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Monday, August 13, 2012 - Page updated at 08:00 p.m.
Coolest app might be in your brain
By Jerry Large
Seattle Times staff columnist
A lot of times when I think about progress, its face is technological. Maybe like a lot of people, I'm fascinated by the latest gadget. How much attention do we pay to each version of the smartphone?
But the future is not just about inventing new technology, it's also about upgrading ourselves — about putting to good use what we're learning about our own brains.
I've been reading about sex and perception, and a couple of ideas that could improve teaching, medicine and other professions, too.
Of course, this caught my eye: "feeling fat may make you fat." It was the headline on a report from Norway, where researchers questioned more than a thousand teenagers of normal weight about their size.
The first survey was conducted in the 1990s and the same students were surveyed again when they were in their mid-20s.
Most of the subjects who thought they were overweight when they were teens were much more likely to become overweight as adults than those who had not called themselves fat as teens.
The researchers said the stress of feeling overweight can contribute to weight gain, and efforts to lose weight can backfire by leading people away from healthy eating patterns.
Girls in the study were especially likely to feel fat — something researchers blamed on society's obsession with female bodies and with thinness.
Thin isn't favored by everyone, though. A study published in the online scientific journal PLoS ONE (for Public Library of Science) found that men who are under stress prefer heavier women than men who are not as stressed. The stressed men also found a broader spectrum of female body types attractive.
Men who have money and status are less affected. Earlier studies of mate selection when men face threatening and uncertain conditions have shown that high-status men don't usually change their preference in women.
While preferences by size may vary, one thing does not. A study that got lots of attention last month found that the brains of both men and women process images of men as complete persons, but focus on women as body parts.
That is the brain's default, but it doesn't excuse media and social excesses in objectifying women.
We can do better, because learning is also a strong human trait.
I just saw a study that suggests a way to improve teaching that teachers might like.
Researchers at the University of Chicago took advantage of the brain's strong aversion to the loss of anything it values.
They gave teachers a bonus at the beginning of the school year and told them they would have to give the money back if student performance didn't improve.
By the end of the year, students did significantly better on an academic test than demographically similar students. The experiment was done in a high-poverty district.
Previous studies have shown that the lure of a reward at the end of a successful year produced no academic gains. The fear of losing what we already have motivates people more.
There are lots of ways to improve performance by taking advantage of what we know about how the brain works.
At Pennsylvania State University, researchers in the College of Medicine gave the brains of midcareer physicians a jolt by having them do literary criticism.
Doctors met every other week. They talked about the portrayal of medical topics in various literary forms. They wrote original pieces and critiqued each other's work. Some even published what they'd written. And they felt renewed creativity in their medical work.
A Penn State news release on the experiment quoted Kimberly Meyers, a humanities professor, who said "The process of literary analysis, which is both methodical and intuitive, helps to sharpen the cognitive processes inherent in medical diagnosis and treatment."
We've barely begun to to get a handle on it, but we stand to get more benefit from better brain management than we might from some cool new app.
Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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