The Brain’s On and Off Switch for Good Parenting

From an evolutionary perspective, the goal of any organism is to pass genetic material into future generations. We’re “wired” for procreation, but until now, what that exactly that wiring looks like has been opaque. Last week, Harvard biologist Catherine Dulac won the Breakthrough Prize for discovering the neural circuits that drive parenting behavior.

For the first time, we are able to deconstruct mechanisms in our brains that orchestrate parental behavior. Studying mice, Dulac and her team discovered over 20 distinct parts of the brain integrated in this circuitry. These distinct groups of cells in the parenting-control hubs trigger all sorts of changes in the brain. Beyond the hormonal changes you might aspect, the brain also changes circuits associated with motivation and behavior.

From this research, we can begin to understand things like biological differences between male and female brains in relation to parenting, aggression, and social relationships.

Dulac found that all female mice exhibited maternal behaviors, regardless of is they are themselves parents. Male mice, however, only exhibit parenting instincts unless they have recently mated. Between the time of mating until after potential offspring would be born (for mice, this is about 3 weeks), males lose their aggression toward babies and instead spend their time building nests and grooming the pups.

Dulac discovered a signaling molecule called galanin was found in all of the brain areas changed when a mouse became a parent. Galanin, interestingly, is dedicated to motor control. And, when Dulac’s team activated these galanin-producing neurons, mice increased their behaviors of caring for pups. Even virgin male mice began grooming baby mice. The galanin neurons also triggered parents to focus on their offspring more and pay less attention to other adult mice.

Fascinatingly, Dulac’s team concluded, they “found no dramatic difference in the wiring of parenting circuitry between males and females.” The same alterations in circuitry produce similar behavioral outcomes, regardless of sex.

Where is this research going? Evolutionarily and anecdotally, parenting requires huge efforts and costs. Parents must feed, educate, and protect their children, which requires constant resource investment and attention.

And yet, parenting is rewarding and good parenting promotes the survival and well-being of offspring. As such, learning more about the complex circuitry responsible for producing parenting behaviors is critical to providing insight into what drives us to be attentive parents.

Continued research in this field may help us become more effective parents, better prepare us for the changes parenting brings, and even combat the stress and anxiety of becoming a parent. We may build healthier relationships and interactions between parents and children.

Congratulations Dr. Dulac and thank you for this incredible contribution!

Climate Change and Analogs of the Unprecedented

How do we think about combatting climate change? For years, politicians have argued World War II mobilization “provides lessons about how the economy could be transformed,” and “provides a basis for optimism that environmental changes challenges can be met.”[1] co-founded Bill McKibben similarly argues, “we’re under attack from climate change – and your only hope is to mobilize like we did in WWII.”[2] Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez infused the Green New Deal with nostalgic rhetoric harkening back pre-war zeitgeist, calling for  “mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal era.”[3]

Beyond World War, climate action has been compared with sending a man to the moon, disasters like the sinking of the Titanic, and social dynamics at a dinner party. Yet none of these analogs seem totally satisfying or offer much in the vein of comprehensive action. In what follows, I will argue that mitigating climate change is not a battle to be won, an achievement signifying American superiority, or a social event, but rather must be a revolution. I will first establish the grounds for analogizing to drive policy. Next, I will evaluate the key characteristics of climate change that should be taken into account when constructing useful analogies. Finally, I will discuss the most illustrative lessons from history we can employ in the effort to reduce its deleterious impacts. 

To protect against misuses and fallacious thinking, it is important first to consider what is and is not a valid analogy. Although I’m painfully aware citing dictionary definitions can be functionally nothing more than hackneyed rhetorical device, if we are to faithfully pursue a framework for using analogies, it is critical we can carefully determine exactly what an analogy from both an ontological and functional perspective. What is an analogy, and what is it for? An analogy is, by dictionary definition, “a comparison between two things, for the purpose of explanation or clarification; a correspondence or partial similarity.” Our first problem, then, is to determine what degree of “partial similarity” is adequate to deem two “things” as analogous. How similar two things are and how similar they must to be deemed “analogous” then is a vague predicate. Depending on the situation, scope, geography, politics, or individual personalities may be the most relevant factors. There is no discrete measurement for determining the likeness and applicability of a past event to a current challenge, but rather a spectrum of correspondence that could be defined along countless axes. 

We see several different methods for resolving this fuzziness. Ferguson and Allison suggest a systematic study in which a historian should define the most salient characteristics of a challenges and searching for “precedents and analogues” to guide policy.[4] But how do we determine which characteristics are most salient? Frank Gavin, on the other hand, proposed guidelines of looking at temporal origins, connections over space and depth, determining chronological proportionality, evaluating unintended consequences, and recognizing when policy is insignificant.[5] Similarly, May and Neustadt suggest delineating what is unclear, presumed, and similarities and differences, to apply rigor to analogizing.[6]Although certainly some analogies are “better” than others, because there is no objective calculation to determine or weight the validity of various analogies, these frameworks are critical if we aim to make logical correlations. 

Particularly important in the climate change debate is identifying why an analogy is utilized. It may seem pedantic, but I think it’s important to delineate between the uses of analogues either as an explanatory or prescriptive tool, although these two functions often are conflated and jammed into one sentence. Khong argues policymakers use analogies to justify policies as well as to perform specific cognitive functions for decision-making.[7] This is echoed in Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson’s Applied History Manifesto: “Applied history is the explicit attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices… to provide perspective, stimulate imagination, find clues about what is likely to happen, and suggest possible policy interventions.”[8] Once the validity of an analogy has been established, we may employ it to better understand the challenge at hand, explore the consequences of various policy options based on historical precedents, or both. 

Using historical analogues to make more salient our current moment and using historical analogues to directly influence policy are two fundamentally disparate notions. In the climate change debate, there are countless analogs that may be used to help policymakers understand what climate change is, which often get confused with those that may offer possible approaches to slowing the deleterious impacts of increasing global temperatures. For example, although they are both analogies for climate change, comparing the atmosphere to an ailing person with a fever offers policy-makers no insight into curbing greenhouse gas emissions and comparing climate action to fighting the Axis powers in World War II does not help us understand why the earth is warming.  

As in any other case of applied history, the objective of analogizing from the past is to drive better policy. “Good policy” should produce the best possible outcome for a designated group of people. Whether policy is servicing an individual, a school, the American populace, or all humans of the world, a policy is chosen based on an expected result. Applied history has a certain scientific sensibility about it. It is essentially a predictive effort in which an applied historian asserts a hypothesis about what will occur as a result of an intervention given certain conditions. The problem with history, though, is that experiments cannot be replicated. Interventions can be altered by the conditions of our reality are constantly in flux. There can be no control group and it would be absurd to assume repeating actions of the past would or should have the same impacts in the present and future. Historical analogizing to policy, then, is more akin to quantum physics than it is to classical mathematics as Ferguson and Allison suggest.[9] Quantum physics is about probability, not deterministic, and even if one possessed exact knowledge of a current physical system, it is impossible to accurately predict future states. If we got caught up in quantum theories, however, we would never build bridges or roads. Similarly, when applying historical analogies, policymakers don’t need perfect predictive abilities to achieve practical and meaningful insights. 

To apply a rigorous framework to the climate debate, we must first determine the most salient characteristics of the challenge. In “The Promise and Limitations of Using Analogies to Improve Decision-Relevant Understanding of Climate Change,” researchers Kaitlin Raimi, Paul Stern and Alexander Maki identify the following attributes of climate change most relevant to informing decisions: climate change is anthropogenic, progressive but at an uncertain rate, hard to reverse, may cause “extreme events of unprecedented severity,” and has linked effects that may be exacerbated or dampened exponentially.[10] The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s America’s Climate Choices adds time lags in the climate system, time lags in the human response system, varying judgements about risks, the myriad levels at which climate change decisions are made, adversity in the political milieu, and the need for global scale efforts.[11]

Climate change is likened to world war because it requires public commitment to fight, impacts every nation, drives technological innovation, and may have cataclysmic results. In article “World at War,” McKibbon asserts, “We’re used to war as a metaphor: the war on poverty, the war on drugs…. Usually this is just a rhetorical device…. But this is no metaphor. By most of the ways we measure wars, climate change is the real deal: carbon and methane are seizing territory, sowing havoc and panic, racking up casualties and destabilizing governments.”[12] Defeating the enemy of a warming Earth will require singular global focus on tackling this challenge as well as “the wholesale industrial retooling.” To mobilize for this effort, President Roosevelt used Congressional action to fund agencies like the War Production Board and Defense Plant Corporation, built factories and subsidized private industry while maintaining “robust profit controls” to cut public spending. 

Comparing climate change to war is an effective rhetorical device because it drives an emotional response while conveying a sense of urgency and the need for collective action to “win.” In a 2017 study, researchers surveyed control groups using an article that likens climate change to war and an article that likens climate change to a race to determine which strategy is most effective. They found, “Across three large sample of US participants, those who read the war metaphor consistently reported a greater sense of urgency and a greater perception of risk surrounding the issue of climate change, as well as a greater willingness to increase conservation behavior compared with those who read the race report.”[13] In their discussion, authors hypothesized these results show what framing through a war metaphor accomplishes: “it captures attention, leads people to infer risks, conveys opposition and struggle, and the need to sustain a united front to avoid destruction.”[14] If the goal is to raise awareness about climate change and precipitate action, framing the challenge through the lens of war is a useful tool. 

How much a metaphor or analogy draws attention, however, is doubtlessly important, but does not necessarily reflect the quality or prescriptive utility of a comparison. As I conducted research for this article, I was disturbed to find troves of articles that invoked wartime but contained almost no explanation of why this was a useful frame. A 2019 Washington Post article “Climate change is the next world war” called for greater media attention and public engagement but doesn’t even reference war beyond an attention grabbing title.[15] A Medium story titled “If the Climate Change Crisis were World War II, it’s 1939,” but made no attempt to discuss in what way fighting climate change was like war beyond perhaps necessitating a state of emergency.[16]

Using analogies only for their ability to catch the eye of readers and policymakers, however, can be dangerous and result in misdirected expectations and poor policy outcomes. Sure, anchoring to “war” effectively communicates the need for rapid and broad economic and social mobilization, but it ignores several important aspects of the issue. If climate change is like war, this type of rhetoric is nothing more than nationalist propaganda to sell the war effort to the populace. Fighting climate change will require global cooperation, not zero-sum competition and conflict. The war frame also creates confusion about who or what exactly the war is fighting. Are we fighting those who pollute the earth, the dangerous ramifications of climate change like wildfires, the atmosphere? War is an attractive metaphor because it catalyzes rapid action against a common enemy yet combatting climate change should not be regarded as a blitz, but rather as a fundamental shift in political, social, and economic structures. An analogy for climate change, then, should orient policymakers’ thinking along much longer time horizons. 

Framing through war implies a sense of ephemerality of the struggle, whereas keeping the earth’s temperatures from rising is a commitment that will require new and enduring paradigms. In this way, climate change is more akin to an industrial revolution. Although it may seem strange the compare fighting climate change to the industrial revolution, which sparked an era of mass pollution, I believe economic and social revolution driven by optimism rather than fear is actually more powerful. Transitioning to a low carbon global economy will require long time horizons to make meaningful changes to the economy and concerted efforts to devise technology to support it.[17] Wartime economic programs are reversed once the conflict has ended but framing through the lens of revolution will make the need for lasting change more salient in the minds of policymakers and consumers alike. We cannot afford to be bounded in our thinking by our expectations of war and must instead pursue policy that will incentivize collaboration on community and international levels to fundamentally alter society. 

In Thinking in Time, May and Neustadt warn, “Seeing the past can help one envision alternative futures. But that analysis can also be the enemy of vision. Columbus probably would have never sailed had he been more aware of the flimsiness of his premises.”[18] We may not know exactly what a low carbon future will look like, but we can make a pretty good guess of what Earth will look like if we fail to do so.  Yet, if we apply frameworks carefully and rigorously, history may still “provide a more finely tuned sense of consequences of both events and ensuing policy responses,” and “make for more deliberate, thoughtful, and successful policy.”[19] Looking at previous revolutions, we may anticipate what barriers we may face, the broad implications of reform, and what policies will help us achieve and maintain our objectives. If we use a historical sensibility responsibly, we may not only escape repeating the mistakes of our past, but also draw ever closer to achieving better outcomes in our present and future.

[1] Hugh Rockoff. 2016. “The US Economy in WWII as a Model for Coping with Climate Change.”

[2] Bill McKibben. 2016. “A World at War.” The New Republic.

[3] H. Res.

[4] Niall Ferguson and Graham Allison. 2016. “Applied History Manifesto.” Harvard Kennedy School. 

[5] Frank Gavin. 2007. “History and Policy.” 

[6] Ernest May and Neustadt. 1986. Thinking in Time. 

[7] Yuen Foong Khong. 1992. Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions in 1965. 

[8] Ferguson and Graham. 2016. “Applied History Manifesto.” 

[9] Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson. Applied History Manifesto. 

[10]Kaitlin Raimi, Paul Stern, Alexander Maki. 2017. “The Promise and Limitations of Using Analogies to Improve Decision-Relevant Understanding of Climate Change.” PLoS One.


[12] Bill McKibbon. 2016. “World at War.” The New Republic

[13] Stephen J Flusberg, Teenie Matlock and Paul Thibodeau. 2017. “Metaphors for the War (or Race) against Climate Change.” Environmental Communication. 799-780.

[14] Ibid. 

[15] Stephen Nash. 2019. “Climate change is the next world war.” Washington Post

[16] David Sag. 2016. “If the Climate Change Crisis were World War II, it’s 1939.” Medium.

[17] Peter Pearson and Timothy Foxon. 2017. “A low carbon industrial revolution? Insights and challenges from past technological and economic transformations.” Energy Policy.

[18] Ernest May and Neustadt. 1986. Thinking in Time. Xv. 

[19] Frank Gavin. History and Policy. 177. 

Major life decision ahead? Flipping a coin might help. Literally.

Staring down a major life decision, the uncertainty can be paralyzing. There’s a lot of advice out there about how to go about the decision-making. You can make a pros and cons list, consult friends and spiritual advisors, make insanely complex predictive models, or you could flip a coin.

Social psychologists and economists will tell you humans are notoriously terrible at predicting future happiness. Luckily for us humans, Dr. Steven Levitt at the National Bureau of Economic Research may have some answers to alleviate the tension:

In “Heads or Tails: The Impact of a Coin Toss on Major Life Decisions and Subsequent Happiness,“Levitt and team had over 22,500 people toss a coin to make a major life decision. And these were truly major life decisions. Some of the most common decisions the flip of a coin adjudicated included, “Should I quit my job?”, “Should I break up?”, “Should I have a child?”, “Should I get a tattoo?”, and “Where should I move to?” And then tracked which respondents made significant changes to lives in accordance to what the coin dictated.

Levitt found that the respondents who made a change in their lives were substantially happier two months and six months after the coin flip decision. That is, the individuals who were told by the coin to make a change are much more likely to be happier six months later than those who were told by the coin to maintain the status quo.

Levitt concludes, “the results of this paper suggest the presence of a substantial bias against making changes when it comes to important life decisions, as evidenced by the fact that those who do make a change report being much better off six months later… If the results are correct, then admonitions such as ‘winners never quit and quitters never win,’ may actually be extremely poor advice.”

I worry this can sound kind of nihilistic. But I don’t think it’s really suggesting our feeble mortal minds are incapable of meaningfully directing us in our lives. It’s more a reminder that there’s no way to know where we’ll be in two months or six months. It’s not a question of having free will, but a question of exercising our free will enough. “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.”

Race and voting polarization

Earlier this week, Pew Research Center published a report examining the following question: How have Americans’ perceptions of how hard it is to be a black person in this country changed depending on voting choice?

After this summer of protests, widely shared imagery of police violence against black Americans, and exhausting debates about the merit’s of “anti-racism” and “white privilege,” here’s where we are:

Basically, more democratic voters now agree that it’s more difficult to be black in America (and the magnitude of this difficulty is greater) whereas Trump supporters have remained stagnant.

It’s pretty striking to see such a significant shift in perceptions over 4 years, particularly one that seemingly only effected half the population based on politics. Setting aside the emotionality and tension surrounding the debate about race in America, this is really disturbing. This speaks to the difference in media consumption and social interaction that has contributed to the broader polarization in the United States. And, what’s more, it suggests that this polarization gap is only growing and our most fundamental perceptions about American life and becoming more and more divergent.

We need to improve our channels of communication and understanding of each other to create more compassionate communities. We need to learn how to share our experiences without accusing others or internalizing victim mentalities. We’re getting distracted focusing on the differences between us, like race and gender, that may influence the types of obstacles we are likely to face. Rather, we need to look at the system that produces such obstacles and demand more equitable and fair outcomes for all.

Thank you Pew Research for continuing this important work!

How I learn patterns may predict if I believe in God?

In a paper that came out a few days ago, Georgetown neuroscientists examine correlations between pattern-learning neural pathways and belief in God. They had subjects from the United States and Afghanistan do some pattern-learning tasks that involved blocks on screens and tapping keys and then administered surveys about their religious and existential beliefs.

The basic logic, supported by prior research, is that “order-related perceptual information processing” (looking around and figuring out what’s going on) influences what we think about the world.

Importantly, this work points to a “bottom-up learning of predictive order in the environment without conscious awareness,” meaning we are basically unaware that we are forming ideas about how the world works as we simply exist in it. Those of us who are more disposed to this type of subconscious implicit learning and pattern-building are also more likely to self-report as “intuitive,” or “knowing without knowing how one knows.” Woo woo stuff.

But that’s how intuitions work, basically. As we’re going about our days, we’re constantly devising these predictive orders to build theories about our environments. It’s how we survive.

This all ties in with the belief in God because “a core belief across major religions is that the sequence and structure of events in human lives (and in the universe more broadly) reflects an underlying order determined by the intervention of Gods.” While implicit learning patterns do not directly predict specific beliefs about particular deities, they do suggest that those who have this more automatic pattern are more likely to have a general sense in some sort of ambient order.

What this means is: “Evidence linking religious belief to IL-pat (implicit learning pattern) suggests that belief, and variation in belief, may be embedded in fundamental bottom-up perceptual processing more deeply than has previously been empirically explored.

Although they don’t bring it up in the paper, this more broadly fits into the long debated question of nature vs. nurture.

And, of course, the question remains what this automatic pattern learning and belief in order means. There are obvious real world implications (for example, if you have a ~bad feeling~ about someone, this may mildly or seriously alter how you interact with them to your benefit or detriment.) How vulnerable are our subconscious minds to committing fallacies?

Finally, thank you to Dr.’s Natalie Gallagher and Adam Weinberger for conducting this research!