should Science Pull the Trigger on Antiviral Drugs—That Can Blast the Common Cold?

Buoyed by advances in molecular biology, a handful of researchers in labs around the US and Canada are homing in on strategies that could eliminate not just individual viruses but any virus, wiping out viral infections with the same wide-spectrum efficiency that penicillin and Cipro bring to the fight against bacteria. If these scientists succeed, future generations may struggle to imagine a time when we were at the mercy of viruses, just as we struggle to imagine a time before antibiotics.

Three teams in particular are zeroing in on new antiviral strategies, with each group taking a slightly different approach to the problem. But at root they are all targeting our own physiology, the aspects of our cell biology that allow viruses to take hold and reproduce. If even one of these approaches pans out, we might be able to eradicate any type of virus we want. Someday we might even be faced with a question that today sounds absurd: Are there viruses that need protecting?

How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy

Jaroslav Flegr is no kook. And yet, for years, he suspected his mind had been taken over by parasites that had invaded his brain. So the prolific biologist took his science-fiction hunch into the lab. What he’s now discovering will startle you. Could tiny organisms carried by house cats be creeping into our brains, causing everything from car wrecks to schizophrenia? A biologist’s science- fiction hunch is gaining credence and shaping the emerging science of mind- controlling parasites.

What's Wrong With the Teenage Mind?

What happens when children reach puberty earlier and adulthood later? The answer is: a good deal of teenage weirdness. Fortunately, developmental psychologists and neuroscientists are starting to explain the foundations of that weirdness. The crucial new idea is that there are two different neural and psychological systems that interact to turn children into adults. Over the past two centuries, and even more over the past generation, the developmental timing of these two systems has changed. That, in turn, has profoundly changed adolescence and produced new kinds of adolescent woe. The big question for anyone who deals with young people today is how we can go about bringing these cogs of the teenage mind into sync once again.

The Behavioral Sink

So what exactly happened in Universe 25? Past day 315, population growth slowed. More than six hundred mice now lived in Universe 25, constantly rubbing shoulders on their way up and down the stairwells to eat, drink, and sleep. Mice found themselves born into a world that was more crowded every day, and there were far more mice than meaningful social roles. With more and more peers to defend against, males found it difficult and stressful to defend their territory, so they abandoned the activity. Normal social discourse within the mouse community broke down, and with it the ability of mice to form social bonds. The failures and dropouts congregated in large groups in the middle of the enclosure, their listless withdrawal occasionally interrupted by spasms and waves of pointless violence. The victims of these random attacks became attackers. Left on their own in nests subject to invasion, nursing females attacked their own young. Procreation slumped, infant abandonment and mortality soared. Lone females retreated to isolated nesting boxes on penthouse levels. Other males, a group Calhoun termed “the beautiful ones,” never sought sex and never fought—they just ate, slept, and groomed, wrapped in narcissistic introspection. Elsewhere, cannibalism, pansexualism, and violence became endemic. Mouse society had collapsed.

The Mystery Behind Anesthesia

But though doctors have been putting people under for more than 150 years, what happens in the brain during general anesthesia is a mystery. Scientists don’t know much about the extent to which these drugs tap into the same brain circuitry we use when we sleep, or how being anesthetized differs from other ways of losing consciousness, such as slipping into a coma following an injury. Are parts of the brain truly shutting off, or do they simply stop communicating with each other? How is being anesthetized different from a state of hypnosis or deep meditation? And what happens in the brain in the transition between consciousness and unconsciousness? “We know we can get you in and out of this safely,” Brown says, “but we still can’t quite tell you how it works.”

Dark Matter Mysteries: A True Game of Shadows

It’s a troubling time to be looking for the universe’s missing matter. On the face of it, it shouldn’t be. Deep underground, several experiments have been buzzing with possible sightings of dark matter, the hitherto invisible stuff that is believed to make up around 85 per cent of all matter in the cosmos. Detecting dark matter would be a major triumph. Yet any hopes that the nature of the stuff would be quickly revealed by these first detections have been utterly dashed. The trouble is that dark matter appears to be different things to different detectors. It appears heavier in one detector than another; it appears more ready to interact in one experiment than another. In the most extreme case, it shows up in one instrument but not in another - even when both are made of identical material and are sitting virtually next door in the same underground lab.

Behaviorism at 100

Behaviorism as a philosophy of science began with an article by John B. Watson in 1913, and its several varieties inform different behavior-related disciplines. During the past 100 years, disciplinary developments have led to a clarified version of behaviorism informing a basic, separate natural science of behavior. This recently emerged independent discipline not only complements other natural sciences, but also shares in solving local and global problems by showing how to discover and effectively control the variables that unlock solutions to the common behavior-related components of these problems.

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