Beyond Belief, by Graham Lawton.

Did you know that there is a strong correlation between political belief and a simple biological parameter of brain function?

What do you really know to be true? How do you know that it’s true? Do you really know it, or do you in fact just believe it? What separates knowledge from belief? How are beliefs formed, and how much influence do they have?

“The prime directive of the brain is to extract meaning. Everything else is a slave system.”

“Most religions feature a familiar cast of characters: supernatural agents, life after death, moral directives, and answers to existential questions. Why do so many people believe such things so effortlessly?”

New Scientist No. 3015, 4th April 2015, p. 28-33.

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The Touch that Made You, by Linda Geddes.

“We have as much physical contact within our core relationships as monkeys.” Winning sports teams use more physical contact with one another than losing teams. The emotion-linked insular cortex in the brain responds to the areas of the body used for social touch: the back, the shoulders, the upper arms, and the scalp. This New Scientist article explores the way that the nervous system represents social touch. “My hunch is that the natural interaction bewteen parents and the infant – that continuous desire to touch, cuddle, and handle – is providing the essential inputs that lay the foundation for a well-adjusted social brain. It’s more than just nice, it’s absolutely critical.” – Francis McGlone, Liverpool John Moores University. New Scientist No. 3010, 28th February 2015, p. 34-37

Right Hand, Left Hand, by Chris McManus

512yxI6NxbLThe left hemisphere of the brain is “logical”, and the right is “emotional”, yes? Left handed people are more creative? Right handed people more logical? These are the kind of pseudo-scientific factoids that give psychology a bad name with other scientists. Like many lazy oversimplifications, there is a grain of truth at the core of them. Proper psychological science is about using observation and experiment to get to the bottom of the matter, and this book reviews what we actually know about lateralisation of function in the human brain.

It is really readable. It ranges from psychology to anthropology, molecular biology to astronomy, and cultural studies to anecdote. It has won loads of prizes, is great fun to read, and frankly is absolutely fascinating.

If you’re just interested in the psychology then perhaps start with chapter 8, but in fact I would just start at the beginning because you’re probably going to end up reading the whole thing anyway!

Snog, marry, avoid? by Mairi Mcleod.

Men like younger women, women like richer men, right? Yes, but the picture is more nuanced than that. This New Scientist article unpicks some recent research into the details of sexual attraction.

“Women who are grossed out by blood and faeces prefer more masculine faces.”

“As the gender pay gap decreases in the West, attitudes to promiscuity are relaxing.”

New Scientist, No. 3008, 14th February 2015, p.42-45.

We Could be Heroes by Michael Bond

This article in the New Scientist asks what makes people risk their own well-being to help strangers. This altruism is often dramatic and impulsive. Why?

“It took Michael McNally about 10 seconds from hearing the crash to run from his house in the Cape Cod village of Marstons Mills to the road outside. When he got there, the car was already burning… He looked inside and saw a young woman in the passenger seat… if she stayed there another minute she would die.”

New Scientist No. 3005, 24th January 2015, p36-39.