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Michael W. TaftRSS Feed of this column.

A professional writer, editor, and for more than two decades, Michael W. Taft is fascinated by what neuroscience, biology, psychology, archeology, and technology can tell us about the human condition... Read More »

The gap between atheists and the religious seems at times to be an impossible divide, almost as if believers and non-believers come from different species. What separates the secular from the sacred? An "Ask the Brains" question on the Scientific American site recently inquired as to any differences between the brain of an atheist and the brain of a religious person. Andrew Newberg, the director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia, responded that, yes, in fact, there are some small but perceptible differences between the brains of believers and non-believers.
Who do you think will win the Republican presidential nomination? Obsession with this question possesses the entire United States. Today a brief search on Google for “GOP primary prediction” returned close to 40 million results. Over the past few months, the news media has been a continuous spin cycle of talking heads, pontificating pundits, bleating politicians, and outraged citizens, all converging on the topic of who will eventually be crowned the Republican candidate for the American presidency. The amount of effort expended on this process is staggering—even though many people felt that the probable outcome was more or less obvious from the start.
This December the National Transportation Safety Board of the U.S. recommended a nationwide ban on cell phone use while driving. According to NTSB member Robert Sumwalt, "This (distracted driving) is becoming the new DUI. It's becoming epidemic.” For some, the NTSB recommendation is a sign of the forces of light winning the day, and for others, proof of the impending apocalypse. Regardless of your emotional reaction to the issue, the subject cuts right to the heart of questions about the attention capacity of the human brain.
Xmas time is here again. Unlike many people I have no particular aversion to the holiday season. I don’t have too many emotional scars from Christmases past. Getting presents was always fun, I liked the lights on our tree, even stringing popcorn, and these days I try to keep awkward gatherings to a minimum. For me it breaks up the endless round of quotidian drudgery in a relatively pleasant way. But this year I can’t help viewing the whole spectacle through the eyes of human evolution and psychology. No matter how you might feel about the holiday season personally, it’s interesting to think about what may be behind all the crazy traditions: a little bit of the science behind the season. 
Once when I was a little kid, a peaceful fall evening at our house was shattered by loud and insistent banging, as if someone was trying to break down our side door. My dad, who was the head coach of the high school football team, opened it to greet a man who was screaming with fury. Despite the fact that he was a friend of my father's, this man was now beside himself with rage, drunk, practically incomprehensible, spitting foam and bellowing invective. My dad’s friendship-destroying crime? He had switched the man’s son from first string to second string on the team. 

by Michael W. Taft