Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall: How mirror neurons are reflected in Tris.

As promised, I hope to eventually get up a few posts about the neuroscience of Divergent.  First up…  mirror neurons.

Jeanine has her faults, of course, but she and her colleagues do a pretty good job of explaining what they are in Insurgent.  First discovered in monkeys in the early 1990’s, mirror neurons are in the motor control areas that fired both when the monkey did a specific action (like reaching for a peanut) and when the monkey saw another monkey (or human reasearcher) perform the task.  The first definitive recordings of mirror neurons in humans were made in 2010. In humans, mirror neurons appear to be both more numerous and more widespread, and have been credited with making everything from imitation, to language, to empathy to civilization itself possible in our species. For a brief overview of their potential importance, I suggest this 8-minute TED talk excerpt from neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran. Elsewhere, Ramachandran has been quoted as saying that the discovery of mirror neurons will do for psychology what cracking the DNA code has done for biology.  A pretty tall order for a bunch of cells.

Spoilers ahead!

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A Dip in the OCEAN II: Double Dipping Dauntless: Can the neurotic be brave?

In Part One , I argued that four Factions of the Divergent series (Erudite, Abnegation, Candor and Amity) line up with four of the “Big Five” personality dimensions: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion and Agreeableness, respectively. That leaves Dauntless to be paired with Neuroticism, which seems a mismatch at first glance. But, by delving a bit deeper into both the place of Neuroticism within personality theory and to the reality of the past and present Dauntless Faction, we find that they really do line up as well as the other four.

Individuals with high Neuroticism scores are considered sensitive/nervous versus secure/confident. They are prone to irritation, rage, sadness, and anxiety, which puts them at risk for depression, phobias and panic. They often overreact to difficult circumstances and perceive adversity as harder than it actually is. For this reason, this domain is sometimes called by an alternate name, “Mental Instability.

*If the following phrases accurately describe you, a personality psychologist would likely rate you high on Neuroticism.

  • I get stressed out easily
  • I have frequent mood swings.
  • I get irritated easily.
  • I often get blue.
  • I get angry easily.
  • I feel threatened easily.

As before, plot points will be revealed. Spoiler warning. [Read more…]

A Dip in the OCEAN: Divergent Factions and the Big Five Personality Factors.

On her Harper Collins website, Divergent and Insurgent author Veronica Roth declares, “I’m interested in psychology, especially as it relates to personality, brain chemistry, and group dynamics.” Each of the five Factions of Roth’s  dystopian society corresponds to one of the personality dimensions described in the Five Factor Model of human personality. This model has its roots in 1960’s research by Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal, through which they identified five measurable dimensions that could be used to describe most variations in human personality. Their work remained largely ignored for 20 years, but was rediscovered in the 80’s and 90’s by a variety of independent research teams. Today, the Five Factor Model is one of the main driving forces in personality research. The component domains, often called the “Big Five Factors,” are today known as Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. Psychology students often find the mnemonic OCEAN useful for remembering them.

When the characteristics of the Big Five are held up against the traits typical of the five Factions of the Divergent world, a near-perfect correspondence is apparent. Many of the phrases listed in tests used by researchers to measure the different personality domains could just as easily be used by Roth to describe her Factions. Let us visit each Faction, and each Factor in turn. Spoiler note: I will discuss some of the key plot points of both Divergent and Insurgent; do not continue if you do not want them spoiled. [Read more…]

Potted Potter Professor

July 15th, 2012. It was our first trip to New York City: myself, my mother, my teenage daughter and our Spanish exchange student. I hadn’t planned on seeing Potted Potter when I trekked up to the TKTS booth in Times Square to try to score some same-day Broadway tickets. But when it became clear we were not going to be able to see Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory playing Jimmy Stewart in Harvey, the Potted Potter show caught my eye. After a quick cell phone call to make sure the Spanish student was familiar enough with the series to appreciate it (she was, having seen all the movies), I bought tickets for the 5 PM show that night, in the Little Shubert Theater.

The premise of the show is that all seven Potter books are encapsulated into 70 minutes. I had a brief twinge of guilt at the word “unauthorized” nature, wondering how two guys, however funny, were managing to make money off J. K. Rowling’s creation without paying her for it. But, I had also seen some rave reviews and even read the rumor that they had inadvertently turned away Rowling herself from one of their sold out 2006 shows. I figured Ms. Rowling could look after her own interests and, if there was any infringement, she’d already had plenty of time to sue, so I decided to just enjoy it.

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Shared Text: The Several Wizarding World Allusions Made During the University of Virginia’s Summer Leadership Crisis

Not all Harry Potter comparisons by higher education critics take nine years to appear in print. (See the preceding article by Elizabeth Baird Hardy for one that did.)

Like a lot of professors in Virginia, I followed with intense interest the Board of Visitor’s unexpected June 10th dismissal of University of Virginia (UVa) President Teresa Sullivan, and the sixteen days of protests by faculty, students and alums. The debacle ended with Dr. Sullivan’s reinstatement on June 26th. The Chronicle of Higher Education, happily a bit quicker on the draw with this story, has a detailed summary of the events here.

Allusions to our favorite Shared Text were quickly popping up all over social media: Twitter, Facebook, and commentary on online news article by people following the story. Rector Helen Dragas was compared to virtually every bad guy in the series, from Lucius Malfoy to Lord Voldemort to Dolores Umbridge. I also spotted at least one Hunger Games illusion, wherein it was suggested that Dragas and Sullivan fight it out in the Arena to settle their dispute.

Most of the Harry Potter allusions popped up in tweets or in comments on news articles, hard to document with URLs. But combining the #UVA hashtag with the key words brings quite a few up from the Twitter archives. A few sample Tweets:

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