Science of our oddities

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Science of our oddities
Science of our oddities

Why are we so attracted to cats, and why does a sense of shame arise in us? What makes us panic, and why is gossiping so exciting? We consider from the point of view of science the most interesting features of our behavior, including kissing.

Nerve cells

Why are they so cute?

The number of pictures of cute cats on the Web can only be compared with the number of pictures of naked beauties. And although not everyone is ready to re-promote them on social networks, and many even spit, deep in their hearts they touch everyone. However, not only cats, but also small children are famous for such mimicry. This has a special meaning.

The ability to be moved by looking at these adorable creatures is rooted in the evolutionary prehistory and history of our species. The large head of babies and the narrowed due to upright posture of the pelvic lumen in women make childbirth not only dangerous, but also, by the standards of other animals, premature. Children are born completely defenseless and require attention and care for many years to come. By and large, the period of maturation and full adaptation in a complex human society takes up to a quarter of life. No wonder many scientists like to call us "infantile monkeys."

However, even against this background, infancy is a special period that requires increased attention and care from the mother, father, and, ideally, other members of the human community. This has led to the fact that deeply in the neural patterns of our brain are deeply rooted feelings of tenderness and care, tightly "sewn" with the images of babies. And these images are more or less universal.

A head that is round and disproportionately large in relation to overall body size, chubby cheeks, a high forehead and general swelling are all markers to which we respond almost unconditionally. Legendary ethologist and Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz called them the "baby schema" (Kindchensche-ma), and they are all characteristic of children not only of our species. Kittens, puppies and even puppies, baby fur seals, are just as plump and round, so our reactions to them are as involuntary as to babies. Experiments have shown that even inanimate objects resembling children can cause such a reaction. However, this is known to everyone who has come across someone's passion for soft toys.

The type of "baby circuit" activates the mesocorticolimbic system of the brain, which is more often called the "endogenous opioid", and in the popular literature - the "system of internal reward." In fact, it is on her that many drugs act and, by stimulating her work, cause a feeling of euphoria. In the case of "mimicry", it works in a natural way, and the activation of dopaminergic neurons leads to a feeling of pure joy without any forbidden and dangerous substances.

Why is it so embarrassing?

An extreme case of this experience is called social anxiety disorder, or Social Anxiety Disorder. Social phobia is widespread in almost all civilized countries of the world. According to some reports, about 5% of the population - more than one and a half tens of millions of people - suffers from SAD in the United States alone. However, the irrational fear of attracting the attention of other people is familiar to everyone (except for psychopathic personalities), albeit not in such a severe form. Shame is a more subtle and ubiquitous experience.

It is believed that even children from one year of age are capable of experiencing shame.Studies show that the severity of this feeling is largely inherited, although, of course, it is unlikely that a certain "shame gene" will ever be found: like other complex traits of character and behavior, it is determined by the work of a huge mass of factors, both genetic and related with individual developmental characteristics and personal history.

When studying shame in toddlers who are still unable to realize this feeling, researchers usually draw a parallel between it and the desire to run away and hide from objects and events that are incomprehensible, unknown and uncontrollable to the child. Indeed, shame is based on a special nervous system response to a potentially dangerous or unfamiliar situation - the nature of this experience is protective (adaptive) and can be extremely beneficial.

About ten years ago, American scientists put teenagers in a tomograph and examined what happens to the brain during a game in which they could lose or win money. At the same time, preliminary psychological tests made it possible to select 13 adolescents who were distinguished by special shyness, and 19 who were practically not inclined to it. Both of them only had to press a button in response to a signal - the faster they did it, the more chances they had to win.

Much to the authors' surprise, there was not much difference between adolescents in the activity of the amygdala, the key brain organ responsible for experiencing fear. But the "bashful" showed many times greater activity of the striatum, which is associated with the work of the same internal reward system. The reasons for this are still unclear, but this difference allowed the "bashful" adolescents to show themselves significantly more effective in the experimental game. According to some assumptions, shyness of character may be due to the fact that the brain as a whole reacts more brightly and sharply to stimuli - both potentially dangerous and beneficial, positive. In other words, to be ashamed is not at all ashamed.

Why are we kissing?

Kissing is not only pleasant, but also useful - perhaps the pleasantness arises precisely because of the benefit. Philematology, as the specific science that studies kissing calls itself, is not sure whether this is an innate skill or acquired, although in 90% of human societies kissing is generally accepted, in the remaining 10% they do not practice. It is believed that they allow us to better get to know a potential partner, as well as his microflora, unconsciously assess the prospects for the birth of healthy offspring, and even exchange viruses.


Scientists say that our body contains ten times more bacterial cells than our own. And although this assessment has been questioned in recent years, we can say for sure that there are no fewer bacteria in us than “ourselves”, and they play a colossal role in the functioning of the immune and digestive systems, and according to some reports, they can even influence the hormonal background and thus - on our behavior. Each contact with another person, especially as close as during a kiss, is always a contact of two microfloras.

In particular, British doctors Colin Hendry and Gail Brewer believe that kissing allows women to prepare for pregnancy and form immunity to cytomegalovirus infection. As a rule, it is not too serious for an adult, but for a growing embryo it can pose a serious danger.

Coming into contact with the partner's cytomegalovirus, the mother's body prepares for future pregnancy. At the same time, indiscriminate kisses "on the side" do not help at all, because they will not protect the unborn child from those viral strains carried by his father.

There is another aspect of kissing - the unconscious one. We all obey the sense of smell much more than it might seem from the outside, and the subtle spectrum of a partner's aromas tells the brain much more than the mind.Pheromones and other volatile components of a potential partner's scent make it possible to assess the quality of his genes no worse than a sports figure or wit. It has been shown that there is a significant correlation between the pleasure of kissing a person and the state of his immune system.

No wonder kisses - like, by the way, affection and shame, which we have already talked about - are also practiced by other animals that try to assess the potential for mating with this or that partner. Many replace them by sniffing the anus or grooming, combing the hair. And here's another interesting fact. Statistics show that twice as many people prefer to bow their heads while kissing to the right than to the left. This asymmetry is associated with the "childish", "sewn" in us manner of leaning to the mother's breast. Breastfeeding babies bow their heads in the same way.

Do I need to move my eyes when remembering?

Our pupils are constantly running. These natural movements are called nystagmus and help you see the world better. Our eyes can boast of acute color vision only in a fairly narrow field near the center - only about 15 ° wide - and "ransacking" space with a glance allows the brain to reconstruct a more complete picture. However, why do we move them, not looking at anything, mowing to the side, just remembering something, especially if it is something that is difficult to remember? Most likely, for nothing: these movements are an involuntary side effect that arises from the peculiarities of the structure of our brain.

Back in the 1970s, neurophysiologist Paul Bacan investigated these eye movements and tried to connect them with different types of thinking, offering subjects visual, sound, verbal and other tasks, as well as memorization tasks. Indeed, studying a large number of people has revealed that there are certain patterns of movement regardless of culture. The displacement of the pupils to the right and upward is associated with tasks and sensations, sound and verbal, to the right and downward - tactile, just to the right - visual. When turning the eyes to the left, the functions are distributed in the same way, only the tasks of remembering are performed: sound, tactile, visual.

Beckan's "theory of lateral movement" is not accepted by all neurophysiologists. Indeed, more rigorous experiments do not provide the consistent results needed to confirm it. Many experts believe that everything is much simpler, and averted gaze simply helps to distract from what is happening and focus on remembering or completing a task. However, recent experiments seem to suggest that the "theory of lateral movement" is not so wrong.

Scientists from Queens University in New York have shown that when referring to long-term memory - for example, when asking to select a rhyme for a word - involuntary eye movements become 2-3 times more intense, regardless of whether the person is sitting in front of the "examiner”Or in complete darkness, where, it would seem, nothing distracts the eyes. At the same time, it turned out that remembering this hardly helps, and the authors came to the conclusion that such movements are manifested by chance, as a result of the activation of neural patterns in the brain. The networks of neurons associated with some form of memory are too close in that they control eye movements and activate them as a "side effect."

Where do panic attacks come from?

“It seems like I'm dying” is the most common description of panic attacks that happen to almost everyone at different times in life. This condition, in fact, is rooted in the most intense reactions of the brain and the whole organism to potentially dangerous situations. "Fight or flight" - this is what scientists call them, but only with panic attacks, this reaction arises from scratch in response to … yes to anything.

The peripheral nervous system, which controls the work of internal organs and systems, is to blame. More precisely, its sympathetic part, which takes control in emergency cases, filling the blood with stress hormones, causing the skin to sweat, the heart to beat faster, and the lungs to breathe vigorously. In the event of a real threat, all these are suitable measures, and after the danger leaves, the parasympathetic nervous system re-enters, which reduces the pressure and generally returns the state to normal.

However, with panic attacks, the sympathetic nervous system is triggered too actively, and the parasympathetic nervous system for one reason or another does not work, so the natural mechanisms of the "fight or flight" reaction begin to work not for the benefit of the body. Unfortunately, the physiological reasons for these failures remain unknown. There are indications that childhood trauma and heredity may contribute to the development of panic attacks.

It is speculated that they may be due to the "overload" of the amygdala, which controls our emotions. There is also a hypothesis that a tired body malfunctions this way. It begins to accumulate lactic acid and carbon dioxide, an increase in the level of which the brain perceives as a signal of lack of oxygen and triggers panic in response to a seemingly completely trifling event. Finally, there is a version according to which the root of the problem lies in the disruption of the brain systems tied to serotonin and GABA - neurotransmitters that normally should "calm down" it. Therefore, often physicians, meeting with panic attacks, prescribe drugs to patients that increase the level of these substances.

This condition is considered quite common: it occurs in almost 3% of the population over the age of 18, while in women it is about twice as often as in men. Usually it begins to develop after 20 years, and each subsequent attack provokes the emergence of more and more … In the absence of treatment, the situation is often aggravated, up to the development of various phobias, among which demophobia - "fear of the crowd" - the most common variant. It is worth seriously worrying about the problem if panic attacks follow one another with a frequency of once a week or less.

Why is gossip so interesting?

People - monkeys are not only "infantile", but also talkative. Few interests us more vividly than the latest gossip about neighbors or celebrities. Who sleeps with whom and how much did they earn? Who said what to whom? The more piquant the details, the better. Again, this behavior is deeply rooted in our brains and our evolutionary past. And to understand this, it is worth reflecting on what good can be in all this gossip.

Human society from ancient times to the present day is a hidden "arms race" in the struggle for common resources. We all try to get the most out of the minimum, and not let everyone else do the same. We are all masters of manipulation and masters of recognizing them, but gossip is a powerful weapon in this confrontation. According to University of Berkeley sociopsychologist Robb Wheeler, "gossip plays a key role in maintaining public order." The scientist believes that the dissemination - albeit secret - of information about potentially dangerous, harmful or "unacceptable" behavior of others allows us to better understand their intentions and not allow us to be used.

Wheeler suggests calling this behavior "prosocial gossip," and he proved our sincere desire for it in an experiment. It turned out that the test subjects, who had to part with a small amount if they wanted to share "incriminating" information about a person who cheated in the game, easily paid for such an opportunity and felt great, feeling as if they had fulfilled some important public mission.And by and large, all specialists agree with this today.

In other experiments, psychologist Lisa Feldman-Barrett examined how rumors about positive or negative behavior in others actually changed our attitude towards them. It turned out that it changes enormously, and even our visual perception of their faces adjusts in accordance with what we hear. The scientist revealed to the experimental subjects "completely genuine" stories about the same person in the photograph: some learned that he "threw a chair at a classmate", others that "yesterday he helped grandmother to lift the cart up the stairs."

It turned out that subconsciously we pay more attention to faces in the event that we learn something unpleasant about them, studying them reliably longer. Feldman-Barrett stresses that "gossip helps predict who is friend and who is enemy." So next time, passing by old women sitting on a bench and washing bones to neighbors, smile at them: they perform an important social function - they spread rumors and gossip.

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