Jose Drost-Lopez

Archive for 2010|Yearly archive page

More brain connections than stars in the universe? No, not even close.

In Reality Check on September 10, 2010 at 11:35 pm

Our observable universe is huge. Make that really huge. So if you have ever read that our brain connections outnumber the stars in the universe (perhaps here or from this book), I hope you frowned in skepticism.

Cosmic Microwave Background map of the universe

Here are the real numbers:

Neurons (rough overestimate for adults): 10^11, or 100 billion

Synapses (based on 1000 per neuron estimate): 10^14, or 100 trillion

Stars (estimate for observable universe): 7 x 10^22; that’s 70 sextillion!

For every brain synapse (“connection”) we have, there are (at least) 700 million (700,000,000) stars somewhere out there. In other words, the number of stars per human synapse is about the number of people in Europe. Only if we count up the synapses of all the people alive (10^21) do we get a number comparable to the star count.

How could confusion arise on such a whopping difference? The mistake is clear in my first link above (“Cool Brain Facts”). The site assumes that most stars are in our galaxy, the Milky Way. That’s monumentally incorrect–our galaxy is unexceptional (star-wise or otherwise) among the approximately 100 billion galaxies within detectable range. On the bright side, this fact suggests an easy correction for our myth:

The number of synapses in the human brain is larger than the number of galaxies in the observable universe. Also, there are more synapses in an average human brain than there are stars in our Milky Way galaxy.

The core of the Milky Way. Our solar system is a microscopic spec of dust in there.

Let me clarify that the brain is a magnificent organ no matter how you spin the numbers. As early as two millenniums ago Hippocrates realized its importance: “from the brain, and from the brain only, arise our pleasures, joy, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs, and tears.” But no matter the intricacy of our brains, let’s not belittle the majestic scale of the cosmos.


The Political Brain: How Obama Got it Right

In Book Review, Cognitive Sciences on July 10, 2010 at 3:15 pm

When I first glanced at Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, which promises to explore “the role of emotion” in the success of political campaigns, I braced myself for two disappointments typical of the pop psych genre: either Westen was a political pundit who did not really understand the brain, or he was a researcher trying to force his lab experiments to tell a coherent and important story. My cynicism was totally misplaced. From the outset, the book displays an impressive attunement to both the political sphere and to contemporary psychology.

In an interesting twist, Westen reveals that he is a devoted Democrat, but rightly comments that his Machiavellian approach offers insights for everyone. Anyhow, it is fitting that Westen’s mission is to reinvigorate the Democrats, whose election record as of the book’s publication date (2007) was shoddy. In the presidential elections of the last century, only seven out of eighteen presidents had been Democrats. Moreover, in recent memory, the blue corners of the nation had been flabbergasted to see both Gore and Kerry fall to George W. Bush. Sweeping aside notions of presidential merit and rational voter choice, Westen demonstrates how failed campaign strategy dragged Gore, Kerry, and many of the last century’s Democrats down.

The central buffoons of the story are Democratic political consultants, who operate on a flawed view of voters’ minds. They gear their appeals toward a dispassionate mind, one which makes political decisions by weighing evidence, reasoning to valid conclusions, and calculating the expected utility of each candidate. This view is not just outdated and simplistic; it loses elections. Real people vote based not on expected policy outcomes, but on feelings of shared values, trust, and emotional identification with candidates. But while the Democrats mistakenly take their cues from the debate team, Republican consultants focus on useful lessons from marketing. They create a party brand. They emphasize values and advise candidates to project likability and trustworthiness before intellect. They tell simple stories that envelop their candidates in positive associations while tagging their opponents with negative ones.

Though Westen gives a clear-headed view of how networks of emotionally laden associations in the brain color voters’ decisions, his most valuable insights come in his examples. He dissects speeches and TV commercials from Clinton and Reagan, his two models of success, showing how each told an emotionally compelling and coherent story. And most enjoyably of all, he pulls out hilarious segments of the Bush-Gore debates in which Gore makes a very cold factual attack and Bush responds with goofy but emotionally appealing comments. Case in point: “BUSH (nodding toward Gore): Look, this is a man who has great numbers. He talks about numbers. I’m beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator. It’s fuzzy math” (First Gore-Bush debate, October 3, 2004). Just as Gore’s advisors were congratulating themselves on winning the debates, the electorate was shifting toward Bush.

Want to hear more? Check out Jonah Lehrer’s summary of one of Westen’s experiments.  For still more, go read the book!

Drew Westen is a clinical, personality, and political psychologist at Emory University. He founded Westen Strategies, a political and corporate consulting firm.

Since the publication of The Political Brain in 2007, Westen has become a mini-superstar and campaigns across the country have flocked to him for advice. The question on my mind is this: how intentionally did Obama’s team enact Westen’s principles? The vague but enthusiastic promises of “hope” and “change we can believe in” clearly worked, and not because they appealed to rationality. While Westen was not a key campaign player, he gave plenty of informal advice and I bet some of Obama’s team paid attention.

Either way, let’s not take Westen for an Obama fanboy. Here was his searing explanation for Obama’s popularity drop:

“What’s costing the president are three things: a laissez faire style of leadership that appears weak and removed to everyday Americans, a failure to articulate and defend any coherent ideological position on virtually anything, and a widespread perception that he cares more about special interests like bank, credit card, oil and coal, and health and pharmaceutical companies than he does about the people they are shafting.  The problem is not that his record is being distorted. It’s that all three have more than a grain of truth.”

All in all, I’m glad to see Westen’s book wield pertinent psychological research to great effect. Hopefully, society’s thought leaders will increasingly heed the sciences of the mind.