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As I draft this on Mother’s Day I think of my mother, who blessed me with nurturing and many other gifts, including, alas, the gift of her hearing loss . . . which she, in turn, had received from her mother. I began my memoir, A Quiet World: Living with Hearing Loss, with this recollection:

On one of those treasured visits to my parents' home on Bainbridge Island, Washington, I use a magic pad to communicate with my eighty-year-old mother, who four years previously took the final step from hearing-impaired to deaf as she gave up wearing her by then useless hearing aids.

“Do you hear anything?” I write.

“No,” she answers, her voice still strong although she cannot hear it. “Last night your Dad came in and found the T.V. blasting. Someone had left the volume way up; I didn't hear a thing.” (Indeed, my father later explained that he recently tested her hearing by sneaking up while she was reading and giving a loud clap just behind her ear. Her eye never wavered from the page.)

What is it like, I wonder. “A silent world?”

“Yes,” she replies, “it's a silent world.”

As with Mother, so, I expect, with me. I have known for many years that I am on a trajectory toward the same deafness. When tested as a teenager, my hearing pattern mimicked Mother's—an unusual “reverse slope” pattern of good hearing for high-pitched sounds and poorer hearing for low-pitched sounds (making soft male voices harder to discern than higher female voices). From upstairs, I can hear the high-pitched microwave oven timer, though my wife, Carol, snuggled beside me in bed, cannot. But I cannot recall ever hearing an owl hoot. Carol touches my leg at each hoot: “There, can you hear it?” I hear nothing.


A quarter century and more later, I continue on that trajectory, unable now (with my hearing aids out) even to hear my wife’s voice from the adjacent pillow, unless she speaks directly into my ear. In daily life I mostly cope well enough, thanks to powerful digital hearing technologies that my mother never knew. Even so, I struggle to hear amid noise—at a party, in a restaurant—or when a questioner is across a room. Like all who suffer this invisible disability, I strain to hear. I move closer. Or, with a smile and a nod, I fake hearing.


On the brighter side, the hearing loss plague has also given me an added life purpose—supporting people with hearing loss by advocating for a “hearing loop” transformation in how America provides listening assistance in public places (through this website, through three dozen articles such as this one, and via nearly 20,000 e-mails). And this advocacy led me to four years representing people with hearing loss on the advisory council of NIH’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.


There I was privileged to meet and hear from some world class hearing researchers, including the University of Iowa physician-geneticist Richard Smith, who is amassing data on the genes of many thousands of people with hearing loss. When I showed him my audiogram—my profile of hearing loss at various frequencies—he guessed that I carry a mutation on the WSF1 gene, and offered to confirm that.


So I sent in my spit tubes, and last week Smith confirmed: “You have DFNA6/14 hearing loss caused by a mutation in WFS1.”


In psychological science, we teach our students that complex traits, such as intelligence or personality, are the product of “many genes having small effects.” So this is my reminder that some important traits and medical conditions are predisposed by single genes (which my siblings and I each had a 50% chance of inheriting—with my older brother and I, among the four of us, drawing the unlucky cards).


If so, I asked: Is there not some hope that gene editing, such as with the new CRISPR technique, could prevent future hearing loss in children or young adults who carry the gene?  Yes, Smith tells me—this is, indeed, his lab’s exciting aim. Moreover, they plan to conduct the experiment by attempting the gene therapy on but one ear of each volunteer, thus enabling the other ear to serve as what we psychologists call a “within subjects control condition.”


In the meantime, I’m content to be the person Dr. Seuss described in You're Only Old Once!

           You'll be told that your hearing's so murky and muddy,

           your case calls for special intensified study.

They'll test you with noises from far and from near

and you'll get a black mark for the ones you can't hear.

Then they'll say, "My dear fellow, you're deafer than most.

But there's hope, since you're not quite as deaf as a post."

One of my favorite sources for examples of psychological concepts are comic strips. Some of them get worked into lectures, others show up on exams, and sometimes I’ll offer them for a couple points extra credit, especially for new comics that harken back to content covered earlier in the course.


Here are some May 14, 2017 comic strips that may be worth adding to your stable of examples.


The Betty comic strip gives us a wonderful example of change blindness. Junior, Betty’s son, is dinking around on his phone while explaining his generation’s amazing ability to multitask. During his explanation, Betty calls in her husband to take her place. When Junior’s attention is returned to his parent, he sees his dad and is completely unaware that he had replaced his mom.


In Frank and Ernest Frank has a young person working out on his farm. The young person, upon hearing “crop,” thinks cropping photos instead of crops that are planted. For someone who spends a lot of time in the digital world instead of a farming world, that person would be primed to interpret “crop” as photo manipulation.


Frazz gives us commentary on the positive reinforcement provided by smartphones. Pick up your smartphone to get a jolt of pleasure in some form – text messages, phone calls, games, social media updates. Caulfield, the boy in the strip, says that his dad “calls them dopamine pumps.” (If you want to dive deeper into smartphone use, I wrote a post on stress and smartphones a few months ago.)


Bonus comic strip. My favorite classical conditioning comic strip comes from Lio (November 14, 2009). A monster replaces Pavlov’s dogs, “Monsta Treats” replace meat powder, and the sound of a ripping bag replaces the tone.


Do you have any favorite comic strips that illustrate psychological concepts?


“Egocentricism,” as every psychology student has read, was Jean Piaget’s description of preschoolers’ inability to take another person’s perspective. The child standing between you and the TV just can’t see your perspective.


And it’s not just children. As Nathan DeWall and I explain in Psychology, 11th Edition,

Even we adults may overestimate the extent to which others share our opinions and perspectives, a trait known as the curse of knowledge. We assume that something will be clear to others if it is clear to us, or that email recipients will “hear” our “just kidding” intent (Epley et al., 2004; Kruger et al., 2005). Perhaps you can recall asking someone to guess a simple tune such as “Happy Birthday” as you clapped or tapped it out. With the tune in your head, it seemed so obvious! But you suffered the egocentric curse of knowledge, by assuming that what was in your head was also in someone else’s.


In the May/June Scientific American Mind (alas, its last print issue), Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik describe a “Venus effect” (previously noted by University of Liverpool psychologist Marco Bertamini and his colleagues). In various art depictions, the grand masters have depicted their subjects looking toward a mirror.

Reubens' "Venus in Front of a Mirror"

Veláquez's "Rokeby Venus"                              

Many people presume that Venus, in the image above, is looking at (and admiring) herself in the mirror. If that was your surmise (as it was mine, when viewing “Rokeby Venus”), then you are not taking her perspective. Think: If you, from your viewing perspective, can see her face in the mirror, then she must see yours (not hers). It’s akin to being a backseat car passenger and seeing the driver’s face in the mirror—which tells you that the driver sees your face in the same mirror.


As the Venus effect reminds us, egocentricism is not just for children.

After covering sensation and perception, take students back to 2015.

The Dress


In case you missed it, this was the image that blew up social media in February of that year. Viewers were divided into two camps. Some saw the dress as blue/black while others saw it as gold/white. These discussions were not about whether a color was more blue or more purple. People were talking about very different perceptions. Friends and family got into arguments because each camp thought they were being gaslighted by the other. [Side note. The term gaslight, in this context, comes to us from a 1938 play which became a 1944 movie.]


What color is the real dress? Blue/black. But before the blue/black perceivers cheer for being right, the image of The Dress that falls on our retinas is more complicated than that. It turns out that both the blue/black and gold/white perceivers are right, that is, in terms of which light waves our eyes pick up. Oh. And if you perceive it as blue/brown, you’re not alone, but there aren’t that many of you.


But first, why such different perceptions? Our sensation and perception colleagues identified an assumption that our brains had to make. Some of us assumed that The Dress was lit by artificial, yellow light, the kind of light we get indoors. Others of us assumed that The Dress was lit by natural, blue light, the kind of light we get outdoors.


When we assume yellow light, our brains subtract yellow from the light wave data our eyes send to our brains. With the yellow removed, The Dress is perceived as blue/black.


When we assume blue light, our brains subtract blue from the light wave data. With blue removed, The Dress is perceived as gold/white.


Where does blue/brown come from? Those perceivers are splitting the difference. They’re subtracting a little yellow and a little blue.


ASAP Science did a nice 2-minute video on how this – color constancy – works.

A closer look at The Dress

You can show students exactly what their eyes are seeing, before the brain subtracts a color.


On your classroom computer, right-click on the photo of this dress, and select “Copy image address.” Visit the LunaPic website. In the “Open from URL” box, paste the image address. On the far left side of the page you will see a toolbar. Click anywhere over there to enter editing mode. From that toolbar, choose the eyedropper; it’s the ninth icon from the top. Click anywhere on The Dress to see the color of that spot displayed at the top of the page. Click the eyedropper again and choose another spot. When you click on a blue/white band, the color is actually a slate gray. If our brains subtract yellow, we perceive the color as bluer than it is. If our brains subtract blue, we perceive the color as whiter than it is. Use the eyedropper to sample from the black/gold bands. They are a goldish brown. If our brains subtract yellow, we perceive the color as black. If our brains subtract blue, we perceive the color as yellow-gold.


Who is more likely to perceive it one way and not another way and why?

But none of that answers the question of why some people are more likely to assume yellow light while others are more likely to assume natural light. One hypothesis is that those who spend more of their day inside under artificial lights are more likely to subtract yellow and see a blue/black dress. Those who spend more of their day outside or inside spaces with a lot of natural light – think skylights and large windows – are more likely to subtract blue and see a gold/white dress.

Survey research has found that “[o]lder people and women were more likely to report seeing ‘The Dress’ as white and gold, while younger people were more likely to say that it was black and blue” (Cell Press, 2015). Ask your students to work in pairs or small groups to generate some hypotheses as to why this is the case. Ask volunteers to report their hypotheses. For example, is it a cohort effect for age? Did older people spend more of their childhoods outdoors than today’s youth and therefore more likely to assume blue light? Teenagers are also more likely to be “owls.”


Psychological scientist Pascal Wallisch reasoned that “owls” – people who get up late and go to bed late – would experience more yellow light and, thus, would be more likely to perceive The Dress as blue/black. Conversely, he expected “larks” – people who get up early and go to bed early – would experience more blue light and, thus, would be more likely to perceive The Dress as gold/white. He found a statistically significant difference between the owls and larks in their perceptions of The Dress, but the differences weren’t huge. In other words, it appears that this is one factor, but not the only factor, that influences our assumptions about the lighting (Wallisch, 2017).



Remind students that color does not exist outside of our brains. Outside, it’s light waves. Our eyes convert those light waves into neural signals. Our brain takes those neural signals and uses them in combination with other factors, like the surrounding colors and assumptions about the environment, to create the color that we see.  

Macmillan Learning is proud to announce that Psychology 4e and Introducing Psychology 3e author Daniel L. Schacter (Harvard University) will be receiving the William James Fellow Award at the Association for Psychological Science Annual Convention in Boston.


The William James Fellow award recognizes individuals who have used their professional careers to make profound contributions to the science of psychology. The groundbreaking work Schacter has done over the past 35 years on the triumphs and failures of memory has exhibited the very nature of memory. Schacter has aptly titled his award “Adaptive Constructive Processes in Memory and Imagination,” as he has explored how memory works as a cognitive “virtual reality simulator” by taking past events as a way of imaging the future.


Attending APS in Boston this May? Join us on Friday May 26 at 4:15pm at the Worth Publishers/Macmillan Learning booth, #410 to congratulate Schacter on his achievements. Coffee and refreshments will be served.

David Myers

Women, Interrupted

Posted by David Myers Expert Apr 27, 2017

In Psychology, 11th Edition, Nathan DeWall and I report that “In everyday behavior, men tend to act as powerful people often do: talking assertively, interrupting, initiating touches, and staring.” Women tend to be less interruptive, more sensitive, and to speak with more qualifications and hedges.


Have you noticed this phenomenon in conversation or meetings?


A fresh example of men’s more intrusive speech comes from Tonja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers’ forthcoming analysis of U.S. Supreme Court interruptions by (and of) male and female justices. Their finding: “Women [were] interrupted at disproportionate rates by their male colleagues.”


Setting aside the contentious relationship between the late Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer, the three most interrupted justices were the court’s three women justices. But these are all progressive judges, so was this instead an ideology difference, with conservative (mostly male) justices interrupting liberal (mostly female) justices? Apparently not. Looking farther back, the moderate conservative Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was interrupted 2.8 times as frequently as her average male colleague.


“I don’t think that a lot of men notice that they’re doing this,” observed Jacobi.

In today’s tech world, many students come equipped with laptops for “taking notes.” Actually, as I noted in an earlier blog post, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer have found that when it comes to remembering and applying concepts, “the pen is mightier than the keyboard.” With laptops, it is easy to take verbatim notes. When writing longhand, students more actively process the material, summarize it in their own words, and learn it more deeply.

FatCamera/Getty Images

 And as students sitting near the back of the classroom can vouch, their peers often aren’t taking notes. They’re checking Facebook, playing games, messaging, online shopping, and information searching (stimulated by the class, we can hope). So, does this multitasking during class time exact a cost?   


When surveyed, students “report little or no effect of their portable device use on learning class material,” report Susan Ravizza, Mitchell Uitvlugt, and Kimberly Fenn from prior studies.


Really? To assess that presumption, Ravizza et al. secured the permission of 84 Michigan State introductory psychology students to have their class-time Internet use monitored. (The students afterward reported that their use was unaffected by the confidential monitoring.)


The results: During the 110 minute class, the average student did nonclass-related Internet browsing for 37 minutes. And the more the Internet use, the lower the final exam score—even after controlling for students’ intelligence (ACT score), motivation, and course interest.


The bottom line: “These findings raise questions” about encouraging students to bring laptops to class when not essential to class activities.

I never used to cover sleep, but once it became clear that so many students weren’t getting enough sleep, I started talking about it – at length. I had the same experience with stress. The stress and coping chapter was one I typically skipped in Intro, until I opened my eyes to the stress my students were feeling combined with the lack of good coping skills.


And now I’m back in that very same boat but this time it’s the number of drug overdoses.


Invite your students to visit The New York Times article “You Draw It: Just How Bad Is the Drug Overdose Epidemic [in the United States]?”[Shout out to Ruth Frickle for sending me this article!] and complete each of the graphs to illustrate their best guesses on how, in the US, the number of deaths due to car accidents, deaths from guns, deaths from HIV, and deaths from drug overdoses has changed since 1990. After students draw on each graph, ask them to click the “Show me how I did” button. Next, ask students to calculate how far off they were.


For each graph, write down your guess. If you underestimated, subtract your guess from the actual number, write down how much you were off, and note that you underestimated. If you overestimated, subtract the actual number of deaths from your guess, write down how much you were off, and note that you overestimated.


After pressing each “Show me how I did” button, text appears explaining the hypothesized causes for the change in the number of deaths. Ask students to read the text following the drug abuse graph, and identify the possible reasons for the steep climb in overdose deaths and identify the ways that have been suggested to reduce the number of deaths.


In class, by a show of hands (or using a clicker system), ask students if they were the farthest off on death by car accident? Death from guns? Death by HIV? Or death by drug overdose? (If you’ve covered the availability heuristic, now is a nice time to revisit that concept? “What type of deaths do you hear the most about? Did those deaths receive your highest guesses?” Or if you’re not ready to tackle drug abuse as a topic, use this as an availability heuristic example to help students be more aware of the issue.)


If time allows, invite students to discuss in pairs or small groups how researchers could investigate the effectiveness of each drug overdose prevention proposal. If you’d like to use this as a research methods booster, give each group one of the five prevention proposals given near the end of the article. Ask each group to write the proposal as an hypothesis, e.g., If there were “tighter regulation of prescription opioids,” then the number of drug overdose deaths would decrease (or the rate of increase in drug overdose deaths would be slowed). Each group should then identify the independent variable (including experimental and control conditions) and the dependent variable, including operational definitions, and identify any ethical concerns in doing this research.


In whatever context you choose to discuss this topic be aware that some of your students may have experience with drug overdoses. They, themselves, may have had an overdose, or they may have a friend or family who overdosed and who may have died as a result.

David Myers

Celebrating Tom Ludwig

Posted by David Myers Expert Apr 13, 2017

All good things must come to an end, and few things have been as good as my colleague Tom Ludwig’s 40-year career, which culminates with his Hope College retirement this Spring.


Not only is Tom a superb teacher and a kind and helpful colleague/friend, he is also a self-taught creator of multiple digital resources for the teaching of psychology. Over 30 years he has created multiple editions of PsychSim, as well as PsychQuest, PsychOnline, PsychInquiry, Exploring Human Development, Active Psych, and, most recently, Concepts in Action. In recognition of his creative work, he has received national and international awards, including what I call the teaching of psychology “Heisman Trophy”—the annual American Psychological Foundation Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award.


In this new Hope College press release, Tom reflects on his career and his passion for teaching and technology. What fewer people know is that Tom is a master of other things as well. To name a few, Tom knows ancient biblical languages, has been the interim president of a Lutheran seminary, has assembled his own furnace and constructed his own kitchen, speaks German, and wrote a computer program to teach himself Japanese Kanji characters before a sojourn in Japan.


Tom Ludwig, who has new fields yet to plow outside the classroom, is one of the most brilliant, as well as nicest, human beings I have known . . . and someone whose birthday our department lovingly celebrated this week.

Federico Babina is a graphic designer and architect. He has created a series of 16 images, collectively called Archiatric, that are a depiction of different psychological disorders. Visit Babina’s Archiatric page and click through each image. [Shout out to Lisa Thompson Potgieter for sharing these prints on the AP Psych Teachers Facebook page!]


After covering disorders, show students this compilation of all 16 images (you can buy the print) and give students an alphabetized list of the disorders depicted.





Bipolar Disorder



Dissociative Disorders


Eating Disorder

Gender Disorder



Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder





Ask students to work in pairs or small groups to match each disorder to Babina’s depiction and provide a short justification for why they matched each disorder with that particular image. Once group discussion abates, starting with the top left corner, ask student groups to volunteer their guesses and why. Then reveal the disorder Babina matched with that image.


The danger in using images like these to depict complex experiences is that they, by their very nature, oversimplify the experience. For example, the image used to depict obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) captures the need for order sometimes seen in OCD, but it doesn’t capture other common symptoms such as cleaning, checking, and counting.


As you identify the disorder that matches the image, ask students how the images depict the disorder. And, more importantly, ask students what symptoms of the disorder are NOT depicted in the image.


[Thank you to Susan Nolan, special consultant on this post!]

On the Society for the Teaching of Psychology Facebook page, Cait Alice was asking for advice on how to handle a student’s misconception of how gender works. Allison Matthews recommended the gender unicorn created by the Trans Student Educational Resources group*. 


If you’d like to turn this into a class activity, identify how many groups of 3 you will have in your class. Let’s say 16. Print out 16 copies, and then mark different spots on each continuum for each group.


Show students one as an example of what you are asking them to do. Using the graphic above, explain to students that the person identifies primarily as a woman who dresses and acts more masculine than feminine, whose assigned sex was female, and who is not physically attracted to anyone but is emotionally attracted to men and women with a slight preference for the former.


Distribute the marked up gender unicorn handouts to your student groups, asking each group to describe their person. Walk around to each of the groups answering any questions they have. After discussion dies down, ask groups to pair up to share their descriptions.


If time allows, invite a few volunteers to display their gender unicorn on the classroom’s document camera and describe their person.


As a wrap-up to the activity, encourage students to think about where they fall on each of the gender unicorn dimensions – although your students probably already did this as soon as you showed them the infographic. Give each student an unmarked copy of the infographic to share with friends and family.


* This is an edited post. The original post featured the Genderbread Person ostensibly created by Sam Killermann. A few people, including Allison Matthews, reported a concern with accusations of plagiarism by Killermann. A friend and colleague shared with me this analysis of the plagiarism accusation. Because of the potential issues with plagiarism, I've decided to use an image created by "the only national organization entirely led by trans youth."

When I cover monocular cues in the perception section of Intro Psych, I like to show students a few photos and have them identify the monocular cues in the photos. This also works as a small group activity – put a photo up on the screen, ask students to huddle up and identify as many monocular cues as they can, then ask volunteers to identify the cues they found.


This is a nice way to show travel photos and give students who haven’t traveled much a different view of the world. The Association for Psychological Science held their 2017 International Conference on Psychological Science in Vienna, Austria. As we’ve been out and about, I’ve been looking for good monocular cue photo opportunities.

Entrance to Hofsburg Palace

In the photo above we see the entrance to the Hofburg Palace. The buildings and the cobblestones provide linear perspective. The streetlight on the right and the streetlight farther down on the left, as do the people, illustrate relative size. Relative height -- the bottom of the image is closer to us and the middle of the image is farther away. Interposition (overlap) can be seen with the people, the streetlights, the wires hanging across the walkway. In the cobblestones, you can see every nook and cranny in the ones up close, but as texture gradient tells us, the cobblestones that appear smoother are farther away.

Largest synagogue in Vienna, Austria


In this photo, the building at the end of the street on the right is the biggest synagogue in Vienna. It survived WWII by looking like any other apartment building.

  • Linear perspective: cobblestones, buildings
  • Relative size: windows
  • Relative height: cobblestones (the closer ones are lower in the field of vision)
  • Interposition: the person overlaps the building
  • Texture gradient: cobblestones (closer ones are more distinct)


Vienna Opera House

This photo is part of the Vienna State Opera. The building was completed in 1869.

  • Linear perspective: columns become narrower
  • Relative size: tables and chairs, lights
  • Relative height: cobblestones (the closer ones are lower in the field of vision)
  • Interposition: the chairs overlap each other
  • Texture gradient: cobblestones (closer ones are more distinct)


While you are certainly welcome to use my photos to illustrate monocular cues, consider working in a few shots on your next trip.

David Myers

Living Well in Sydney

Posted by David Myers Expert Mar 27, 2017

Here are three random scenes from University of New South Wales’ 19th Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology, which recently assembled sixteen scholars from around the world to share their insights on “The Social Psychology of Living Well.”


Roy Baumeister (Florida State & Queensland) documented the overlap between a happy and a meaningful life, but then identified separate predictors of a) happiness and b) meaningfulness.



Bill von Hippel (Queensland) explored what evolutionary theory can tell us about our basic human needs—how humans have flourished in the past and are disposed to a good life today.


Barbara Fredrickson’s (University of North Carolina) research has turned to examining the biological underpinnings of positive well-being and purpose.


Other contributors:

  • Yair Amichai-Hamburger  (IDC Herzliya, Israel) reviewed the social consequences of today’s age of the Internet and social media.
  • William Crano (Claremont) provided data from a large, longitudinal study of the associations of parenting with adolescent substance use.
  • Elizabeth Dunn (University of British Columbia) presented her recent experiments on the social and mood consequences of people using vs. not using smart phones (while crossing campus, eating with friends, etc.).
  • Klaus Fiedler (University of Heidelberg) offered an analysis of underlying adaptive principles pertinent to the good life.
  • Joseph Forgas (University of New South Wales) was the conference host.   He also shared his continuing work on the benefits of negative affect for human flourishing.
  • Shelly Gable (University of California, Santa Barbara) described her studies of satisfying and meaningful close relationships.
  • Felicia Huppert (Australian Catholic University) emphasized the contribution of mindfulness and compassion to living well.
  • Sonja Lyubomirsky (University of California, Riverside), author of excellent trade books on happiness, spoke on the benefits of happiness and what contributes to it.
  • Constantine Sedikides (University of Southhampton) described his creative work on nostalgia, as a positive experience.
  • James Shah (Duke University) spoke on the regulatory pleasure and purpose of a good life.
  • Ken Sheldon (University of Missouri) critiqued the sometimes ill-defined concept of eudaimonic well-being”and called for agreed-upon measures that define subject well-being.
  • Jeffry Simpson (University of Minnesota) presented the latest data from a long-term study of how preschoolers’attachment and parental care predicts their health 30 years later.
  • And yours truly presented the“religious engagement paradox”-- the curious tendency, on measures of happiness, health, and altruism, for religious individuals to be flourishing, but for lesser flourishing in religious places (countries, states).
David Myers

Musings on Sport and Life

Posted by David Myers Expert Mar 17, 2017

For us college basketball enthusiasts, March Madness is here! As their fan, I was delighted when my college’s men’s and women’s teams progress through the NCAA Division III tournament‘s first two rounds to the “Sweet 16.” Alas, both Hope College teams then saw seeming victories snatched in the final seconds by the jaws of defeat.


The disappointing results prompted some morning-after reflections on the parallels between sport and life. As stage theater reenacts the dramas of everyday life, so the sports arena offers a microcosm of life itself.


Identity. As social animals, we live in groups, cheer on our groups, sacrifice for our groups. Our groups help define who we are, and who we are not. Our ancestors, knowing that there was sustenance and safety in solidarity, divided the world into “us” and “them,” reserving their most intense rivalry for those “others” closest at hand. As Freud observed, “Of two neighboring towns, each is the other’s most jealous rival.” The pleasures and passions of sport express our group identities.


Grit. Disciplined effort + a belief in one’s possibilities = excellence. Whether a point guard or a pianist, preparation seasoned with inspiration prepares one for the big stage moment. Persist in striving for excellence, without being derailed by setbacks, and we may achieve great things.


Mistakes. Yet, no matter the effort and the excellence, mistakes will happen. No one—no athlete, no musician, no business person—is perfect. Our aim in life can never be flawlessness, but rather having our good judgments vastly exceed our missteps.


Chance. After thousands of hours of preparation, a single shot that rattles in or out, a rebound that caroms to one’s teammate or the opponent, proves decisive. And so in life. Two intersecting cars meet at the same freakish moment and a life is snuffed. Two people arbitrarily cross paths, and a lifelong partnership forms.


Possibilities. In sport and in life, the possibility of a bad outcome makes a good outcome more gratifying. The darkness of night defines the light of day. Experiencing sickness helps us appreciate health. The pain of separation enables the joy of reunion. There is little pleasure in good endings apart from the ever-present possibility of the bad.


Death. College seniors on 63 of 64 teams entering the NCAA basketball tournaments will find their sporting lives ending in defeat, the death of their dreams. And so in life, which always ends in death.


Hope. Even so, many of us live with hope that on death’s other side is a new beginning. For the returning athletes and their fans there is next year. And for the senior athletes, there is a developed capacity for self-discipline and teamwork that—applied to new life goals—will take them to new and bigger life successes.

If the hardiest weed in our cognitive neuroscience garden is that “we only use 10 percent of our brains,” the next hardiest weed is this myth: “All our past experience is ‘in there’ and potentially retrievable by hypnosis or brain stimulation.”


I could almost believe this, after marveling at my aging mother-in-law, a retired pianist and organist. At age 88, her blind eyes could no longer read music. But sitting at a keyboard, she could flawlessly play hundreds of hymns, even ones she had not thought of for 20 years.


How and where did her brain store those myriad notes? For a time, some surgeons and memory researchers marveled at patients’ apparently vivid memories triggered by brain stimulation during surgery. Did this prove that our whole past, not just well-practiced music, is “in there,” in complete detail, just waiting to be relived?


That’s what neurosurgeon Ben Carson presumed in this 2013 tweet:

And that’s what he said again on March 6th in his first speech as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: “I could take the oldest person here, make a hole right here on the side of the head, and put some depth electrodes into their hippocampus and stimulate, and they would be able to recite back to you verbatim a book they read 60 years ago. It’s all there; it doesn’t go away.”


Alas, everything is wrong about this. Our flawed memories, as every introductory psychology student learns, are constructions that incorporate both our past and recent experiences. Moreover, the hippocampus, while a vital part of our memory processing, is not a long-term computer memory stick.


And about those brain-stimulated memory flashbacks . . . . As Elizabeth Loftus has reported, they appear invented, not a vivid reliving of long-forgotten experiences.


But our memory imperfections have a silver lining. As Williams James wrote in Principles of Psychology, “If we remembered everything, we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing.” To discard the clutter of useless or out-of-date information—where we parked the car yesterday or our old phone number—is surely a blessing. So be glad that neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who knows a lot, is wrong about memory.