Sunday, July 20, 2014

Mathemagician Persi Diaconis

When he was 14, Persi Diaconis ran away from home to become one of the world’s great magicians. Now he’s a world-class mathematician, and his two professions have more in common than you might think.

Persi and I had a very entertaining conversation about his careers in show biz and academe, covering topics such as:

  • His friendships with other magicians, including Ricky Jay, Randi and Dai Vernon
  • Some surprisingly profound mathematical card tricks
  • Why science needs statisticians
  • Duping others and being duped himself
  • Why he’s so secretive

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Persi’s well-known as an inventor of original tricks and sometimes helps other performers come up with new routines. For instance, he had a hand in this classic bit from Steve Martin:

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Science Historian Laurel Braitman on Animal Madness

Anxious apes, depressed dolphins, parrots on prozac: we homo sapiens aren’t the only ones with mental health issues, and animal psychiatry (and psychopharmacology) is booming. What does this new, broader understanding of mental illness reveal about our fellow creatures and us? We talk to Laurel Braitman about her new book Animal Madness.

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

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Laurel and Mac, the difficult donkey.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature (Rerun)

I’ll return with something brand-new next week, but this week I had a wedding to attend, so I replayed my 2011 conversation with psychologist/cognitive scientist Steven Pinker on his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Steve argues that, modern mayhem notwithstanding, human violence has been trending downward for centuries. We discussed whether, how and why people have been getting more peacable. Topics include natural selection, game theory, the civilizing effects of civilization, the origin and nature of morality, and Steve’s own feelings about violence.

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

East-West Spirituality, the Recovery Movement and the Birth of the Psychedelic Age.
Show for Mr 16, 2014.

From 2012: writer Don Lattin discussed the overlapping lives of British writer Aldous Huxley, new age trailblazer Gerald Heard and Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson. Don, a former religion reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, also talked about his own addiction and recovery.

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Felix Warneken and Robert Sapolsky: the Nicer Side of Primates (Rerun)
Show for Feb 16, 2014

Originally broadcast in 2010: Science has done a lot to expose the darker side of human behavior, and that of our primate relatives, so we thought it was time to highlight some more encouraging studies. In part one of the show, developmental psychologist Felix Warneken looks for and finds evidence of instinctive altruism in young humans and chimps. In part two, neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky discovers that even baboons—long believed to be incorrigibly bellicose—can change their ways and make nice.

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Novelist Karen Joy Fowler on Our Animal Problem
Show for Jan 26, 2014

So we’re kin to our fellow creatures – cousins, we like to say, to chimpanzees and bonobos. But what sort of family obligations should follow from that, it seems we’re nowhere near to working out. Some people have taken the notion of primate kinship to literal lengths, attempting to raise chimps as children in psychological studies of the animal-human cognitive divide. With their often-sloppy science and often-sorry outcomes (see, for example, Project Nim), most such experiments have done less to limn the inter-species boundary than to highlight our dire confusions about it.

These studies also tell a larger tale of familial dreams and disappointments in general, a point brought achingly to life in Karen Joy Fowler’s latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It’s the saga of one chimped-up family and its inevitable dissolution. Karen and I talked about the troubled history of chimp cross-fostering experiments, about the splintering of families, of siblings and selves, and storytelling as a source of self-knowledge, real or illusory. We also shared a bit of our own stories, as kids of psychology profs with former lab rats – though thankfully not chimps – as pets.  

Update: Several months after we did this interview, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves won the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction.

 

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Social Genomicist Steve Cole
Show for Jan 5, 2014

If you’ve bought into the simplified idea that genes are top-down bosses, issuing marching orders that your cells, body and brain merely obey, it’s time to rethink. Steve Cole first came to national attention with studies showing that HIV-positive gay men had lower survival rates if they were closeted. The real kicker: social stresses were depressing the mens’ viral resistance by affecting their genes. No, not the sequence of genes but their regulation – which genes are switched on and how much. In the succeeding years, Cole and fellow researchers have assembled an increasingly detailed portrait of our socially and psychologically responsive genome. Though scientists have long known that external inputs play a role in gene expression, the degree to which large numbers of genes are influenced on a moment-to-moment basis by our experiences – including our social life, our feelings and perceptions – is an important developing story.

Steve and I talked about this new understanding of the mind-body connection, genes as listeners and the emerging field he calls “social genomics.” After hearing this interview, you may never feel the same about your genome again.

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Show for Dec 22, 2013. Cognitive Scientist Paul Bloom on the Foundations of Morality.

I’ve spoken to Paul Bloom previously about the precocious moral awareness of infants and the ingenious experiments used to demonstrate it. Now Paul has synthesized those findings in a far-reaching exploration of our ethical capacities and shortcomings.

Topics covered in this interview include: 

  • Are we born with a sense of right and wrong?
  • Gut feelings vs. rational deliberation as a basis for ethical behavior
  • Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments and why it still rocks
  • The roots of racism
  • Mafia morality
  • Modern sitcoms and moral uplift

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Show for Sept. 29, 2013. Mike Jay on James Tilly Matthews and Techno-Paranoia.

For everyone who has since had messages beamed at them through their fillings, or their TV sets, or via high-tech surveillance, MI5, Masonic lodges or UFOs, James Tilly Matthews is Patient Zero,” writes Mike Jay. Matthews was an 18th/19th century British merchant who who believed a sinister conspiracy was afoot in London, employing the latest discoveries in gas chemistry and “mesmerism” to manipulate the minds of England’s leaders and plunge the country into war. He was branded a lunatic and locked away in Bethlem Royal Hospital, aka Bedlam.

A century later, visions of technology-assisted thought control were so widespread that Freud contemporary Victor Tausk felt compelled to give the phenomenon a clinical name. He called it the “influencing machine” delusion. Today, Jay says, the influencing machine has become a defining preoccupation of our age: not just the hobgoblin of schizophrenics, conspiracy nuts and sci-fi writers, but a generalized suspicion that invasive technology, unseen puppetmasters and seductive media hold increasing sway over our thoughts, decisions and collective future. 

So was James Tilly Matthews just cuckoo or was he a canary in the coal mine? 


Mike Jay’s book A Visionary Madness: The Case of James Tilly Matthews and the Influencing Machine, forthcoming in Jan. 2014.

 


James Tilly Matthews’s own drawing of the Air Loom, the pneumatic-magnetic contraption he said was controlling thoughts from beneath the streets of London.

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Show for June 9, 2013: Gary Greenberg on our Changing View of Mental Illness

The latest edition of the DSM – the diagnostic manual of psychiatry – is hot off the presses, and it once again redraws the map of mental malfunction. Hoarding disorder and caffeine withdrawal are in, Asperger’s and kleptomania are out (or subsumed). Critics like psychotherapist Gary Greenberg say there’s a reason the DSM is something of a palimpsest: despite its quasi-scientific airs, it has little to do with any clear understanding of mental illness and a lot to do with changing societal attitudes, politics and money. Gary and I discussed his new book, The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry.

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Show for March 24, 2013. Neurologist Robert Burton on The Limits of Neuroscience.

I don’t know whether Bob Burton’s car sports this bumper sticker…

… but it ought to. Bob has spent years exploring our shaky reliance on what he calls “involuntary mental sensations”: the internal perceptions by which we come to “know” our own minds. He says these inner representations, offered up by the brain itself, are partial at best, delusory at worst. And that’s a problem not only for ordinary seekers of self-knowledge but also for an ambitious group of neuroscientists attempting to explain consciousness and the human psyche, while beholden to many of the same, suspect intuitions that bamboozle the rest of us. Of course, there’s also that matter of the yawning gulf separating objective explanation and subjective experience, and whether it’s bridgeable at all. 

Bob raises these and other problems in his latest book, A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell us About Ourselves. We had a long and wide-ranging tête-à-tête on the difficulties that loom when science shifts from studying the brain to mapping the mind, and the deep and dubious assumptions built into categories such as conscious and unconscious, self and other, choice and non-choice.

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Show for March 17, 2013. Neurologist Robert Burton on Self-Certainty.

As a preamble to next week’s interview with neurologist and neuroskeptic Robert Burton, I re-aired this earlier conversation with Bob from 2008. In it, we discussed his book On Being Certain: Believing You’re Right Even When You’re Wrong, about our brain’s often unreliable sense of self-certainty. Bob says our inner sensation of knowing or not knowing something, of familiarity or unfamiliarity – so critical to perception, judgment and decisionmaking – is based on neural mechanisms that can go badly awry and, even when things are working OK, is hardly a dependable arbiter of truth.

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Show for Nov 25, 2012. Your Brain on Music (Rerun).

An old fave makes its return: our 2007 jam with music producer/neuroscientist Dan Levitin.

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You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Show for Oct. 7, 2012. Steven Pinker on the Decline of Violence (rebroadcast).

I was on hiatus last week, so I replayed this interview from last year: cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker discussing his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker argues that, modern mayhem notwithstanding, human violence has been trending downward for centuries. We discussed whether, how and why people have been getting more peacable.

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Show for Jan 29, 2012: Pulling the Wool Over Our Own Eyes—Robert Trivers on the Evolution of Self-Deception

Robert Trivers is a widely influential evolutionary thinker (as these tributes from Steven Pinker et. al. attest). His theoretical work on the genetic trade-offs underlying altruism, parent-child relationships and other social interactions are a cornerstone of behavioral ecology and evolutionary psychology. His new book, The Folly of Fools, applies an evolutionary framework to another set of behaviors: deception and especially self-deception. Subjects discussed in our interview include: self-deception in nature, our capacity to simultaneously know and blind ourselves to the truth, the field formerly known as sociobiology, and Robert’s own life and career, including his friendship with the late Black Panther leader Huey Newton.

Click the Play arrow above to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)