Selected popular science articles

Learning When No One Is Watching

Scientific American MIND
September 2016

Imagine you are on your first visit to a foreign city—let's say Istanbul. You find your way to the metro station and stand bewildered before the ticket machine. After puzzling out how to pay your fare, you thread your way through the noisy throng and search for the train that will take you to your hotel. You move tentatively, in fits and starts, with many changes of direction. Yet after a few days of commuting by subway, you breeze through the system effortlessly. Simply by experiencing the new environment, you quickly master its complexities. How was that learning possible? The truth is, neuroscientists do not know.


A Neuroscience Perspective on Brexit

Psychology Today
June 26, 2016

A surprising outcome of my four-year investigation into the neuroscience of human aggression for my new book Why We Snap, was how the reductionist approach that I took to understand individual violent behavior in terms of the specific neural circuits responsible, exploded in scope to illuminate human aggressive behavior in mass--between groups of people, from gangs to races to nations at war.  Brexit is a recent example.


How the Brain Limited the Size of Dinosaurs

The Huffington Post
June 5, 2016

With their heads soaring 60 feet above the ground, Sauropods were gigantic animals, about the same height and length of The White House. Imagine the tremendous bone strength and muscle force required to support their 65 ton mass, equivalent to the crushing weight of a stack of 30-40 automobiles. The necks of long-necked Sauropods were 30 to 40 feet long (10-12 m), the length of the extended arm of the Statue of Liberty bearing the torch (42 feet). A massive heart would have been required to produce the 700 mm Hg pressure needed to pump blood to the Sauropod’s head; the same pressure that is exerted on your body by diving in the ocean to a depth of 30 feet (10 m).


The Neuroscience of Violence

April 29, 2016

We are on the brink of a new understanding of the neuroscience of violence. Like detectives slipping a fiber optic camera under a door, neuroscientists insert a fiber optic microcamera into the brain of an experimental animal and watch the neural circuits of rage respond during violent behavior.


The Science of Violence

Psychology Today
April 27, 2016

Violence at political rallies, terrorism, and horrifying workplace shootings bewilder us, but they shouldn’t. Traditional approaches to understanding violence seem played out. What we need is an understanding of violence at the level of brain circuitry. Violence, like all human behavior, is controlled by the brain. From the everyday road rage, to domestic violence, to a suicide bombing, the biology of anger and aggression is the root cause of most violent behavior.


Marijuana Use Increases Violent Behavior

Psychology Today
March 20, 2016

New research published online in advance of print in the journal Psychological Medicine concludes that persistent use of cannabis may cause violent behavior as a result of changes in brain function due to smoking weed over many years.


Obscure Nerve in the Head May be Important to Arousal

Scientific American
March 1, 2016

We stood around the body planning our autopsy strategy. A scalpel, we realized, was not going to be the appropriate implement for this corpose, so we made our decision.


Why We Are Prone to Sudden ‘Snaps’ of Rage and What We Can Do to Control Them

The Independent
February 2016

We like to believe that we are in control of our actions, but sometimes we are not. A sudden incident can overtake the conscious will and launch us into violent action that risks our life and limb in an instant. I know, because it happened to me.


The Explosive Mix of Sex and Violence

Psychology Today
January 26, 2016

The roving gangs of men who sexually assaulted women during the New Year’s Eve celebration in Cologne, Germany, have ignited outrage across Europe and around the world. (1)  The political implications have been much discussed, but how was this violence triggered in these individuals? These assaults illuminate a dark side of human nature: how sex and violence are interlinked in the human brain.


Why We Snap at Work

January 21, 2016

We’ve all seen it. A coworker flips out over a trivial incident and unloads an angry verbal assault on a stunned co-worker. The consequences of suddenly “losing it” in the workplace can be career changing. It is important to understand what happens in the brain when someone breaks abruptly from rational, peaceful, behavior and explodes in a blind rage as if bent on physical violence, and to appreciate why the workplace can become a common arena for snapping.


This Is Your Brain on This Election

The Daily Beast
January 17, 2016

Bloodthirsty rage appears to have swept up the American people, like mass hysteria boiling up in an angry mob. Discussions of deadly violence have become central to this presidential election season, with calls for killing in political ads and debates not just the ravings of a single fringe candidate. Gone are the intellectual arguments that have dominated our presidential debates for two centuries—this time it is the brain’s limbic system “fear center,” not the cerebral cortex, that candidates are tapping to drive public discourse.


The Science of Why People ‘Snap’ in Anger

TIME Magazine
January 14, 2016

Despite the peaceful lives we live most of the time, the human brain is hardwired for explosive violence. The neural circuits of rage react faster than the speed of thought. They have to. A mother, for example, will explode in violence to protect her child when the “hypothalamic attack region” deep in her brain senses a threat. We evolved these neural circuits for survival in the wild. We still need them.


Does TV Rot Your Brain?

Scientific American MIND
January 1, 2016

We all heard the warning as kids: “That TV will rot your brain!” You may even find yourself repeating the threat when you see young eyes glued to the tube instead of exploring the real world. The parental scolding dates back to the black-and-white days of I Love Lucy, and today concern is growing amid a flood of video streaming on portable devices. But are young minds really being harmed?


Why Binge Drinking May Wire the Brain for Alcohol Dependence

Scientific American
October 23, 2015

“Why can’t you stop drinking?” This week at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago, researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago announced a new finding that provides a fresh answer to this persistent question that plagues people addicted to alcohol. The discovery offers an entirely new approach to treatment.