The Nature & Nurture Podcast
By Adam Omary
The Nature & Nurture PodcastDec 06, 2023
Nature & Nurture #125: Dr. Ellen Langer - The Mother of Mindfulness
Dr. Ellen Langer is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and one of the pioneers of the positive psychology movement, known as the Mother of Mindfulness. Dr. Langer has won numerous awards including 3 Distinguished Scientist Award, the Staats Award for Unifying Psychology, and the Liberty Science Genius Award. She is the author of 13 books on mindfulness, including 5 on mindfulness, most recently The Mindful Body.
Nature & Nurture #124: Dr. Henning Tiemeier - Hormones, Brain Development, & Public Health
Dr. Henning Tiemeier is a Professor of Social and Behavioral Science and the Sumner and Esther Feldberg Chair of Maternal and Child Health at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. Dr. Tiemeier is an expert in pediatric epidemiology, focusing on prenatal exposures and the environmental determinants that influence brain development in children.
In this episode, we talk about pros and cons of different hormone measurement techniques and their use in pediatric epidemiology, neuroscience, and psychology. We also discuss how different environmental stressors, such as socioeconomic status and pollutants, impact brain and cognitive development prenatally, in early childhood, and during puberty. Lastly, we discuss neuroplasticity, and how public health research can intervene to improve the health and cognitive outcomes of at-risk populations during sensitive periods of development.
Nature & Nurture #123. Dr. Willem Frankenhuis - Development, Evolution, Ecology, & Adversity
Dr. Willem Frankenhuis, he's an Associate Professor of Evolutionary and Population Biology at the University of Amsterdam, a Senior Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security, and Law, and Director of the Research Network on Communicating Strength-Based Approaches to Child Development and Learning in Adverse Conditions. He studies how cognition and behavior develop in harsh and unpredictable conditions.
The episode delves into what constitutes a typical human childhood, drawing on insights from the intersection of human development, evolutionary biology, and cultural anthropology.
We discuss 'hidden talents', abilities that adversity can enhance, and 'reasonable responses', behaviors that are adaptive strategies among individuals living in poverty. Dr. Frankenhuis also discusses his theoretical work involving mathematical modeling to study the evolution and development of plasticity – the ability to adjust development in response to different environmental conditions.
Nature & Nurture #122: Dr. Lars Chittka - The Mind of a Bee
Dr. Lars Chittka is a Professor of Sensory and Behavioral Ecology and the founder of the Research Center for Psychology at Queen Mary University of London. He directs the Bee Sensory and Behavioral Ecology Lab, and is the author of The Mind of a Bee. In this episode, we discuss the results of decades of research on intelligence in bees and other insects. This includes findings of numerical and spatial cognition, memory, perception, and personality. Lars describes differences and similarities between bumblebees, wasps, and honeybees, why honeybees produce so much honey and die after stinging and mating, and more. We also discuss the evidence for bees having emotions, feeling, and consciousness, and efforts for the preservation and ethical handling of bees.
Nature & Nurture #121: Dr. Jack Schultz - Cultural Anthropology, Religion, & Relativism
Dr. Jack Schultz is a Professor of Anthropology at Concordia University and an expert in the cultural anthropology of religion and sociology of knowledge.
Nature & Nurture #120: Dr. Kevin Mitchell - Evolution, Entropy, Neurogenetics, & Free Will
Dr. Kevin Mitchell is an Associate Professor of Genetics and Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin. He's the author of Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are, and Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will. In this episode, we talk about Free Agents and the question of free will. We discuss what we mean by freedom, how living organisms have inherent biological constraints which actually define ourselves as causal agents. We also discuss the common scientific view of reductionist determinism and its limitations, and how causal agents use the inherent indeterminacy and forward motion of time in our universe as "causal slack" to make predictions and control their behavior in a meaningful way. We talk about the role entropy plays in life and computation, how free will grows as computational and cognitive complexity grows, and how these realities should define our ethical and legal conceptions of moral responsibility. Lastly, we talk about how individual differences in genes, environment, and brain development shape our personalities and constrain us in some ways, but also offer opportunities for unique identity, character development, meaning, and purpose.
Nature & Nurture #119: Dr. Edward Hagen - Evolutionary Anthropology, Sex Differences, & Drugs
Dr. Edward Hagen is a Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Washington State University, where he directs the Bioanthropology Lab.
In this episode, Ed and I discuss the recent controversy of the American Anthropological Association’s decision to censor a conference panel on sex differences, the reality and importance of understanding sex differences in evolutionary anthropology and biology research, and the complexity of sex beyond the binary, such as in the case of intersex disorders and different and conflicting gender norms cross-culturally. We then move on to discuss Ed’s research on the evolution of substance use, including humans’ bizarre taste for spices and bitter plant toxins such as coffee and tobacco. We also talk about the evolutionary advantages and disadvantages for the use of other psychoactive drugs, such as hallucinogens, the evolution of human intelligence, and modern computational neuroscientific theories of consciousness.
Nature & Nurture #118: Dr. Jennifer Silvers - Brain Development, Puberty, & Emotion Regulation
Dr. Jennifer Silvers is an Associate Professor of Psychology and the Bernice Wenzel and Wendell Jeffrey Term Endowed Chair in Developmental Neuroscience at UCLA, where she runs the Social Affective Neuroscience and Development Lab. She is an expert in adolescent brain, cognitive, and emotional development, particularly in the development of emotion regulation strategies.
In this episode, we talk about Jen’s background in developmental neuroscience, the use and limitations of animal models for understanding human brain development, and how adolescence is a particularly exciting window of brain development both due to puberty and other social and environmental changes. We talk about the role of stress and adversity influencing brain development, temperamental factors in emotion processing, emotion regulation as a learned skill, and how puberty interacts with all of these processes. We then discuss relatively recent effects on social and emotional development, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, social media use, and the influence of online dating apps in young adults’ sexual development. Lastly, we talk about other windows of rapid change influencing socioemotional processing, such as pregnancy, and future directions linking our shared interests in hormones and brain development in large-scale consortium-based studies.
Nature & Nurture #117: Dr. Cory Clark - Meta-Science, Morality, and Psychological Bias
Dr. Cory Clark is a social psychologist and Director of the Adversarial Collaboration Project at the University of Pennsylvania.
In this episode we talk about adversarial collaboration and open science, meta-psychology research on common biases in psychology carried by psychologists themselves, and its moralization. We also discuss gender differences in moral beliefs, how social media and culture shape moral norms, how rationality can combat this, and whether faith is compatible with rationality.
Nature & Nurture #116: Dr. James Roney - Sex Hormones, Motivation, & Evolution
Dr. James Roney is a Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he runs the Human Behavioral Endocrinology Lab. In this episode we talk about the proximate and ultimate evolutionary explanations of different sex hormones’ roles in coordinating motivated behavior, such as testosterone’s influence on aggression and sex drive, and ovarian hormones’ influence on sex and food drive. We discuss how testosterone leads to sex differentiation in the brain and body both prenatally and during puberty; threshold effects, rather than continuous relationships, between testosterone and motivation; the opposite effects of estradiol and progesterone on women’s sex and food motivation across the menstrual cycle. We also discuss genetic differences in the receptors to different hormones, their interactions with other hormones, and how these subtle differences may predict traits ranging from morphology to sexuality. Lastly, we discuss Jim’s recent research using daily diaries and saliva hormones to test whether daily hormonal fluctuations influence sex drive and other motivated behavior, how smell and pheromones influence attraction in males and females, and how sex hormones influence reward processing in the brain, particularly during puberty. Timestamps: 0:00:51 Hormones act as coordinators in the body 0:02:06 Example of testosterone's input and output relationships 0:05:41 Importance of understanding the inputs and outputs of hormones 0:07:43 Conservation of hormone functions from non-human species to humans 0:09:35 The role of hormones in motivated behaviors 0:11:19 Time lag between stimulus event and hormone response 0:15:19 Evolutionary theories and mating behavior tied to sex hormones 0:18:23 Evolution and psychological functions of testosterone and oxytocin 0:20:08 Understanding hormone inputs and context for coordinated effects 0:21:58 Oxytocin paradox and effects on maternal aggression 0:23:33 Confounding effects of multiple signals on hormone outputs 0:25:14 Individual variability and receptor sensitivity to testosterone 0:26:47 Genetic polymorphism and developmental calibrators of individual differences 0:28:10 Prenatal testosterone and sexual orientation 0:38:21 Threshold effects of testosterone 0:41:06 Continuous relationship between estradiol, progesterone, sex drive, and food drive in women 0:53:01 Testosterone's effect on reward may be more generalized than estradiol and progesterone 0:54:47 Estradiol may affect satiety mechanisms, not just reward systems. 0:56:56 Theoretical framework for risk taking and impulsivity. 0:58:26 Research on anxiety and depression in females during puberty. 0:59:58 Effects of testosterone on motivation and individual differences 1:08:08 Study on concealed ovulatory timing, pheromones, and scent attractiveness during ovulation
Nature & Nurture #115: Dr. Joseph Henrich - Culture, Cognition, & Coevolution
Dr. Joseph Henrich is an anthropologist and Chair of the Human Evolutionary Biology Department at Harvard University, where he runs the Culture, Cognition, and Coevolution Lab. Joe is also the author of the WEIRDest People in the World and The Secret of Our Success.
Timestamps:0:00:46 Environmental factors leading to cultural evolution0:03:19 Cultural adaptations, rituals, and technological advancements0:05:11 Cultural adaptations operating outside of conscious awareness0:07:04 The role of religion in cultural transformations0:09:40 Impact of religious prohibitions on social ties0:10:59 Exploring the spread of monotheistic religions0:12:01 The expansion of gods and competition among groups0:13:55 Transition to monotheism and personification of social awareness0:16:18 Intergroup competition and tension between small and large group cooperation0:17:37 Individualistic guilt vs collectivist shame0:19:18 Variation in use of mental state terms in folktales0:23:00 Patterns in cooperation and moral judgment from human nature and cultural evolution0:24:44 Cultural evolution and species differences0:25:56 Intersection of biology and culture in sex and gender differences0:26:24 Culture changes our biology and brain0:28:28 Male inclination towards violence observed in every human society0:29:50 Testosterone levels and aggression linked to social hierarchy0:30:28 Gender paradox: greater gender equality, bigger personality/morality differences0:32:06 Sex differences observed in primates0:35:15 Fathering dynamics in human societies0:37:26 Genetic fitness and hunter-gatherer societies0:41:28 Sex ratio, crime rates, and marriage markets[0:43:32 Dating apps, competition, and inequality0:46:14 Zero sum games, land, and cultural differences0:53:18 Demographic changes and the impact on parenting styles.0:55:07 Adversity-exposed brain and its relation to life history theory.0:57:37 Using surname diversity as a proxy for diversity of thought and experience in a society.1:01:50 Linking surname diversity to occupational diversity, trust, and innovation1:04:32 Christianity's impact on scientific revolution and analytic thinking1:06:11 Bias towards progress and the concept of progress emerging
Nature & Nurture #114: Dr. Massimo Pigliucci - Evolutionary Biology, Philosophy, & Skepticism
Dr. Massimo Pigliucci is a philosopher and evolutionary biologist, the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a prolific author of over 100 academic papers, 16 books including Evolution: The Extended Synthesis, and the best-selling How to Be a Stoic, as well as thousands of posts and short clips of wisdom on his Stoic Meditations and Practical Wisdom podcasts and Rationally Speaking blog. His research interests include the philosophy of science and evolutionary biology, the nature of psueoscience, and practical philosophies like Stoicism and Neoskepticism.
Nature & Nurture #113: Dr. Stephanie Bugden - Children's Math Learning & Education
Dr. Stephanie Bugden is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Winnipeg, and an expert in the psychology and neuroscience of children's math learning. In this episode we discuss the nature versus nurture debate in math ability and the genetic and environmental influences on math learning. Dr. Bugden explains that both genetics and early learning experiences play a role in individual differences in math ability, verbal IQ, and visuospatial IQ. We also discuss whether there are sex differences in math ability at various ages, and how these differences might be confounded by math anxiety. Dr. Bugden also shares her research on the neurobiological processes involved in math learning and the challenges of studying dyscalculia, a math learning disability analogous to dyslexia. Lastly, we discuss the impact of COVID-19 on math learning and the potential exacerbation of socioeconomic inequalities in education.
Nature & Nurture #112: Kevin J. DeBruin - Rocket Science, Education, Fitness, & Perseverance
Kevin J. DeBruin is a former NASA rocket scientist, a science educator and speaker, former bodybuilder and American Ninja Warrior, founder of Space Class, and author of To NASA and Beyond, and To Dare Mighty Things. In this episode we talk about Kevin’s career as a rocket scientist, life at NASA, and his story of perseverance in his books. We also discuss overlap between the mindset of engineers, bodybuilders, and self-help psychologists, sharing in common a detail-oriented focus on planning, breaking down goals into small steps, and self-discipline. We discuss other parallels between rocket science and cognitive science, such as the development of artificial intelligence, neural networks, and everyday technologies such as smartphones made possible due to technological advancements originally developed at NASA for the purposes of spaceflight. Lastly, we discuss the importance of science education, particularly from educators with deep scientific training in order to ensure effective science communication and prevent misinformation. Timestamps: 0:04:29 Kevin's journey to NASA and the challenges he faced 0:18:25 Kevin's day-to-day work life at NASA 0:25:22 Comparison between NASA and private space industry 0:35:41 Kevin's transition from NASA to science education 0:46:01 The importance of technical depth in science communication 0:52:41 The inspiration and impact of working with kids 0:56:21 The Dunning-Kruger effect and the unknown knowns 0:57:22 The connection between physics and neuropsychology 1:00:37 Overview of Kevin's book "To Dare Mighty Things"
Nature & Nurture #111: Dr. Jonas Kaplan - The Neuroscience of Narrative
Dr. Jonas Kaplan is a cognitive neuroscientist and faculty at USC's Brain and Creativity Institute, where he co-directs the the Dornsife Cognitive Neuroimaging Center. His research focuses on consciousness, the self, belief, empathy, social relationships, action perception and creativity. In this reunion episode, episode, we discuss active inference and predictive processing theories of consciousness, panpsychism, philosophy of mind, and the difference between interoception and exteroception. We further consider the evolutionary psychology of self-awareness, empathy, status seeking, and sexuality, and how these translate to modern technology and mental health. Lastly, we discuss neuroscience and its connection to film and literature, which Jonas discusses on his new podcast Float, and how this connects to cross-cultural analyses of religion, archetypes, and recent debates between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson on the psychology and utility of religion. Timestamps: 0:01:30 Active inference and predictive processing 0:04:24 Skepticism about applying active inference to interoception 0:08:33 Consciousness, affect, and emotion 0:11:40 Dualism in neuroscience and philosophy of mind 0:13:41 The role of the body in consciousness and empathy 0:16:33 The limitations and challenges of artificial intelligence and empathy 0:20:09 The relationship between consciousness, narrative, and selfhood 0:26:23 Panpsychism and self-organizing systems 0:30:40 Postmodernism and categorical distinction 0:34:04 Pragmatism in statistics and narrative 0:38:08 How the brain recognizes narrative structure 0:40:32 Storytelling in hunter gatherers 0:42:04 Sexual selection, dominance, and creativity 0:49:24 The self as a collection of sub-personalities 0:52:43 Social comparison, stress, and mental health 0:55:08 Sexual selection, social status, and the crowdsourcing of wisdom 1:02:31 The psychology of dating apps 1:07:24 The potential impact of different app designs on mental health 1:09:32 The immersive experience of storytelling and audience engagement 1:13:34 The intersection of neuroscience, film, and storytelling 1:17:03 Black Mirror, technology, and memory 1:20:00 The value of forgetting and the nostalgia bias in memory 1:21:49 The cultural evolution of religion 1:25:24 Archetypes and their usefulness 1:30:40 Pantheism and mathematical Platonism 1:35:24 The necessity of axioms in science
Nature & Nurture #110: Dr. Paul Bloom - Evolution, Language, & Morality
Dr. Paul Bloom is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, and the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Yale University. Paul studies how children and adults make sense of the world, with special focus on language, pleasure, morality, religion, fiction, and art. He is the author of seven books, including his latest Psych: The Story of the Human Mind. In this episode, we sample some of the many, many topics covered in Psych, including Freud, evolutionary psychology, language development, moral development, and social cognition. We also talk about Paul’s early research on language development and moral cognition, my own research on pubertal hormones and brain development, and the meta-psychology of what makes podcasts interesting. 0:00:02 Introduction to Dr. Paul Bloom and his research 0:01:10 The story behind the article "Natural Language and Natural Selection" 0:05:20 The connection between developmental psychology and evolutionary psychology 0:08:20 The concept of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny 0:11:41 Transition from language development to moral development 0:13:42 The relationship between disgust and morality 0:16:18 The parallels between physical traits and moral traits 0:19:23 The connection between free will and moral responsibility 0:25:04 The nature-nurture debate and the role of genetics in psychology 0:31:06 The continuum of traits and the question of determinism 0:34:07 The influence of Freud and the shift towards empirical psychology 0:45:06 The history of psychology and the influence of old theories 0:55:20 The role of clinical psychology and the question of mental illness1:01:21 The psychological tendency to rationalize silver linings and find upsides in negative traits 1:06:17 Paul's role as an editor for a journal and prioritizing what to read in psychology 1:08:02 The social intimacy and connection of podcasts
Nature & Nurture #109: Dr. Ben Smith - Decision Neuroscience & Effective Altruism
Dr. Ben Smith is a neuroscientist and postdoctoral research fellow in the Social Affective Neuroscience Lab at the University of Oregon.
In this episode we talk about Ben’s research on the social neuroscience of risky decision-making, computational modeling of the reward and punishment system during decision-making, the abstract-concrete tangibility axis of the prefrontal cortex, moral and ideological decision-making, and how decision neuroscience connects to habits, health, and effective altruism.
Nature & Nurture #108: Dr. Emily Jacobs - Sex Hormones & Brain Aging
Dr. Emily Jacobs is an Associate Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she studies how sex hormones impact brain structure, function, and cognition, particularly during menopause and across the menstrual cycle.
In this episode we talk about how the brain is an endocrine organ: one which communicates through hormones. We talk about Emily’s research on brain aging and cognition, how sex hormones change the brain during menopause and across the menstrual cycle, and how sex hormones lead to sex differentiation in the brain. We also talk about Emily’s research for women’s health, historical barriers slowing advancement in our understanding of the female reproductive cycle across the lifespan, and modern research efforts taken to remedy this.
Nature & Nurture #107: Dr. Judith Fan - Pictures, Numbers, & Cognitive Tools
Dr. Judith Fan is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, where she runs the Cognitive Tools Lab: https://cogtoolslab.github.io/
In this episode, Dr. Fan discusses the concept of reverse engineering the human cognitive toolkit, which involves uncovering the principles and constraints that shape our thinking and the tools we use to support our cognitive processes. She explains that cognitive tools are material artifacts, such as numbers, pictures, and language, that help us think and communicate. Dr. Fan highlights the importance of understanding the mechanisms behind these tools and how they interact with our brains.She explores the use of pictures as a cognitive tool and how they have been used throughout history to encode and communicate knowledge. Dr. Fan also discusses the convergence between artificial neural networks and the human brain in understanding visual inputs, such as faces. She explains that these systems can approximate the behaviors of real neurons and provide insights into how our brains process visual information.Dr. Fan emphasizes the role of education in shaping our cognitive toolkit and the importance of providing learners with multiple modalities for engaging with information. She also discusses the potential of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, in supporting rich and generative forms of learning. 0:00:02 Introduction to Dr. Judy Fan and her research 0:00:30 Definition of reverse engineering and cognitive toolkit 0:02:06 Examples of cognitive tools like accounting devices and pictures 0:08:50 Connection between cognitive tools and advancements in computer vision 0:17:51 Discussion on the similarities between artificial neural networks and human brain 0:22:04 The use of AI systems like DALL·E to create images 0:25:26 The influence of historical and cultural context on cognitive toolkits 0:27:21 The role of education in shaping cognitive toolkits 0:32:15 The potential genetic component of cognitive toolkits 0:37:15 The debate on visual learners and individual differences in learning 0:40:24 The interaction between cognitive tools and unlocking new abilities 0:44:20 Dr. Judy Fan's excitement about future research at Stanford 0:47:14 The potential of screens and technology in education 0:49:41 The importance of scaffolding activities and avoiding drawbacks 0:52:51 The significance of statistics and data science education 0:56:16 The need for more people to think in shades of gray
Nature & Nurture #106: Dr. Roy Baumeister - Sex, Willpower, & The Self
Dr. Roy Baumeister is a renowned social psychologist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Queensland. In this episode we explore a variety of topics about Roy's research on self-control and decision-making, human sexuality, and the need for social belongingness.
Nature & Nurture #105: Dr. Lindsey Powell - Infant Social Neuroscience
Dr. Lindsey Powell is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of California, San Diego, where she runs the Social Cognition and Learning (SoCal) Lab.
In this episode we talk about how brain activity is measured in infants and toddlers using methods such as fNIRS, and what neuroimaging research tells us about social cognitive development above and beyond behavioral research. Learn more about Lindsey’s work at: https://socallab.ucsd.edu/
Nature & Nurture #104: Dr. Colin DeYoung - Personality Neuroscience & Cybernetics
Dr. Colin DeYoung is a personality neuroscientist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota, where he directs the DeYoung Personality Lab.
In this episode we talk about the science of personality, including the Big Five (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism) and their neural correlates. We discuss how personality is measured, genetic and environmental influences on personality and its development over time, and the Big Five traits’ connections to areas of my own research on the neuroendocrinology of reward sensitivity and inhibitory control.
Nature & Nurture #103: Dr. Barry Giesbrecht - The Neuroscience of Attention
Dr. Barry Giesbrecht is a Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Attention Lab. https://attentionlab.psych.ucsb.edu/
Nature & Nurture #102: Dr. Mahzarin Banaji - Myths & Facts About Implicit Bias
Dr. Mahzarin Banaji is the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and co-author of the New York Times Bestseller Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. She is the recipient of countless awards including being one of APA’s William James Fellows for outstanding contributions to psychology and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
In this episode we talk about Mahzarin’s career in cognitive and social psychology, and the development of the Implicit Association Test (IAT). We discuss myths and facts about implicit bias, including how the brain forms automatic implicit associations based on statistical learning, and how these biases can be formed entirely independently of conscious prejudice. We discuss examples of this research ranging from moral psychology, to racial bias, and how IAT results differ cross-culturally. Lastly, we discuss Mahzarin’s ongoing research combining natural language processing research and geospatial data to estimate how regional IAT scores correlate with different biases expressed on social media posts coming from different areas.
Nature & Nurture #101: Dr. John Delony - Neuropsychology, Storytelling, & Mental Health
Dr. John Delony is a mental health and wellness expert with over two decades of experience working as a researcher, educator, and crisis responder. He is the host of the wildly successful, and live-changing advice-giving Dr. John Delony show, and bestselling author of Own Your Past, Change Your Future: A Not-So-Complicated Approach to Relationships, Mental Health, and Wellness. In this episode, John and I have a wide-ranging conversation centered around the neuropsychology research and personal anecdotes covered in Own Your Past, Change Your Future. We discuss big questions concerning nature and nurture, free will and determinism, child development and parenting, puberty and hormones, finding a balance between motivation and perfectionism, and the neuropsychology of anxiety, and hear a sneak preview of John’s next book.
Nature & Nurture #100: Dr. Leah Somerville - All About Adolescent Brain Development
Dr. Leah Somerville is the Grafstein Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and my very own PhD advisor! She runs the Affective Neuroscience & Development Laboratory, where we study how brain and pubertal development shapes motivation, cognition, emotion, and behavior during adolescence. In this special 100th episode, I interview Leah in person about her research background, the importance of adolescence as a sensitive period for brain development, myths and facts about puberty, hormones, sex differences, and teenage risk-taking, and where developmental neuroscience fits into juvenile justice and our legal conceptions of rational agency.
Nature & Nurture #99: Dr. Karl Friston - Active Inference & Free Energy
Dr. Karl Friston is a Professor of Neurology at University College London and one of the world's most influential neuroscientists. He invented statistical parametric mapping, voxel-based morphometry, and dynamic causal modeling, and has authored or co-authored hundreds of scientific publications detailing out these theoretical and methodological advancements in neuroscience, and is also the mind behind the theory of Active Inference: The Free Energy Principle in Mind, Brain, and Behavior. The brain is a fantastic organ, not only because it is amazingly complex, but because it is constantly generating fantasies. In this episode we talk about active inference, what Dr. Friston has called “the physics of belief,” which states that the brain is fundamentally predictive. We discuss the theory of active inference and the mathematics behind the free energy principle, which states that the brain aims to minimize “free energy” or entropy by optimizing to minimize prediction error and maximize expected information gain. We discuss how active inference is inherently tied to motivation, and that consciousness, emotion, and strategic decision making can all be framed in terms of monitoring and minimizing prediction error. We also compare and contrast active inference with other theories of consciousness such as integrated information theory. Lastly, we discuss the neurobiology of active inference and its parallels to cybernetic intelligence, such as how activational and organizational effects of hormones on brain development are analogous to manipulating numeric inputs or weights in an artificial neural network.
Nature & Nurture #98: Dr. Lixing Sun - The Evolution of Lying
Dr. Lixing Sun is a Distinguished Professor of Biology at Central Washington University, and author of The Liars of Nature and the Nature of Liars: Cheating and Deception in the Living World. In this episode we talk about the evolution of lying and deception as distinct strategies. Lying organisms actively alter truth by displaying false signals, whereas deception occurs by exploiting cognitive biases to trick others. We talk about lying and deception in a wide range of species, from insects, to fish, to reptiles, to primates, and finally, humans. We discuss the role of deception in sexual selection, evolutionary arms races between innovative methods to cheat and counter-cheating strategies, such as costly signaling and the evolution of human social intelligence, and how large-scale institutions and social media are both particularly threatening and promising to prosociality in humans.
Nature & Nurture #97: Dr. Mark Moffett - Society from Ants to Humans
Dr. Mark Moffett is an ecologist and author of several books including Adventures Among Ants and The Human Swarm.
In this episode we talk about social behavior in species ranging from ants, to lizards, to chimpanzees, to humans, and their similarities and differences. We talk about intelligence as typically individually-defined, as well as distributed “hive mind” intelligence in simple species like ants, where each ant can function like a neuron in a whole-brain network. We also discuss the evolution of human sociality and compare our propensity for peace and aggression to chimpanzees and bonobos, and our unique social intelligence. Lastly, we talk about cultural evolution and cross-cultural diversity in human societies, and how we both learn and can transcend group biases.
Nature & Nurture #96: Dr. Ovul Sezer - Comedy & Impression Management
Dr. Ovul Sezer is a behavioral scientist, Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at Cornell University, and stand-up comedian.
In this episode we talk about the psychology of comedy and Ovul’s research on impression (mis)management. We discuss effective and ineffective forms of communication, balancing confidence and humility, and the importance of first impressions in social and professional relationships. We also talk about the psychology of virtue signaling, humble bragging, and navigating impression management in the modern social media age.
Nature & Nurture #95: Dr. Edouard Machery - Free Will, Value, & Decision Making
Dr. Edouard Machery is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Pittsburgh and Director of the Center for Philosophy of Science. He's published over 150 articles and book chapters on a diverse range of topics including the philosophy of cognitive science, moral psychology, the utility of evolutionary theory and neuroscience for understanding cognition, folk psychology, and experimental philosophy.
In this wide-ranging episode we talk about Edouard’s research on cross-cultural differences in conceptions of free will and determinism, free will and moral responsibility, and how we define a rational agent. We also talk about neuropsychological research on value and decision making, the free energy principle as a theory of cognition, and how statistical reasoning requires us to create probabilistic cutoffs for action, both in science and in decision making. Lastly, we talk about the development of cognition and emotion both within human lifespans and across our evolutionary phylogenetic tree.
Nature & Nurture #94: Dr. Scott Grafton - The Neuroscience of Goal-Directed Movement
Dr. Scott Grafton is a Distinguished Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He directs the Action Lab, which focuses on the neuroscience of goal-directed movement.
In this episode we discuss Dr. Grafton’s background in neurology research, and the historical progression of integrating the neuroscience of movement, perception, and goal-setting. We talk about how modern neuroimaging techniques replicated and expanded upon findings from early neuropsychological studies of brain damage, and how Dr. Grafton uses dense-sampling techniques to scan individual’s brains repeatedly over short intervals, to study how learning changes the structural and functional organization of brain regions involved in perception and motor control. Lastly, we talk about Dr. Grafton’s ongoing research of how the brain interacts with the rest of the body during physical activity to maintain allostasis, and the implications this has for our understanding of the links between perception, action, and brain health.
Nature & Nurture #93: Dr. Deon Benton - Is Learning Innate?
Dr. Deon Benton is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt University, where he runs the Computational Cognitive Development Lab.
In this episode we talk about the interacting forces of nature and nurture that give rise to human children’s tremendous ability for learning, language development, causal reasoning, and social cognition. Deon describes his past and future research on cognitive development in infants and young children, as well as experimental paradigms for how to measure infant attention, such as through eye-tracking. We talk about how infant statistical learning can be modeled computationally, and the difficulties of decoupling innate knowledge about the physical and social world from learning in the postnatal or even prenatal environments. Lastly, Deon advocates for the importance of designing effective early-intervention studies to improve life outcomes for young children exposed to adversity.
Learn more about Deon’s work at: https://theccdlab.com/
Nature & Nurture #92: Dr. Alan Fiske - Kama Muta: Being Moved by Love
Dr. Alan Fiske is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at UCLA, where he co-directs the Kama Muta Lab, and the author of several books including Structures of Social Life, Virtuous Violence, and Kama Muta: Discovering the Connecting Emotion.
In this episode we talk about Alan’s career as an anthropologist, the research which led to his books, and the social mechanisms which give rise to both peace and violence in human societies. Finally, we talk about Alan’s research on kama muta.
Kama muta is Sanskrit for “being moved by love”. Alan defines kama muta as “Kama muta is the sudden feeling of oneness, love, belonging, or union with an individual person, a family, a team, a nation, nature, the cosmos, God, or a kitten.” Learn more about kama muta, and experience it for yourself, at: https://kamamutalab.org/
Nature & Nurture #91: Dr. Dan Conroy-Beam - The Evolution & Computations of Mating Psychology
Dr. Dan Conroy-Beam is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Dan uses an evolutionary and computational perspective to understand mate choice and mating relationships. Specifically, he is interested in how mate preferences are integrated with one another computationally in order to make mating decisions as well as the decision rules people use to navigate their mating markets and their relationships. Dan's work combines agent-based modeling of mate choice with studies of real couples to compare and explore candidate models for how people evaluate potential mates, pursue partners, and regulate their relationships. Learn more about Dan's work at: https://www.danconroybeam.com/
In this episode we cover a wide range of topics including Dan's research on computational mate choice, the theory and history of sexual selection, different reproductive strategies and status signaling in humans and other animals, and environmental factors influencing mate choice ranging from sex ratio, to resource availability, to modern dating app environments.
Nature & Nurture #90: Dr. Rob Henderson - Luxury Beliefs & Status Signals
Dr. Rob Henderson is a psychologist best known for his research on luxury beliefs.
In this episode, we talk about risk and resilience factors for success in America, including growing up in stable two-parent households. Rob shares how his experience growing up in the foster care system and his military service primed him for identifying luxury beliefs of the upper class during his studies at Yale and Cambridge. We discuss how luxury beliefs confer status upon elites, but disproportionately harm people in poor and working-class communities. As a case-study, we talk about changing norms surrounding monogamy and casual sex. Lastly, we talk about evolutionary pressures for and against monogamy, cooperation, and different moral values.
0:00:02Introduction to Dr. Rob Henderson and his research on luxury beliefs and social status0:00:47Discussion on the deteriorating state of young men in America0:03:21The differential effects of family structure on boys and girls0:04:56The interaction between nature and nurture in determining life outcomes0:06:08The impact of environmental inputs on cognitive ability and personality0:08:38The importance of stable and decent childhoods for children's well-being0:11:54The different ways in which "Lost Boys" manifest their struggles0:14:35The role of the military in providing structure and stability0:16:26The cultural shock experienced by Dr. Henderson at Yale0:20:22The concept of luxury beliefs and their role in conferring status0:25:21The moralization of luxury beliefs and the language treadmill0:28:08The harms caused by luxury beliefs, particularly in relation to monogamy0:36:56The impact of luxury beliefs on lower status people0:45:40The impact of luxury beliefs on mating psychology and relationships0:53:49The consequences of polyamory and the importance of monogamy for children1:00:08The potential consequences of a society-wide shift towards polyamory1:05:04The frustration of entitled attitudes towards income and education1:05:40The complexity of evolutionary forces and moral norms1:06:41The limitations of grounding morality solely in evolutionary models1:08:11The influence of economic education on selfish behavior in games1:09:21The importance of reputation and belonging in human psychology1:11:30Dr. Henderson's book and its exploration of personal experiences and social commentary
Nature & Nurture #89: Dr. C. Sue Carter - Sex, Love, & Oxytocin
Dr. C. Sue Carter is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and Distinguished Research Scientist at Indiana University, where she also holds an Emerita position as Rudy Professor of Biology and was formerly Director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. She is a Fellow and past President of the International Behavioral Neuroscience Society, and is known for her pioneering work on oxytocin, the love hormone, and its role in parental care and romantic pairbonding.
In this episode we discuss how neuroendocrinology research has evolved over the course of Dr. Carter’s career, and how oxytocin became known as “the love hormone”. We discuss her early research examining oxytocin’s role in parental care, pairbonding, and sex drive in prairie voles, and contrast these findings to early evolutionary theories centered around testosterone and other sex hormones. We also talk about vasopressin, a hormone related to oxytocin, and discuss its role in more nuanced forms of care such as defensive aggression. Dr. Carter introduces the term of “sociostasis” as a social form of homeostasis which oxytocin and vasopressin are central to regulating. Lastly, we talk about oxytocin’s interactions with sex and stress hormones prenatally, during infancy, and during puberty, and how the early environment may epigenetically our oxytocin receptors and have lifelong impacts.
Nature & Nurture #88: Dr. Adam Morris - Mindfulness & Decision Making
Dr. Adam Morris is a cognitive scientist and Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Psychology at Princeton University.
In this episode we talk about Adam’s research on the connections between mindfulness, decision-making, and introspection. We talk about the cognitive mechanisms involved involving in weighing pros and cons of your decisions, how various decision-making strategies may be computationally modeled, and how there may be a disconnect between people’s interoceptive beliefs about their decision-making processes, and what they actually do. Lastly, we talk about the science of mindfulness, and Adam’s ongoing research plans of an intervention study to test whether mindfulness training helps people introspect better about their own decision-making.
Nature & Nurture #87: Dr. Brynn Sherman - Sleep, Stress, & Memory
Dr. Brynn Sherman is a cognitive neuroscientist and postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.
In this episode we talk about Brynn’s research on the interaction between statistical learning and memory errors, and how memory is studied using behavioral tasks and neuroimaging. We discuss the distinction between episodic memory and semantic memory, memory encoding and consolidation, and between knowing and remembering. We also discuss Brynn’s more recent research on the effects of stress and sleep on memory, and how these effects manifest in the brain.
Nature & Nurture #86: Dr. Michael Levin - Animal Regeneration, Learning, & Memory
Dr. Michael Levin is a developmental and synthetic biologist at Tufts University, where he is the Vannevar Bush Distinguished Professor and director of the Allen Discovery Center and Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology.
In this episode we talk about Mike’s research, which ranges from studying the molecular biology of cancer, to the bioelectrics of limb regeneration, to memory and higher-order cognition. Mike describes the overall theme of his research as understanding the embodied nature of cognition in organic and synthetic systems, and the philosophical implications of this worldview. We discuss a wide variety of topics ranging from the neurobiology of planarian flatworms, to the future of regenerative medicine, to philosophical questions about the definitions of life, consciousness, and artificial intelligence.
0:02:05Exploring the concept of mind embodied in different architectures0:03:26Understanding morphogenesis as a collective intelligence of cells0:04:47Shift in problem space and intelligence from single cells to multicellular structures0:06:42The intentionality of animals and the continuum of agency0:09:27Choosing the appropriate model system for research0:11:11Dr. Levin's background and evolution of his research0:17:10Interest in the intersection of engineering and biology0:19:59Studying the bioelectric communication in cellular networks0:22:56Computational models of morphogenesis and cognitive aspects of development0:25:19The complexity of intelligence and the binary distinction of living0:27:25The continuum of life and the challenges of defining it0:29:49The ability to learn and memory in planaria0:37:00The challenges of defining individual identity and memory0:39:23The unique regenerative abilities of planaria and salamanders0:41:06The future of regenerative medicine and synthetic biology0:45:24The potential of somatic psychiatry and tissue training regimes0:47:44Understanding complex cognitive machines and the limits of understanding0:51:06Different notions of understanding emergent phenomena0:53:29The challenges of understanding neural networks and biological networks
Nature & Nurture #85: Dr. Daniel Schacter - The Seven Sins of Memory
Dr. Daniel Schacter is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University where he runs the Schacter Memory Lab, and author of The Seven Sins of Memory.
In this episode we talk about the history of memory research over the last 100+ years, beginning with simple behavioral tasks and up to modern neuroimaging. Dr. Schacter overviews different dimensions of memory scientists have identified, including episodic vs. semantic, implicit vs. explicit, and the processes of encoding, consolidation, retrieval, and reconsolidation. We then discuss each of The Seven Sins of Memory: Transience, Absent-Mindedness, Blocking, Misattribution, Suggestibility, Bias, and Persistence. Lastly, Dr. Schacter describes some of his more recent research on the relationship between episodic memory and imagination and creativity.
Nature & Nurture #84: Dr. Joshua Greene - Moral Psychology & Pragmatism
Dr. Joshua Greene is a psychologist, philosopher, Professor at Harvard University, and author of Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them.
In this episode we talk about Josh’s early research on moral psychology, specifically trolleyology. He describes his empirical research on the famous trolley problem thought experiment in philosophy, and how people generally approach these problems via two different modes of reasoning: slow and rational, and fast and emotional. We talk about the evolutionary origins of these distinct moral cognitive processes, and an alternative framework to utilitarianism known as deep pragmatism. Lastly, Josh talks about his recent research on this pragmatic approach to moral psychology, including The Giving Multiplier which aims to motivate people to donate to more effective charities.
Josh created a special code for viewers of The Nature & Nurture Podcast to use on The Giving Multiplier. Use The Giving Multiplier to donate to charities of your own choice as well as highly effective charities identified by Josh’s lab. With this code, an extra 50% will be matched and added to any amount you donate:
Nature & Nurture #83: Dr. Dorsa Amir - Child Development, Evolution, & Culture
Dr. Dorsa Amir is a psychologist, anthropologist, and postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley.
In this episode we talk about child development and decision-making through the interdisciplinary lenses of anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and behavioral economics. We talk about some of Dorsa’s theoretical research on how human environments have changed across cultural and evolutionary histories, and how plasticity in child development allows humans to adapt to various forms of environmental threat, deprivation, and uncertainty. We also talk about Dorsa’s experimental and cross-cultural research on child decision-making, and how these adaptive behaviors also vary across environments, resource availability, and uncertainty. Dorsa describes how the field of developmental psychology is slowly moving away from WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) assumptions in order to gain a richer understanding of the full scope of child development across cultures.
Nature & Nurture #82: Dr. Anita Collins - The Music Advantage
Dr. Anita Collins is an award-winning educator, researcher and writer in the field of brain development and music learning. She is the author of The Lullaby Effect: The Science of Singing to Your Child and The Music Advantage: How Learning Music Helps Your Child’s Brain and Wellbeing.
In this episode we talk about the neuroscience of music education, and the brain and cognitive benefits of musical training in children and adults. Anita describes how music is unique in that it combines multiple modalities of the brain including auditory processing, visual processing, fine motor control, strategic planning, and creativity. We also discuss music as a means of social and mother-infant bonding, and evolutionary theories as to how music has emerged as an adaptation across every human culture.
Nature & Nurture #81: Dr. Samuel Gershman - What Makes Us Smart
Dr. Samuel Gershman is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, where he directs the Computational Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory. He is also the author of What Makes Us Smart: The Computational Logic of Human Cognition.
In this episode we discuss Sam’s book, and the central argument that human brains are computers that must operate based on both limits of information and limits of computational power. These limits are what lead to biases, but Sam stresses that biases in human cognition, such as falling for optical illusions, are in fact what make us smart. We talk about some of the mechanisms by which we learn, such as statistical learning, and discuss the similarities and differences between human learning and modern artificial intelligence. We also discuss some of Sam’s theoretical research on the computational and neural mechanisms involved in learning and memory, and discuss how this model may apply to animals as simple and diverse as small planarian flatworms.
Nature & Nurture #80: Dr. Frank von Hippel - The Chemical Age
Dr. Frank von Hippel is a Professor of Ecotoxicology and Environmental Health Sciences at the University. He is the host of his own successful podcast, The Science History Podcast, and author of The Chemical Age.
In this episode we talk about Frank’s own field of ecotoxicology, the study of environmental toxins and their effects on humans and other animals, and Frank’s book The Chemical Age. We discuss the pros and cons of advancements in chemistry, from advancements in medicine and agriculture to chemical warfare and the environmental harms of industrialization. We also talk about what makes something a toxin, how our bodies respond differently to organic vs. synthetic compounds, and about the massive benefits and potential harms of pesticide use in modern agriculture. Lastly, we talk about Frank’s own research on how pollutants such as plastics harm humans and animals in the Arctic, and about both the threats of climate change to biodiversity and how we might overcome them.
Nature & Nurture #79: Dr. Robert Epstein - The Case Against Adolescence
Dr. Robert Epstein is a longtime psychology researcher and professor—a distinguished scientist who is passionate about educating the public about advances in mental health and the behavioral sciences. The former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, Dr. Epstein is currently Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. He is also the founder and Director Emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Massachusetts. He is also the author of The Case Against Adolescence, and its updated release Teen 2.0.
In this episode we discuss Dr. Epstein’s case against adolescence, the argument that historically, the social transition from childhood to adulthood was more rapid, and that the view of adolescence as a distinct phase of the lifespan is a relatively modern and Western concept. Dr. Epstein and I engage in a healthy debate on this topic, informed by my own research on adolescent development and the view that puberty marks a distinct and protracted period of physiological, neural, and psychological development.
In support of his argument Dr. Epstein discusses a wide-range of social and technological transformations impacting childhood development and our views on teenagers across the last two centuries, including industrialization, mandatory education, child labor laws, and more recently, social media and technology use. We additionally discuss positive steps towards promoting healthy development in teens, including individualized education, increased autonomy, and increased responsibility.
Nature & Nurture #78: Dr. Jason Mitchell - The Neuroscience of Mindreading
Dr. Jason Mitchell is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, where he directs the Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience Laboratory. His research uses a combination of neuroimaging and behavioral measures to investigate the cognitive processes that support inferences about the psychological states of other people and introspective awareness of the self.
In this episode we introduce social neuroscience as a field of research at the intersection between social psychology and cognitive neuroscience, and discuss the neuroscience of mindreading. Mindreading, in this context, refers to our social cognitive capacity for thinking about the thoughts and feelings of others, otherwise known as mentalizing or theory of mind. Jason and I discuss how mindreading relates to other processes such as introspection, and how mindreading may be accomplished either through mental simulation (placing oneself in another’s shoes) or heuristics. Next, we discuss Jason’s own research on the neuroscience of introspection and mindreading, and his findings that mindreading looks more similar to introspection in the brain when reasoning about others more similar to us. Lastly, we discuss more exotic forms of mindreading such as animal theory of mind and empathizing with inanimate objects or cartoons, and what these processes tell us about the cognitive mechanisms underlying mindreading and empathy.
Nature & Nurture #77: Dr. Bryce Huebner - Embodied, Micro, & Macrocognition
Dr. Bryce Huebner is the Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, where he conducts research connecting philosophy of mind, cognitive science, biology, and moral psychology.
In this episode we talk broadly about what it means to be conscious, and how cognition and emotion are governed by bodily processes. Bryce and I discuss how philosophy of mind ought to be informed by the biological limitations that give rise to complex thought, how much of our thought and behavior revolves around maintaining homeostasis and satisfying conflicting motivations, and how both nature and nurture give rise to individual differences in these processes. We also talk about the possibility for artificial intelligence and consciousness in non-human animals, and discuss the relationships between consciousness, life, and functionalism. Lastly, we discuss the concept of distributed cognition in Bryce’s book Macrocognition, and how this relates to moral psychology.
Nature & Nurture #76: Dr. Randolph Nesse - Good (Evolutionary) Reasons for Bad Feelings
Dr. Randolph Nesse is a Professor Emeritus in the Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology, and the Institute for Social Research at The University of Michigan, and one of the pioneers of the field of evolutionary psychiatry. He is the Founding President of The International Society for Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health, and author of the book Good Reasons for Bad Feelings.
In this episode we talk about the field of evolutionary psychiatry, and more broadly about the evolution of both negative emotions such as fear and anxiety and positive emotions such as happiness. We talk about how humans have evolved with a “negativity bias” which primes us to sense threat, even in the case of false alarms, and how at the extreme this leads to anxiety disorders. On the other hand, we talk about how either a lack of positive emotion (depression) or excess positive emotion (mania) can be pathological, and how evolution must act to fine-tune our emotions for the right context. Overall, we have good reasons for bad feelings, but knowledge of why our emotions have evolved and what contexts they evolved in can help us fine-tune our emotions in our modern environments.
Find Dr. Nesse’s book and learn more about his work at: goodreasons.info