Archive for January, 2012

A Look at Transgender Brains

January 4, 2012 5 comments

In a culture where transgender individuals seem misunderstood or misrepresented, 14-year-old Nicole Maines has broken societal restraints in her burgeoning journey as a transgender. Born as Wyatt Maines, Nicole and her identical twin brother Jonas were reportedly “different” from the start of their youth. As a younger boy, Nicole had expressed interests in girlish activities, such as wearing heels and playing Barbies, while Jonas had always favored sports and action. The twins’ growing differences persisted as their parents tried to evaluate the seriousness and possible consequences of Nicole’s girlish tastes. By the end of elementary school, Nicole changed her name from Wyatt and grew out her hair. Finally, the family discovered the Children’s Hospital Gender Management Services Clinic, a center that uses hormone treatment to gradually alter an individual into the opposite gender.

The clinic’s process consists of hormone suppressers that the youth takes in order to counteract the hormones released from the gender he or she was born as. These chemicals’ effects are reversible; if the patient stops consumption, he or she can undo the major consequences. Upon reaching adolescence, if the person still feels inclined to continue the process, he or she receives the unalterable treatment for the hormones of the opposite gender. The final step in the process, occurring after age 18, is the gender reassignment surgery, in which the individual comes to physically be the opposite gender.

Because she was an identical twin, Nicole offers a unique case study for the transgender population. Her circumstances allude to the longstanding debate on nature versus nurture. But while environmental and psychosocial factors may have influenced Nicole to favor the opposite gender’s tastes, it seems more likely that her state has arisen from the “nature” perspective because of the early onset of her transgender preferences.

Various studies have supported the “nature” theory of transgender alignment through observations and comparisons within the brain. In specific examples, prior post-mortem studies have demonstrated the similarities in the brains of male-to-female (MtF) transgenders and those of control females. The overall brain sizes from both of these groups are relatively smaller than that of the average male. Furthermore, particular brain structures, such as the anterior hypothalamic nucleus, have displayed greater likenesses in female and MtF brains than with males’ brains with regards to structural volume and density. (Nonetheless, such post-mortem results are ambiguous because of these MtF individuals’ estrogen-consumption that may have influenced specific brain masses either during or after the brain’s primary growth and development. In this case, the brain differences may be due to either pure “nature,” the effects of estrogen treatment, or both.)

A recent study has solved the inaccuracy caused by the estrogen-consumption of MtF transgenders. In this study, the researchers found 24 MtF transgenders who planned on taking hormone treatment in the future. The individuals qualified for the experiment if they had the sex-determining region Y (SRY) gene, which is unique to males. The brains of these 24 people were compared to the brains of female and male control groups. Because the transgenders had not received any treatment in the past, the experiment’s outcome was reliable and noteworthy.

Generally speaking, studies state that female brains—although relatively smaller than male brains—have less gray matter and more white matter due to the extra folds (fissures and sulci) in their brains. (Gray matter is the softer outer region of the brain; white matter is the slightly harder inner mass.) However, several specific structures in female brains have a greater gray matter volume than corresponding structures in male brains. The study used these particular structures in their experiment as they compared the size of each of these masses throughout the three groups. The ultimate question was whether transgender brains would show greater similarities with the brains of the initial gender (which, in this case, was male) or with the brains of the preferred gender (female).

The study revealed that all three groups had different gray matter volumes for the specified brain structures. While females had greater gray matter volume for these brain structures than those of males, transgender individuals displayed unique average gray matter volumes that correlated with neither those of the males nor females. Their gray matter volumes were generally slightly greater than the structural volumes of the control males; volumes were also more similar to the males’ than they were to the females’ structural volumes.

The main exception to this finding was the putamen, a round brain mass located near the center of the brain. The putamen, part of the basal ganglia structure, performs functions relating to motor movements and learning. The structure’s average gray matter volume in transgender individuals was far closer to the females’ average volume than the males’. As the researchers concluded, the transgenders’ putamen was one of the few structures to be so “feminized.”

The experiment was altogether interesting because it demonstrated unique differences in transgender brains that evidently occurred only by “nature,” since none of the MtF individuals had previously engaged in hormone treatment. The results proved that these transgenders’ brains were structurally similar and distinct.

Nonetheless, more must be at hand than simply “nature” superseding “nurture.” After all, Nicole Maines is a transgender, but her identical twin brother is not. Despite their matching DNA, there were probably biological, physiological, or mental differences between the twins that caused Nicole to make her decision.

Their situation thus leads us to epigenetics, a new flourishing subject in psychology and neuroscience that may explain transgender characteristics and why they might occur in only one identical twin despite their prevalently “nature” quality.

The field might explain why Nicole chose to be female before she could have had any environmental or psychosocial influence.

In the medical world, epigenetics could potentially help understand many disorders that seemingly occur by “nature.”

[To be continued.]

Emotions versus Logic


Five of your distant relatives are in a room when, suddenly, the fuse of a bomb is accidentally lit. You are on the second floor of the building, directly above your relatives’ first-story room, and you have full control in maneuvering the bomb. You may either transfer the bomb into the neighboring room of the first floor or let the bomb explode and kill those five individuals. What would you do?

Naturally, you would transfer the bomb into the neighboring room. After all, no lives are lost. Your prefrontal cortex activates as you make the simple instinctive decision to move the bomb. Specifically on the rostral side of your brain, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is triggered as your moral judgment respond to this situation.

But what if your lover were sitting in that neighboring room? Would you let five relatives die in order to save just one special individual?

Now your brain is a mess. The prefrontal cortex does not know what plan to execute because of the different brain masses that have activated in response. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex may influence you to transfer the bomb to your lover’s room. Viewing the situation logically and morally, it makes sense to kill one in order to save five. But the amygdalae—the two small portions at the middle base of the brain—ignite as they stream emotions through your brain. The fear and love muddle the prefrontal cortex’s organization and systematic thinking. The angular cingulated cortex—an elongated region on the frontal inside of the brain—magnifies the distressed emotions and activates from the moral confusion, as well. To make thinking even more difficult, your autonomic functions rise out of control from the increased stress. The medulla oblongata—located at the brainstem—quickens your breathing rate and heartbeat. You feel nauseous as digestion is momentarily halted. The reticular formation—the tissue mass at the center of the brain stem—augments your alertness as you attempt to sort through your thoughts.

With so many brain structures activated at once, it is a wonder that you are able to make the final decision at all. Yet as similar studies have shown, most people in your situation would leave the bomb as is.

In such cases, it seems that emotion trumps logic. When a student is distraught by a devastating situation and he has a test the next day, he most likely does not study. If he attempts to, he is distracted by the emotional turmoil. If a mother’s child is in the hospital, she cannot go to work. Although it may be logical (because she would otherwise just be standing around in the hospital), her love and fear for her child overpower the practicality.

With all noted, why would emotion trump logic? Is it possible that some brain tissue and regions have a stronger impact over us than other regions? Or perhaps there is more brain tissue correlating to emotion than tissue that correlates to behavior.

Why do our minds choose emotion over logic by seeming instinct? As a second thought, our minds sometimes switch to the logical option, but the emotional option inherently is the first thought in the mind. From the evolutionary standpoint, emotions are the basic characters in animals, while logic is unique to humans. Emotion is more rooted in our minds than logic is because our species has been acquiring logic over time, according to the evolutionary clock. On the other hand, emotion was established long before. This concept is physically visible too; brain tissue related to emotion is closer to the base or center of the brain while logic-pertaining tissue is generally in the outer layers, specifically in the caudal area. During humans’ biological and physiological development, this prefrontal cortex area was the last region to develop. (Ergo, since evolution is constant, this tissue related to logic may still be developing and growing.)

In any case, the forces that compel us to favor emotion over logic are very strong. They are the causes of our rash behavior and mistakes.

The seemingly careless conduct of teenagers can be explained by the differences in emotion and logic in the brain. Upon reaching the adolescence stage, an individual’s brain is almost fully developed. The main exception is the development of the prefrontal cortex, which pertains to proper judgment and decisional actions. This frontal region of the brain continues developing into the mid-20’s of an individual’s life. The cortex’s ongoing development explains why teenagers often seem rash or reckless despite their other aspects of maturity. Although their capacity of intelligence and moral values may have reached a peak, their process of decision-making is still not perfected.

The prefrontal cortex’s ongoing development in a teenager may explain why teenagers are so prone to car accidents or misuse of alcohol. Although they may feel as capable as adults, their manner of thinking often times does not reach the adult standard. Such inabilities thus bring up the age issues regarding driving and drinking. Are 16-year-olds mature enough to be driving alone if their process of thinking has not reached its peak? Alcohol brings forth an especially important concern because, by age 21, the average human brain is not fully developed. As studies have shown, alcohol could affect the post-teenage brain, as well, because of its development in progress. As a result, should the drinking age be extended to the mid-20’s? While this may be better for the brain’s development, many people may argue that, with the current drinking age, society has still produced intelligent beings. This evidence demonstrates that alcohol’s fatal mental effects during the brain’s final growth stages are not so visible.

The brain is constantly developing, whether it be through evolutionary or developmental means. The battle between emotion and logic is an enduring one; although emotion may always triumph, its unique relationship with logic has yet to be entirely unearthed.

Classifying Psychoanalysis


[A continuation to Psychology’s Development into a Science.]

A small room, furnished with homely carpets and paintings, is brightly lit and air-conditioned. An elongated leather sofa in the corner of the room faces an open window overlooking the city. An exhausted man lies on the sofa, legs crossed and arms folded, as he stares vaguely through the window. He ponders aloud about his day, indifferent to any listeners. Over time, his words scratch through the veneer of his thoughts and into his more clandestine contemplations. Behind him, a professionally dressed woman jots down notes while interjecting every so often.

The scenario is classic. It is the archetypal Freudian setting to the minutest detail. Anyone who walked in on this appointment would know it. Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s ideas have become so widespread that, even a century after their establishment, they are still recycled and debated over.

Many would argue that Freud deserved such fame. He introduced free association therapy, as aforementioned, in which a client jumps freely from thought to thought while the therapist takes notes. Freud’s thoughts on personality—largely, the superego, ego, and id—have influenced how people view the actions of others and themselves. Literary classics have been shaped by Freud’s tenets, including William Golding’s allegory Lord of the Flies, in which the author’s three main characters—Ralph, Piggy, and Jack—coincide with the representations of the ego, superego, and id, respectively.

Some of Freud’s justifications for behavior, despite their controversy, have survived the century. Although people may not be familiar with the names of the theorist’s scientific terms, they often know the intended meanings behind them. For example, Freud’s system of defensemechanisms—including repression, displacement, projection, rationalization, reaction formation, and regression—illustrates an individual’s attempt to transfer anxiety using methods of distorting reality. Projection and reaction formation are ways of viewing situations in the opposite light in order to better their appearance. Displacement and regression summarize the means in which the individual reverts to more-so immature actions in order to vent feelings.

The most well-known of the mechanisms are rationalization—in which an individual justifies his actions to feel better about them—and repression—where one dissolves all anxious thoughts and memories from consciousness. Concurring with repression, Freud’s coinage of parapraxis, the “Freudian slip,” refers to when an individual accidentally voices a repressed idea in writing or speech.

The thinker’s opinions on sexual desires were revolutionary for their time, although most are now disclaimed. He introduced the psychosexual stages of fixations throughout human development along with the Oedipus- and Electra-complex relationships between children and their parents.

Freud altogether delved into basic mental processes and related all human motives to unconscious or hidden desires. His thinking was radical, even though it was basically derived from his opinions and everyday observations. But most importantly, society connected such theoretical thinking to psychology, the “science of mental life,” according to William James. [See the previous article.]

In this sense, psychoanalysis hindered psychology’s development into a science. It would be more reasonable for psychoanalysis to instead be a subcategory of philosophy, which entails the opinions and theories on life that psychoanalysis encompasses. Because of psychoanalysis’s association with psychology, society has enslaved the latter to a humanity study that involves therapy and theorization.

On the contrary, psychology is a broader subject that can incorporate biology, chemistry, physics, or therapy, depending on the direction of focus that one chooses. Psychologists do not have to be therapists; they can specialize in neuropsychology, psychobiology, psychophysics, mathematical psychology, and more.

Many of the notions in psychoanalysis have been deemed faulty, while some people consider the entire subject flawed. The study’s views cannot be derived through scientific experimentation because they developed from mere observation and opinionated interpretations. Thus, it only makes sense that psychoanalysis be classified with the theorizations of philosophy rather than the investigations in psychology.

Freud’s psychoanalysis has caused a segment of psychology to become stale; it cannot be developed further unless it is greatly modified.

Even if Freud may not be competition for timeless philosophers Aristotle, Plato, and Locke, he most certainly does not belong with psychologists Wundt, Skinner, and Pavlov.

Toxic Chemcial may be as lethal as it is helpful

January 3, 2012 2 comments


In 2008, Chicago resident Edward Bachner was put on trial for attempting to kill his wife using tetrodotoxin (TTX), the poison ejected by a puffer fish. He placed multiple orders of the toxin to various biochemical companies, totaling about 162 milligrams of the poison. Bachner was caught before he could carry out his scheme. His plan initially seemed ill-thought-out; after all, there is a vast multitude of poisons that could have been easier to obtain.

Nevertheless, TTX is unique because of its currently incurable, quick-working effects on the nervous system. The chemical freezes muscular movement as the individual finally dies from respiration failure. However, an analysis of the drug at the neuronal level shows that small doses of this chemical could be medically advantageous.

Tetraethylammonium (TEA) is a similar chemical that may be analyzed with TTX because of the related routes that both the substances take in their method of destruction. The main difference is that TEA produces the somewhat opposite effects of TTX. Although the two do not counteract each other, both are toxic when consumed in great amounts, and both may be very helpful for the medical community in small doses.

Before considering TTX and TEA, we must look at the basic neuron action potential in order to understand how these specific toxins work.

A neuron begins at the resting potential; its membrane potential is -70 millivolts. (This potential refers to the electrical charge of the cell’s interior compared to its exterior surroundings.) During this resting potential period, a sodium-potassium pump pushes 3 Na+ ions out of the axonal membrane for every 2 K+ ions in, in order to maintain the electrical charge. The extracellular fluid has a preponderance of Cl and Na+ ions and a minority of K+ and organic ions. On the other hand, the intracellular fluid has mostly K+ and organic ions and very little of the other two ions. When a neuron receives a type of neurotransmitter from the end of another neuron, the receiver neuron’s electrical charge increases. The neuron’s Na+ ion channels are manipulated to allow Na+ ions enter the neuron and thus increase the membrane potential. However, the firing rate must first pass a certain threshold in order to make the action potential. Upon reaching this action potential, the membrane potential undergoes depolarization, meaning it becomes more positive.

The neuronal charge either changes due to ionotropic receptors (where the ion channels are directly controlled to open or close according to the received neurotransmitter’s message) or metabotropic receptors (where the accepted neurotransmitter activates G proteins, which activate an enzyme that finally controls the ion channel). The main difference between the two receptors is that the metabotropic type follows more of an indirect process than that of the ionotropic type.

Once the ion channels are under control, the post ceding process is the same for both receptor types. Sodium’s ion channel is activated first. Sodium ions enter the neuron due to diffusion and electrostatic pressure. Because of the neuron’s negative nature, the positive Na+ ions are inclined to flow into the neuron. The electrical charge increases, meaning the neuron undergoes depolarization.

Upon reaching the height of the action potential, the K+ ion channels open. In response to this event, the Na+ channels close. The K+ ions now flow out of the membrane because of diffusion forces and the now extremely positive membrane potential that must be reduced. As these K+ ions flow out, they lower the neuron’s electrical charge. The membrane potential eventually becomes negative again. Hyperpolarization consequently occurs, where the electrical charge overshoots and becomes even lower than the resting potential of -70 mV. The K+ ion channel then closes, and the sodium-potassium pump rebalances the charge by transporting 3 Na+ ions back out for every 2 K+ ions back in again.

This entire process may occur within 3 milliseconds.

TTX is a neurotoxin that blocks the Na+ ion channel, thus preventing Na+ ions from entering the neuron after an action potential has been obtained. In the long run, TTX causes paralysis because movement is not possible. The change in electrical current ignites the neuron to aid in the process of muscular movement. However, this change in electrical current cannot travel through the neuronal axon because the neurotoxin blocks the Na+ ion channels that initiate this change in charge.

In the short run, a small dose of TTX could be given to help certain disorders or physical problems. Someone whose Na+ ion channels always overshoot and overrun longer than usual could benefit from a little TTX, which would shorten the duration of the Na+ ion transfer. Visibly, this person maybe may have extended uncontrollable movements or a disorder with the effects from Tourette’s Syndrome, but instead in which such uncontrollable twitches result from the Na+ ion channels overshooting. A small dose of TTX may reduce the uncontrollability of the movements because the action potential would be maintained to the more normal standard and duration. In a similar context, an individual in intense pain may be relieved as specific neurons’ functions are temporarily shut off. Shutting off the functions may help after chemotherapy or as an anesthetic, in which most to all of the sensory neurons must be “quieted” in order to relieve the total pain.

TEA functions similarly as it blocks the subsequent K+ ion channels in the action potential process. By doing so, the chemical prevents K+ ions from flowing out of the axon after depolarization. This chemical holds the neuron back from returning to its negative resting potential because the blockage prevents the positive K+ ions from leaving the changed positively charged cell. In the long run, if the K+ ion channels are blocked, the Na+ ion channels keep running Na+ ions into the neuron until the neuron becomes overly positive and dysfunctional. But in the short term, TEA could temporarily extend the depolarization period. In some disorder with effects like those in myasthenia gravis (where the individual has periodic sluggish movements), an individual may be sluggish because his neuronal action potentials are always weak. In such a scenario, the K+ ion channels may open early, causing the membrane potential to never reach its peak—around +40 mV. In this case, TEA could delay the K+ ion channel initiation, which would thus extend the flow period of Na+ ions through their channels. Extending the period in which the Na+ ion channels are open means positive ions would continue to come into the neuron. As a result, the membrane potential would reach its peak. This normal membrane potential peak means the neuron would successfully fire and carry the message through; therefore, the individual would not have sluggish movements.

In both the cases of TTX and TEA, the dosage is very important. Especially in the case of TTX, just a little extra dose could be fatal. For that reason, it may be a while before the general public can get a prescription medication of the chemical. (Bachner managed to sneak through the restrictive regulations in obtaining TTX using an alias as a marine researcher.) The chemical would also probably need to be modified so that it could be much weaker and potentially less harmful.)

TTX and TEA are two examples of substances that can be valuable in very small quantities but lethal in anything greater.

As usual, nature has proven that the smallest things are best.

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Psychology’s Development into a Science

January 3, 2012 1 comment


In a society where psychology is still associated with Rorschach tests and Freud, it seems debatable as to whether the study has really developed into a science or whether it is still stuck in an abyss of philosophy. More likely, the general population is simply still not informed well enough about the aspects of the study.

“Psychology” translates literally to the “study of the soul,” where the Greek word psykhe means “spirit” or “soul.” On the other hand, Merriam-Webster defines psychology as “the science of mind and behavior.” Evidently, much has changed since philosopher Christian Wolff created and first used “psychology” in his 1732 publication Psychologia Empirica.

Common misconceptions in psychology are largely derived from the study’s roots in philosophy. Seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes, for example, is famous for proposing the connection between the mind and body. We now know that the mind and body do indeed associate together, but Descartes’s first theorizations of such a link were ironically not inspired by scientific discovery. They were instead procured by his arrival at the Saint-Germain royal gardens in France, where he observed hydraulically operated statues controlled by underground mechanical plates. Greatly interested by the immobile machinery that brought life to the animated sculptures, Descartes formulated his theory that paradoxically established a basis to psychology.

Soon after, British philosopher John Locke suggested the “blank slate,” the idea that humans are born with no knowledge and that their minds are “slates” onto which knowledge and experience are inscribed. Many philosophers posed varying opinions regarding Locke’s “blank slate” theory, but it was only until scientific experimenting and medical procedures that facts could be established.

In this sense, it was a kind of revolution in 1879 when Wilhelm Wundt—properly deemed the “father of experimental psychology”—created a device that determined the cumulative processing and reaction time span for a person to hear a ball hit a surface and then press a key. The experiment was conducted in Germany’s University of Leipzig, thus creating the first official psychology laboratory. Soon after, more psychology experiments and labs emerged; as an offspring of this, psychology started stemming out into diverse subcategories. Some branches—such as neuro- and developmental psychology—favored the burgeoning scientific view, while others—like the various forms of therapy—still leaned toward the philosophical roots.

In the years to come, many new scientists staked their fame. Nonetheless, most were seemingly lauded only by fellow psychologists despite the significance of their discoveries and claims. Psychologist William James, for example, made great strides when he called psychology the “science of mental life” in his 1890 book The Principles of Psychology. His new definition alone doubtlessly helped incite the notion that psychology was a science.

Ivan Pavlov contributed equally to the science of psychology as he established the common Pavlovian conditioning method. Also called classical conditioning, his experiments introduced a form of learning where one unconsciously connects a physical automatic response with a random stimulus. In his research, Pavlov played a pitch prior to feeding a dog. Upon encountering the food, the dog started salivating. The pattern was repeated several times: the tone, the food, the dog’s salivating. After continued repetition, the dog unconsciously learned to salivate at the mere sound of the tone. In this sense, the animal acquired a learned response to a stimulus that was previously deemed random and unrelated. The dog now had a conditioned response (salivating) to a conditioned stimulus (the pitch).

In essence, Pavlov’s studies introduced a novel type of learning while simultaneously opening doors to more research in sleep, mental disorders, and other concepts related to the realms of the unconscious mind. A key concept driving his direction of research was behaviorism, the idea that psychology should be objectively studied with no mention of mental processes. In other words, he believed the study should be entirely focused on the unconscious beyond-awareness aspect.

Behaviorism’s unique perspective naturally sparked debate among psychologists, and, like any other young science, psychology experienced internal conflicts and clashes. A few years after Pavlov published his first findings on classical conditioning, three German psychologists—Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Kohler—introduced Gestalt psychology. Though this theory was not direct opposition toward behaviorism, it was established around mental processing (which behaviorism avoided). Their gestaltism altogether emphasized one’s visual identification of an object’s parts in order to mentally create and comprehend the overall picture.

Wilhelm Wundt, William James, Ivan Pavlov, and Wolfgang Kohler are four noteworthy psychologists who contributed immensely to the development of psychology into a science. Yet when most people think of psychologists, Sigmund Freud is doubtlessly—and ironically—one of the first to come to mind. While Freud made his own contributions to psychology and human understanding, it is debatable as to how much forward these contributions drove psychologists and their strides to turn psychology into a science…

[To be continued.]

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Facebook and the Dopaminergic Response

January 3, 2012 3 comments


(A continuation to the previous article on Facebook.)

What is causing Facebook’s addictiveness at the neuronal level? In 1997, Dr. Wolfram Schultz of the University of Cambridge offered an answer in terms of the dopaminergic neurons located throughout the brain. These neurons fire in reward-related situations. The person first realizes that a specific reward occurs after an event. He learns to somewhat predict when the reward will come in relation to the event, and in time, his neurons fire based on their forecast of when the reward will be given. (For a simple way to reference to this, call it the learning period.) These neurons are crucial in learning new processes because they fire as they practice their prediction skills and as the learning is acquired. Once such learning is acquired, their firing response subsides.

Take Schultz’s study, for example, as he observed monkeys’ dopamine response in a conditioned stimulus and reward system. In the experiment, a light was flashed, several moments passed, and then drips of apple juice were fed to the monkey. Schultz observed the monkey’s neuronal response during the period of time in between the flash of light and the apple juice treat.

After several trials, Schultz discovered the dopamine response in the monkeys immediately after he flashed the light. In this case, the monkeys’ dopaminergic neurons were predicting when the treat would be received. Over time, this dopamine response decreased. But when the monkeys found apple juice that was not preceded by a flash of light, their dopaminergic neurons were excited again. According to Schultz, the unpredictability and surprise of the reward accounted for a dopamine response that was three to four times greater than the response that occurred during the learning period.

The release of the dopamine neurotransmitter provides a feeling of pleasure. An enormous dopamine response is far more enjoyable than just a few firings. The monkeys thus experienced far more pleasure when the apple juice reward arrived at an unpredicted time than when it arrived on schedule right after the flash of light.

Suppose that there was no flash of light at all—just the occasional random apple juice reward. The dopaminergic neurons would constantly try to decipher a pattern in the reward’s occurrence. They would be trying to fulfill and complete the learning acquisition process. They would never succeed (because there is no pattern), so they would continue firing at the apple juice’s momentary occurrence and probably a few times in between in an effort to predict a pattern.

From a parallel perspective, Facebook’s notification system may be synonymous to the randomly occurring apple juice reward. As Facebook users, we log onto the site to check for notifications. Often times, our guesses are just as inaccurate as the monkey’s random predictions for the apple juice reward.

It is impossible to know when we will receive a notification; we simply rely on a hunch. But every time we log onto Facebook, our dopaminergic neurons are firing as they attempt to discern a pattern in the reward system. It is an exciting feeling to check for Facebook notifications, but the gratification from actually receiving a notification is always greatest. In this situation, the dopaminergic neurons may be deemed useless because they never learn that there is no pattern. And of course, we or our brains cannot tell them that their efforts are useless.

Imagine there was a linkage between the conscious brain and the neuronal firing. We would be able to control how often the dopaminergic neurons fired and thus prevent them from their sporadic firing in the learning acquisition process. We could easily overcome addictions, and we would be more efficient. But would this ability really be a win-win?

With mental control over neuronal firing, Facebook would no longer be so addictive. This is the plus side. But what about other enjoyments? Would they still be as pleasurable if we could personally control how much pleasure we felt?

Unpredictability is evidently an enjoyed feature in life.

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Facebook and its Addictive Traits

January 3, 2012 2 comments


Facebook. What makes it so popular and why is it so addictive?

The social networking site continues to grow since it was created in a Harvard dormitory in 2004. With over 500 million users (according to, it has united individuals from dozens of countries into a population exceeded by only China and India. History has never seen such an incident occur; the site is translated in 70 different languages and is used via mobile by 30% of its virtual population. With over half of its users logging in on any day and over 700 minutes spent per month by the average Facebooker, there clearly must be something amiss.

What did Mark Zuckerberg and his co-founders do to make Facebook so powerful and uniting? Certainly many things but one aspect proves exceptionally interesting because of its relation to psychology.

My explanation starts with Edward L. Thorndike, whose 1898 experiment consisted of cats searching their way out of a puzzle-like maze toward a concluding reward of fish. Thorndike noted that the cats improved in performance over time. He attributed their increasing speed in completing the maze to the fish treat. The cats learned that there would be a treat at the end of the puzzle, so they worked quickly to complete it.

Upon obtaining these results, Thorndike generalized that actions followed by positive consequences are more likely to recur in an individual. Likewise, actions post ceded by unfavorable consequences will be less likely to recur. He coined the overall phenomenon the law of effect.

Following in 1961, psychologist B. F. Skinner delved more into the law of effect in terms of partial reinforcement. In this method, reinforcement—the consequence—is present but not in a 1:1 ratio to the committed action. Instead, the reinforcement schedule comes in four different options: fixed ratio, variable ratio, fixed interval, and variable interval.

In a fixed ratio plan, the individual receives the consequence periodically after completing the action a specific number of times. In Thorndike’s example, the cat would receive a fish treat every—for example—five times that it completed the puzzle maze. This schedule is effective but the desired action can disappear very easily if the reward stops coming.

In regards to the fixed interval schedule, the individual receives the consequence periodically after a specific amount of time. The cat in Thorndike’s puzzle maze may receive a fish treat every hour, regardless of the number of times it completes the puzzle. The cat will most likely learn to only complete the maze at the end of the hour in order to take the treat that is left at the end of the maze. Naturally, this schedule is very ineffective once the individual learns how long he must wait in order to receive the reward.

The variable ratio schedule has the individual receive the consequence after completing the action a random number of times. For example, Thorndike’s experimental cat may receive its first fish after completing the puzzle five times, the second fish after completing the puzzle eight more times, and the third fish after completing the puzzle four times more. This schedule is effective; in a study with pigeons, Skinner showed that this schedule can increase the number of instances that the action is performed, per unit of time, very early on in the procedure or setting.

In the variable interval schedule, the consequence is presented over random periods of time—regardless of how often the action is performed. In Thorndike’s situation, the cat may receive a fish treat after twenty minutes, a second fish after another ten minutes, and a third fish after another two minutes. This schedule is effective for the cat because the cat has to go through the maze to receive the treat at the end. (If the treat was given directly to the cat, then the schedule would become ineffective because the cat would have no motivation to go through the maze.) The individual altogether never knows when he will receive his treat.

Facebook’s foundation complies with the variable interval schedule through the site’s notification system. This system allows an individual to receive messages every time an event or action occurs in relation to him. If someone writes on the individual’s “wall”, then the latter will receive a notification that will come up when he logs onto Facebook. In this sense, a notification is the consequence—the treat—that occurs when the individual logs in. Notifications are not dependant on how often the individual logs in; they occur according to random intervals of time. The variable interval schedule is thus created.

Facebook’s addictiveness altogether proves discernable as the individual constantly logs onto the networking site (goes through the trial) to see if there are notifications (check for treats at the end of the trial’s puzzle or maze). Of course, this only explains the situation from the psychological level; there surely must be more going on at the molecular level…