Stability


Stuff I couldn’t stuff into the book,
but that I think is pretty interesting…

(mostly on the brain science around Stability)

The brain is convinced that we’ll be safer if we just keep doing the same time-proven things over and over again. You use less energy and cause your systems less stress if you can just sit still (“for goodness sake”—my mother would have added …).

Stuck in your head

In a great set of articles in the June 2003 issue of Science Magazine, the stability of brain and synapses were explored. Schwartz et. al. (“Inhibited and uninhibited infants “grown up”: adult amygdalar response to novelty”) found that when tested as adults, people who had been categorized as “inhibited” as two-year-old children showed more functional MRI signal response within the amygdala when shown pictures of strangers than when shown familiar faces. They were afraid of new experiences as kids and they still have a neurological negative response to new unfamiliar faces as adults. This study suggests that whatever “wiring” of the brain made the toddlers inhibited is still in place decades later.

An article by Zhou et. al. (“Reversal and stabilization of synaptic modifications in developing visual system”), in the same issue of that magazine, found that visual inputs that either strengthened or weakened synapses in frog tadpoles could have their effects reversed with uncorrelated visual activity within a window of about 20 minutes. However, the researchers found that if the synaptic stimulus was repeated over time with enough spacing between the visual inputs, the effects became more permanent.

In other words, if you want a frog to forget something it has seen, don’t let it see the same thing for about 20 minutes—focus it on something else instead. If you want the frog to remember—to develop a synapse—show it the same thing repeatedly over a relatively short period of time.

This is borne out by studies conducted by educators. We know that the best way to convince the brain that something is important is to review that material over and over again—thus flashcards. The more times we see the same information, the more likely our brain is to form synapses to keep that information stored.

Educational psychologists long believed that the best way to retain information was to be exposed to it in a variety of different circumstances and environments. The theory was that if we see the same piece of information in a variety of contexts, we’ll remember it better. But in a study in Science (September 10, 2010), Russell Poldrack and his colleagues found that students remembered information better if their pattern of neural activity was similar across different attempts to memorize the same materials. You still have to be exposed to material multiple times to form a long lasting memory. But this study suggests that you’ll do better if you study in the same place at the same time of day. Our brain seems to like stability.

With emotional you get eggroll

Eric Kandel won a Nobel Prize for figuring out that a synapse that fires one time has a lowered threshold for firing again. But the effect goes away pretty quickly. This is short-term memory. After firing five times, however, there are structural changes that take place and a long-term memory is formed.

Science has proven without a doubt that when we are emotionally aroused, we store memories better. Our amygdala, the brain’s emotion switchboard, does not store any long-term memories; it does, however, influence memory storage in other parts of the brain. It always seemed far-fetched to me that in detective shows people remember license plates and the sound of a “perp’s” voice, because I’d remember none of that about a stranger. But if that stranger were holding a knife to my throat, scientists tell me that my brain would be much more likely to remember it. (Cahill and McGaugh, “Mechanisms of emotional arousal and lasting declarative memory,” Trends in Neuroscience, 1998)

But we also know that distracting the brain can keep new synapses from forming. An Oxford University study in the journal PLoS One (Holmes et. al, January 2009) found that subjects who played an attention absorbing game like Tetris within six hours after a traumatic event were less likely to remember the traumatic event than those who didn’t have a distraction.

In a nutshell, we store memories best when something out of the ordinary happens and leads to emotional arousal. This doesn’t happen often—or else it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. And even when it does happen, if we get distracted, we are less likely to form synapses for long-term memory of that event. If we want to learn something new, we have to be exposed to it over and over again—it has to become a “stable” part of our lives.


Making a list …

Part of a stable context is a stable pattern of events. And in this sequencing, our brains are particularly adept. We may hate the fact that a song, or more usually, a part of a song gets “stuck” in our heads. But sequence recall has a really important role in forming and recalling memories. Pianists remember long sonatas by sequence; singing the ABCs song is the way many of us remember the sequence of the alphabet; and Tiger Woods would be nothing without his brain’s ability to execute a sequence of movements seamlessly and exactly. And if two notes are out of order in Jingle Bells, everyone in the room will know it—we have remembered them exactly and in order!

We want to know what comes first, then what comes next. We see this in modern life in the unending lists of Top Tens. David Letterman was not the first to come up with this. Newspapers and magazines had learned a long time ago that the best way to sell a new issue is with a list of the best of X—with a clear ordering: Best places to live, biggest companies, top news stories of the year, Time’s person of the year (and the runner-ups), AP’s top College teams, et cetera. You name it and we have a list for it. And we remember the lists really well especially the top few items on the list.

The best way to un-remember one sequence is with another equally powerful sequence. If you want to stop that Britney Spears song in your head, introduce Lady Gaga—But then, you may have another problem in your head …

The more natural, the more stable

While it doesn’t have much to do with brain science, a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, an economist at Harvard University and an economist at New York University says that after analyzing the borders of 144 countries they have found that the squigglier a country’s borders, the more likely it is to be prosperous and stable, while countries with straight borders are poorer, more prone to unrest, poorly governed, and have higher infant mortality rates.

The squiggliest country of all is Luxembourg—one of the world's most stable countries. France and Switzerland are also high up in the squiggly rankings. Straight countries include Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Libya and Iraq.

The reason for this, according to authors Alberto Alesina, Bill Easterly and Janina Matuszeski, is that countries with squiggly borders tend to be “natural”—that is, they evolved according to ethnic and linguistic divisions along rivers and natural mountain borders, while straight-bordered countries tend to be “artificial,” the result of colonial powers arbitrarily determining boundaries.

Does this show that the natural world is a bit more “stable” than man-made constructs? If we just leave things alone for a long period of time, do they tend toward stability? Is all this visible, natural stability a reflection of what is going on inside people’s brains?

Home and hearth

In Marshal Shalins’ Stone Age Economics (1972), I found one of the more counterintuitive arguments about Stability that I’ve ever run across. I had always thought that the evolutionary reason for humans turning away from their hunter-gatherer ways in the Paleolithic era to become farmers in Neolithic times was because it was much more efficient to be farmers than to be constantly on the move, as nomads are wont to do. Anthropologist Shalins makes the argument that this is not the case. He suggests that hunter-gathers—who only worked when they really needed to—probably had much more luxurious lives than farmers who had to cope with the vicissitudes of weather and vermin. Farms are constant work. Hunting, fishing and gathering nuts and berries are still what we do for weekend fun.

But according to Shalins’ calculations, hunter-gatherers actually were more efficient thermodynamically than farmers—they used less labor to produce the same amount of food energy.

So why settle down on farms at all? … probably to prolong Life. We lived longer when we started settling down. And we had a lot more kids—we needed them on the farms. The rise in population alone makes it appear that farm life was more productive. But on a per capita basis, it probably was not.

Only in the last couple of millennia did our agricultural lives get better at all—we domesticated animals and developed technologies that made us more productive and more comfortable. There is a fair argument that if we hadn’t stopped moving around, we may not have come up with these technologies. Or maybe the technologies emerged as a way to mitigate the misery of farm life.

Whatever the reason for moving around in the first place, the fact is that we come from a long line of settlers. Socially and physiologically, we are designed to be settlers. And, in the process, our brains have learned to always prefer at least some semblance of Stability.

Finally, when it comes to Stability versus the other Goods, we usually will take Stability. Sociologist Mary Jackman studied paternalism in The Velvet Glove (1994) and found that subordinates regularly give up their power especially if the dominators are willing to use “sweet persuasion” to control them. Subordinates still are disadvantaged, but they prefer this to the instability that open conflict would bring. Often “peace” is a preferable answer to us even though we know that stability has its price.

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