March PsychNotes

What is green and pecks on trees? Woody the Woodpickle. (That joke never fails with kids.) Here are some goodies from last month, including studies on woodpecker brain damage, preventing extramarital affairs, and why your brain might not trust certain people.

1) Woodpecker Brain Damage
The brains of woodpeckers experience 1,200-1,400 g’s when they’re pecking. (It doesn’t usually happen when they’re just standing around.) That’s about 20 times the force that would cause concussion in a human brain. While people have long been modeling safety equipment after woodpecker anatomy, only recently has someone said, “Hey, maybe we should investigate whether woodpeckers actually escape brain injury.” It turns out they show signs of what would equate to brain injury in humans, but it’s unclear what that means for woodpeckers. Finding the answer could help treat human brain injury.

2) What Big Inner Ears You Have!
Speaking of what we can learn from animal noggins, did you ever notice how cheetahs keep their eyes steady and locked on their prey, even at 60 mph? Why don’t their heads bounce around when their entire bodies are flexing and bounding like mad? The secret is in their uniquely large inner ears. Also, cheetahs don’t roar. They chirp. Who knew, besides all the cheetahs?

3) Mandatory Valentine’s Day Study
From Florida State University, some tips on avoiding infidelity. The primary finding is that faithful partners stay faithful by quickly downgrading and disengaging from potential partners. There are some other interesting bits, like this one: “Men who reported having more short-term sexual partners prior to marriage were more likely to have an affair, while the opposite was true for women.”

4) Stopping What You Started, Part II
Back in January I linked to this study on the difficulty of stopping an action that has already been initiated. (Think of trying to stop mid-stride when you notice you’re about to step into a puddle.) Here’s a fascinating little follow-on: it’s easier to stop an action if there’s a surprise stimulus, such as a cat hissing when you reach to pet it. The researchers framed this as a survival instinct that bypasses conscious processes, presumably of the type that make it difficult to interrupt stepping into a puddle.

5) Trust (Your Instincts) but Verify (Your Instincts)
How do you decide who’s trustworthy and who isn’t? This study suggests we aren’t as rational as we might like to be, and our brains steer us toward (or away from) people who merely resemble trustworthy (or untrustworthy) people from our past. According to one of the authors, “We make decisions about a stranger’s reputation without any direct or explicit information about them based on their similarity to others we’ve encountered, even when we’re unaware of this resemblance.” That might be a handy bit of information the next time you go to buy a car.

Happy March! See you next time.