TIME psychology

What the Josh Duggar Fiasco Can Teach Us About Pedophilia

It raises familiar questions with no easy answers

Want a challenge? Try feeling sorry for a pedophile—those guys (and they’re almost always guys) who lust for children, stalk children and may eventually molest or rape children. Even in prison they’re targets of violence from other inmates. When a murderer finds you morally repugnant, you know you’ve fallen far.

That universal loathing is on display again with public outrage around the news that reality TV star Josh Duggar, 27, of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting, responded to allegations that he molested five underage girls when he was 15, saying that he “acted inexcusably for which I am extremely sorry and deeply regret.”

There is more unknown about these charges than known: How old were the girls? What did the molestation involve? These and other questions are critical to understanding both the psychology and the alleged criminality at play.

But let’s address the worst possibility—that the girls were not teens like Duggar, but much younger. That he was drawn to them as an adult pedophile is drawn to a child, and that under the care of a psychiatrist or psychologist, he would be diagnosed with clinical pedophilia. What does that mean for him—and for society?

Pedophilia is thought to be a relatively rare condition, afflicting from 1% to 5% of men, and a vanishingly small number of women. Admittedly 1% to 5% is a wide range, but unlike people suffering from, say, depression or phobias, people with pedophilic stirrings are not likely to step forward for treatment. Pedophiles are sexually drawn to children exclusively and as a group, prey on same sex and opposite sex children more or less equally. The condition has nothing at all to do with homosexuality.

Psychologists stress that not all child molesters are pedophiles and not all pedophiles molest. Only about 10% of known child abusers are thought to be clinical pedophiles. In most non-pedophilic cases of child abuse, the crime is an act of violence, of rage, sometimes a result of trauma. Often molesters were themselves molested in childhood—anywhere from one third to three quarters of them—though the studies on which these findings are based are often called into question because they rely on trusting the abusers to tell the truth about their past.

What’s barely in dispute anymore is that true pedophilia is a disorder with physiological roots. Scans of pedophiles’ brains show less connective white matter than the brains of other people; other studies show that pedophiles have a greater tendency to be left-handed, that they score poorly on visual and spatial tests and that they may even be shorter, on average, than other males. All of this points either to the genes or prenatal womb environment, or both, meaning that pedophilia is innate, unchosen and as fixed as anyone else’s sexuality.

“None of us decides the sorts of people we’re going to be attracted to,” says Dr. Fred Berlin of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma, in Baltimore. “We discover that, and that’s true too of people who discover they’re attracted to children. This is not the result of a choice.”

That’s where treatment becomes hard, and where sympathy—if you’re inclined to feel it—may be warranted. In the days in which homosexuality was punished, gays and lesbians spent their entire lives either denying themselves a sexual outlet or doing so furtively and fearfully. That led to profound suffering—made all the worse because it was unjust suffering. In a sexual encounter with another consenting adult, no one generally gets hurt—and the laws in most countries have finally come around.

But there will be no such coming around in the case of pedophilia, nor should there be, because by definition a child incapable of consent will always be hurt by the act. That means therapy for pedophiles—with luck before they act, but certainly afterwards.

Part of this may involve libido-lowering drugs; part involves an abstinence strategy similar to what’s used in day-at-a-time groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. And part involves other kinds of group support, such as the website Virtuous Pedophiles, for people who recognize their disorder and are determined not to act on it. That can work.

“Virtuous pedophiles make the point that pedophilia is by no means synonymous with child molestation,” says Berlin. “Some people can control their urges on their own or with a group. Others who have those attractions with perhaps a higher degree of desire may need more intervention, including medicine.”

In one study of 300 patients Berlin treated, only 3% who fully complied with treatment re-offended within five years. Among men who receive no treatment, 18% re-offend within three years.

There are no good answers for pedophilia, only less bad ones. Fury at men who hurt children is not misplaced, but nor is appreciation for those who struggle with their disorder and keep it under control. No one would choose to leave a child alone with an untreated pedophile. But no one would choose to be that pedophile either.

Read next: Arkansas Police Destroy Record of Josh Duggar Investigation

TIME Brain

Concussions Continue to Plague Retired NFL Players

A study shows that a concussion during their playing years may have lasting effects on NFL players’ memory years later

While there may be more questions than answers about how best to protect football players from the effects of concussions, there’s more data suggesting that the negative effects of head injuries can be long lasting.

In the latest report, one of the first to combine both anatomical screening of the brain with performance on standard memory and cognitive tests, researchers found that retired NFL players who suffered a concussion may continue to experience cognitive deficits many years later.

Munro Cullum, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and his colleagues report in JAMA Neurology that having a concussion, and in particular losing consciousness after a concussion, can have long-lasting effects on the brain. The team studied 28 former NFL players, all of whom had a history of concussion, who were compared to 21 matched volunteers who did not have a history of concussion. Eight of the retired players were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which meant they had some deficits in memory but weren’t prevented from living their daily lives by these changes, and they were compared to six participants with MCI who did not have a history of concussion.

MORE: How Concussions Can Lead to Poor Grades

Overall, the retired players performed worse on average on standard tests of memory than health controls, suggesting that their history of concussion affected their memory skills in some way. This was supported by imaging data of the hippocampus, the region in the brain responsible for coordinating memory. On average, the athletes showed smaller hippocampal volumes than the controls. (The scientists did not, however, collect data on the player’s hippocampal volume before the concussion, although the comparison to the non-athletes suggests that the concussions may have influenced shrinkage in this region.) The volumes of retired players who were knocked unconscious after a concussion were even smaller than those of healthy controls, and the same was true for the athletes with MCI when compared to non-athletes with MCI.

“We know that normal aging itself is associated with some declines in both hippocampal volume as well as memory function,” says Cullum, “but it seems that those declines are accentuated when there is a concussion, and when there is a concussion with loss of consciousness.”

MORE: Judge OKs 65-Year Deal Over NFL Concussions That Could Cost $1B

The findings don’t address another big question in the field, which is how best to treat people who have had a concussion. The data is conflicting on how much rest following a head injury is ideal; most experts recommend a day or two and then gradual return to normal activities, with a break if symptoms like headaches and dizziness return.

While Cullum says that most patients with concussions recover completely within weeks of the injury, football players may be at increased risk of longer lasting cognitive deficits because of their repeated exposure to the danger. And that risk increases if they lose consciousness following a concussion. Documenting concussions and any blacking out afterward is critical for helping future physicians to manage the care of someone with such head injuries, he says.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

You Asked: Are My Devices Messing With My Brain?

You Asked: Are All My Devices Messing With My Brain?
Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

Yes—and you're probably suffering from phantom text syndrome, too.

First it was radio. Then it was television. Now doomsayers are offering scary predictions about the consequences of smartphones and all the other digital devices to which we’ve all grown so attached. So why should you pay any attention to the warnings this time?

Apart from portability, the big difference between something like a traditional TV and your tablet is the social component, says Dr. David Strayer, a professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah. “Through Twitter or Facebook or email, someone in your social network is contacting you in some way all the time,” Strayer says.

“We’re inherently social organisms,” adds Dr. Paul Atchley, a cognitive psychologist at Kansas University. There’s almost nothing more compelling than social information, he says, which activates part of your brain’s reward system. Your noodle is also hardwired to respond to novel sights or sounds. (For most of human history, a sudden noise might have signaled the presence of a predator.) “So something like a buzz or beep or flashing light is tapping into that threat detection system,” he explains.

Combine that sudden beep with the implicit promise of new social info, and you have a near-perfect, un-ignorable stimulus that will pull your focus away from whatever task your brain is working on. And while you may think you can quickly check a text or email and pick up that task where you left off, you really can’t.

“Every time you switch your focus from one thing to another, there’s something called a switch-cost,” says Dr. Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Your brain stumbles a bit, and it requires time to get back to where it was before it was distracted.”

While this isn’t a big deal if you’re doing something simple and rote—making an omelet, say, or folding clothes—it can be a very big deal if your brain is trying to sort out a complex problem, Miller says.

One recent study found it can take your brain 15 to 25 minutes to get back to where it was after stopping to check an email. And Miller’s own research shows you don’t get better at this sort of multitasking with practice. In fact, people who judged themselves to be expert digital multitaskers tended to be pretty bad at it, he says.

“You’re not able to think as deeply on something when you’re being distracted every few minutes,” Miller adds. “And thinking deeply is where real insights come from.”

There seems to be an easy solution to this: When you’re working on something complicated, switch off your phone or email.

That could work for some people. But there’s evidence that as your brain becomes accustomed to checking a device every few minutes, it will struggle to stay on task even at those times when it’s not interrupted by digital alerts. “There’s something called ‘phantom text syndrome,’ ” Atchley says. “You think you hear a text or alert, but there isn’t one.”

While phantom texts can afflict adults, Atchley says this phenomenon is pretty much universal among people under the age of 20—many of whom wouldn’t recognize a world that doesn’t include smartphones. Even if you don’t hear phantom alerts, you may still find yourself reflexively wanting to check your device every few minutes for updates, which disrupts your concentration regardless of whether you ignore that impulse.

Your ability to focus aside, a 2014 study appearing in the journal PLOS One found that people who spend a lot of time “media multitasking”—or juggling lots of different websites, apps, programs or other digital stimuli—tend to have less grey matter in a part of their brain involved with thought and emotion control. These same structural changes are associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety disorders, says that study’s first author, Kepkee Loh, who conducted his research at University College London.

Atchley says more research suggests lots of device use bombards your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which plays a big role in willpower and decision-making. “The prefrontal cortex prevents us from doing stupid things, whether it’s eating junk food or texting while driving,” he explains.

He says this part of the human brain isn’t “fully wired” until your early 20s—another issue that has him worried about how a lot of device use may be affecting children and adolescents.

So what’s the antidote? Spending time in nature may counteract the focus-draining effects of too much tech time, shows research Atchley and Strayer published in 2012. Meditation may also offer focus-strengthening benefits.

Strayer says putting your phone on silent and setting your email only to deliver new messages every 30 minutes are also ways to use your devices strategically and “not be a slave to them,” he adds.

Of course, there are plenty of benefits associated with the latest and greatest technologies. Ease and convenience of staying in touch with friends is a big one. But many open questions remain when it comes to the true cost of our digital distractions.

“Imagine Einstein trying to think about mathematics at a time when part of his brain was wondering what was going on with Twitter,” Atchley says. “People make incredible breakthroughs when they’re concentrating very hard on a specific task, and I wonder if our devices are taking away our ability to do that.”

TIME Research

Why Autism Is Different in the Brains of Girls Than in Boys

The reasons why girls are less often diagnosed may be both biological and social

Autism, already a mysterious disorder, is even more puzzling when it comes to gender differences. For every girl diagnosed with autism, four boys are diagnosed, a disparity researchers don’t yet fully understand.

In a new study published in the journal Molecular Autism, researchers from the UC Davis MIND Institute tried to figure out a reason why. They looked at 112 boys and 27 girls with autism between ages 3 and 5 years old, as well as a control sample of 53 boys and 29 girls without autism. Using a process called diffusion-tensor imaging, the researchers looked at the corpus callosum — the largest neural fiber bundle in the brain — in the young kids. Prior research has shown differences in that area of the brain among people with autism.

They found that the organization of these fibers was different in boys compared with girls, especially in the frontal lobes, which play a role in executive functions. “The sample size is still limited, but this work adds to growing body of work suggesting boys and girls with autism have different underlying neuroanatomical differences,” said study author Christine Wu Nordahl, an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, in an email.

In other preliminary research presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research, or IMFAR, in Salt Lake City, the study authors showed that when girls and boys with autism are compared with typically developing boys and girls, the behavioral differences between girls with autism and the female controls are greater than the differences among the boys. Nordahl says this suggests that girls can be more severely affected than boys.

A study earlier this year by a separate group found notable differences in symptoms between autistic boys and girls, which could be one of the reasons autism in girls sometimes goes unnoticed or is diagnosed late. Girls generally display less obvious behavioral symptoms at a young age compared with boys, the researchers found.

One of the reasons females with autism are less understood than males is that most research studies do not have equal numbers of boys and girls, says Nordahl. “This is not surprising, given that there are so many more males with autism than females,” she says. “We need to do a better job of trying to recruit females with autism into our studies so that we can fully explore differences between males and females with autism.”

Nordahl says understanding gender differences in autism affects how kids are diagnosed, as well as how they are treated. Understanding what biological differences may be at work can ultimately lead to a better understanding of autism and the best interventions for treatment.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

This Diet Is Better for Your Brain Than Low-Fat

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Rita Maas—Getty Images

Simply adding more olive oil and nuts to your diet may help prevent memory problems and loss of cognitive skills that come with old age

You’ve heard a million times that the modern Mediterranean diet is good for you. Now there’s stronger evidence the diet may be good for your brain, too.

In a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, Dr. Emilio Ros from the Hospital Clinic in Barcelona, Spain and his colleagues conducted a study of 447 men and women aged 55 to 80 years to see whether changing their diet could affect their performance on cognitive tests. The volunteers were healthy but at higher risk of developing heart-related problems; some smoked or had hypertension, for instance, others had a family history of heart issues. Everyone in the study was randomly assigned to eat, for about four years, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with 1 liter of extra virgin olive oil a week, a Mediterranean diet enhanced with 30 grams of nuts a day, or a low-fat diet. The researchers performed a series of brain functioning tests on the participants at the start of the study and then at the end of the study.

MORE: Here’s Another Reason to Try the Mediterranean Diet

Both Mediterranean diet groups showed improvements compared to the low-fat diet group; those consuming more olive oil showed better memory scores at the end of the study while those eating more nuts showed improvements in executive function skills. The low-fat diet group, on the other hand, showed declines in many of the cognitive measures.

“It’s never too late to change your dietary patterns to improve your health,” says Ros. “This surprised even myself.” The results, he says, are especially encouraging since the people in the study were at higher risk of developing cognitive problems because of their heart-related risk factors, which can also impair cognitive function by increasing risk of stroke and compromising blood flow to the brain. “If you intervene with a healthy dietary pattern in people who are at risk of cognitive failure, even in people who still haven’t had any memory complaints or loss of cognitive function, you can prevent cognitive deterioration,” he says.

MORE: This Diet Has Been Linked to a Longer Life—Again

The findings support a growing body of evidence that connects the Mediterranean diet, which is high in antioxidant-rich foods like rich vegetables and fats, and improved brain function. Because researchers now believe that the brain is damaged by free radicals produced by stress, a diet that is rich in antioxidants may help to counter that harm. A previous study involving the same group of participants found similar brain benefits of olive oil and nuts, but that trial did not follow volunteers over time to measure the change associated with the dietary change.

MORE: Mediterranean Diet Better Than Low-Fat Diet in Keeping Aging Brains Sharp

While these results are promising, Ros says that more work is needed to confirm them; the current study is relatively small and did not find, for example, a strong correlation between the Mediterranean diet and the rate of mild cognitive impairment, a measure of cognitive decline that often precedes conditions like Alzheimer’s. “I think these results contribute to our understanding of healthy aging,” he says. “With a change in lifestyle as simple making some healthy choices in your food, it can make a difference.”

TIME psychology

Why Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Cried in Court

HORIZONTAL Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, photo released on April 19, 2013.
FBI/Getty Images Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, photo released on April 19, 2013.

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

When bravado does battle with the brain, the brain will win

Savagery is harder than you think. As members of a highly social species, genetically coded for cooperation, compassion, and the powerful, nearly telepathic ability to experience what another person is feeling, we should not be terribly surprised that convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev shed at least a few tears in court on Monday when his aunt took the stand in the trial’s penalty phase to plead for his life.

We like to think that our criminal monsters are just that—monstrous, somehow fundamentally different from the rest of us. And in some cases that’s true: serial killer Ted Bundy is often described as sociopathic, a man incapable of empathy. Movie theater shooter James Holmes is thought to be schizophrenic, a disease that can indeed leave people incapable of feeling.

But most of the time killers are people with the same emotional software as the rest of us. And just as happens with real software, theirs got corrupted somehow. When it comes to empathy, such a breakdown takes some doing.

The human brain is wired with so-called mirror neurons, brain cells that draw us together by causing us to experience similar things at the same moment. It’s mirror neurons that explain why yawns are contagious, why a newscaster’s sudden laughing jag makes you laugh too, why newborns—who have never seen themselves in a mirror and thus have no idea what their faces look like—will open their mouths wide when an adult does. Up to 10% of the brain’s neurons are thought to have mirroring properties, which is a measure of how important they are.

When Tsarnaev’s aunt took the stand, she began crying before she even spoke. When she did speak, she could manage to give only her name, her age and her place of birth before dissolving entirely and being allowed to step down. She was seated only 10 feet from her nephew, which made her a real and tactile presence.

Tsarnaev’s cool indifference, which has been on display throughout the trial, has seemed at least partly 21-year-old bravado—magnified many times over by whatever psychological journey he took that allowed him to commit the horrific crime he did, and magnified still more by the certain knowledge that his life is over, that he will either be executed or spend the next half dozen or so decades in a cage. It pays, at least in public, to maintain a certain numbness in the face of that reality, lest it become overwhelming.

But for a man-child who may be a horror but is not a Bundy, there are limits. Another person’s tears are limits. An aunt who, in a different time and place, would surely hug you is a limit. And mirror neurons—which populate the brain of the bomber as surely as they do the brain of the doctor or the mother or the person you love—are limits too. Tsarnaev ran out of emotional room today, and the sorrow he felt is just a small part of a penalty he will pay for many years.

Read next: Boston Bomber’s Teacher Says Tsarnaev ‘Always Wanted to Do the Right Thing’

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

Here’s What Happens in the Brain When People Kill

Pulling the trigger is hard—and that's very good
George Frey—Getty Images Pulling the trigger is hard—and that's very good

There's a lot of neuroscience and moral juggling behind the decision to take a life

Evil isn’t easy. Say what you will about history’s monsters, they had to overcome a lot of powerful neural wiring to commit the crimes they did. The human brain is coded for compassion, for guilt, for a kind of empathic pain that causes the person inflicting harm to feel a degree of suffering that is in many ways as intense as what the victim is experiencing. Somehow, that all gets decoupled—and a new study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience brings science a step closer to understanding exactly what goes on in the brain of a killer.

While psychopaths don’t sit still for science and ordinary people can’t be made to think so savagely, nearly anyone can imagine what it would be like to commit the kind of legal homicide that occurs in war. To study how the brain reacts when it confronts such murder made moral, psychologist Pascal Molenberghs of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, recruited 48 subjects and asked them to submit to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which could scan their brains while they watched three different scenarios on video loops.

In one, a soldier would be killing an enemy soldier; in the next, the soldier would be killing a civilian; and in the last, used as a control, the soldier would shoot a weapon but hit no one. In all cases, the subjects saw the scene from the shooter’s point of view. At the end of each loop, they were asked “Who did you shoot?” and were required to press one of three buttons on a keypad indicating soldier, civilian or no one—a way of making certain they knew what they’d done. After the scans, they were also asked to rate on a 1 to 7 scale how guilty they felt in each scenario.

Even before the study, Molenberghs knew that when he read the scans he would focus first on the activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a region of the forebrain that has long been known to be involved with moral sensitivity, moral judgments and making choices about how to behave. The nearby temporoparietal junction (TPJ) also takes on some of this moral load, processing the sense of agency—the act of doing something deliberately and therefore owning the responsibility for it. That doesn’t always makes much of a difference in the real world—whether you shoot someone on purpose or the gun goes off accidentally, the victim is still dead. But it makes an enormous difference in how you later reckon with what you’ve done.

In Molenbergh’s study, there was consistently greater activity in the lateral portion of the OFC when subjects imagined shooting civilians than when they shot soldiers. There was also more coupling between the OFC and the TPJ—with the OFC effectively saying I feel guilty and the TPJ effectively answering You should. Significantly, the degree of OFC activation also correlated well with how bad the subjects reported they felt on their 1 to 7 scale, with greater activity in the brains of people who reported feeling greater guilt.

The OFC and TPJ weren’t alone in this moral processing. Another region, known as the fusiform gyrus, was more active when subjects imagined themselves killing civilians—a telling finding since that portion of the brain is involved in analyzing faces, suggesting that the subjects were studying the expressions of their imaginary victims and, in so doing, humanizing them. When subjects were killing soldiers, there was greater activity in a region called the lingual gyrus, which is involved in the much more dispassionate business of spatial reasoning—just the kind of thing you need when you’re going about the colder business of killing someone you feel justified killing.

Soldiers and psychopaths are, of course, two different emotional species. But among people who kill legally and those who kill criminally or promiscuously, the same brain regions are surely involved, even if they operate in different ways. In all of us it’s clear that murder’s neural roots and moral roots are deeply entangled. Learning to untangle them a bit could one day help psychologists and criminologists predict who will kill—and stop them before they do.

Read next: What Binge Drinking During Adolescence Does to the Brain

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TIME psychology

7 Ways Your Mind Messes With Your Money

Mmmmmoney: Get a grip; it's just paper
KAREN BLEIER; AFP/Getty Images Mmmmmoney: Get a grip; it's just paper

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

A new book shows the many ways money makes you crazy

If your brain is like most brains, it’s got an awfully high opinion of itself—pretty darned sure it’s pretty darned good at a lot of things. That probably includes handling money. But on that score your brain is almost certainly lying to you. No matter how much you’re worth, no matter how deftly you think you play the market, your reasoning lobes go all to pieces when cash is on the line. That is one of many smart—and scary—points made by author and J.P. Morgan vice president Kabir Sehgal in his new book Coined: The Rich History of Money and How it Has Shaped Us. Here, in no particular order, are seven reasons you should never leave your brain alone with your wallet.

Inflation? What’s that? You’re way too smart to think that if your salary doubles but the price of everything you buy doubles too you’ve somehow come out ahead, right? Wrong. In one study, volunteers were given the opportunity to win money that they could use to buy gifts from a catalogue. In later rounds, the amount they could win went up by 50% but so did the cost of all of the catalogue items. Nonetheless, their prefrontal cortex registered greater arousal after the staged inflation—even when they were warned before the study began that the purchasing power of their money would not increase. The implication: If a corned beef sandwich and a Coke cost $15,000 you’d still be thrilled to be a billionaire.

Keep yer lousy money: Guess what! I’m going to give you $199. Nice, right? Oh, did I forget to mention that it comes out of $1,000 someone else gave me to divide up between us any way I see fit? In multiple studies, when it’s up to one subject to apportion a fixed amount and up to the other to accept it or neither one gets paid, more than half of recipients will reject anything less than 20% of the total. In other words, you’ll turn down a free $199 to deny me my undeserved $801. Your ego thanks you, your checking account doesn’t.

Losing feels worse than winning feels good: Here’s something the Vegas casinos don’t tell you: That high you get from winning $10,000 at the craps table will fade a lot faster than the what-was-I-thinking self-loathing that comes when you lose the same amount. To get people to wager $20 on a coin flip, researchers have found that they typically have to be given the chance to double their money; betting $20 to win, say, $35 just doesn’t cut it. That seems like good sense—but given the realistic shot you’ve got at winning, it’s also bad math.

Simply the best: You know that store that opened on your corner that sold nothing but artisanal beets—the one that you knew would go out of business within a month and that didn’t even last two weeks? The owner totally didn’t see that coming. That’s called the overconfidence bias. The hard fact is, about 80% of new businesses are floating upside down at the top of the aquarium within 18 to 24 months—but nearly all entrepreneurs are convinced they’re going to be in the elite 20%. We bring the same swagger to playing the market and speculating in real estate—and to dancing at a wedding after we’ve had enough drinks and are convinced we’ve got moves. Watch the video later and see how that works out.

The hunt beats the kill: Never mind cigarettes and alcohol, if there’s one substance the government should regulate it’s dopamine—the feel-good neurotransmitter that gives you a little reward pellet of happiness when your brain decides you’ve done something good. The problem is, your brain can be an idiot. There’s far more dopamine released in its nucleus acumbens region—the reward center—when you’re anticipating some kind of payoff than when you’ve actually achieved it. That means expanding your business is more fun than running it and investing in the market is more fun than consolidating your gains. Those are great strategies—but only until the very moment they’re not.

I think therefore I win: I have a perfect three-step plan for winning the Power Ball Lottery: 1) I buy a ticket. 2) About 175 million other people buy tickets. 3) They give me all the tickets they bought. OK, failing that, the odds are pretty good that I may not be the person on TV who gets handed that giant check. But I play anyway thanks to what’s known as the availability heuristic. I think about winning, I see commercials with people who have actually won, I fantasize about what I’ll do with the money when I do win—and pretty soon it seems crazy not to play. The more available thoughts of something unlikely are, the more realistic it seems that it may actually happen. This is the reason there should always be a 48-hour cooling off period after you leave baseball fantasy camp and before you’re allowed to sell your house and try out for the Yankees’ farm club.

Fifty shades of green: Perhaps the biggest reason we’re irrational about money is that we’ve come to fetishize not just the idea of wealth but the pieces of currency themselves. In one study, subjects counted out either actual bills or worthless pieces of paper of the same size, and then plunged their hands into 122ºF (50ºC) water. The ones who had handled real cash experienced less pain—effectively anesthetized by the Benjamins. Other studies have shown heightened brain activity when people witness money being destroyed, with the degree of neuronal excitement increasing in lockstep with the value of the currency. It’s money’s world; we’re just living in it.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME neuroscience

Here’s a New Trick to Help Babies Learn Faster

Surprise them. Not by jumping out of a closet but by challenging her developing notions about the world, and avoiding the same-old same-old

We know that babies like new things. Present them with something they haven’t seen before and they’ll gravitate toward it, touch it, bang it around, put it in their mouths. It’s all part of the learning process so they can build a database of knowledge about the world around them.

But for babies to really learn about how the world works, it takes more than novelty. In a series of experiments with 11 month olds published Thursday in the journal Science, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that surprising information—things that went against babies’ assumptions about concepts like gravity and the solidness of objects—forms the seed for future learning.

Aimee Stahl, a PhD candidate in the department of psychological and brain science at Johns Hopkins University, and her colleague Lisa Feigenson conducted a set of experiments with 110 infants to tease out this effect of surprise in how babies learn. The studies began with the assumption that babies are born with certain core knowledge about how the world works — that objects are solid so other things can’t pass through them, for example, or that dropping things causing things to fall rather than float.

MORE: Naps May Help Babies Retain Memories, Study Finds

First, Stahl challenged these concepts with some babies by strategically using a screen to hide a wall as they rolled ball. When they lifted the screen, some babies saw the ball stopped in front the wall, as they would expect. Other babies, however, saw the ball on the other side of the wall. When both groups were then presented with something entirely new to learn — associating a squeaking sound with a new toy — the babies who saw the contrary event (the ball on the other side of the wall) learned to link the sound to the new toy more quickly than those who saw the expected event (the ball on the correct side of the wall).

To ensure that the babies weren’t just enthralled with the novelty of the new toy, Stahl and Feigenson then repeated the experiment, except this time during the testing phase they played a different, rattling sound instead of the squeaking noise. The learning scores in the first experiment were still higher than those in the second version, strongly suggesting that the babies were actually making new connections and learning something about the objects, rather than just paying attention to the new-ness of them.

MORE: How to Improve a Baby’s Language Skills Before They Start to Talk

This was supported by the other experiments Stahl and Feigenson conducted, in which babies tried to find an explanation for the contrary results; for the balls that appeared to melt through the solid wall, they bounced and banged the balls to verify their solidity. For situations in which objects seemed to defy gravity and float, they dropped them. “It seemed like they were seeking an explanation to the kind of surprising events they witnessed,” says Stahl. “If it was just novelty that was attracting them, they wouldn’t be so specific in the way they handled the objects.”

These are the first experiments to test the idea that learning involves more than just exploring new things; Stahl’s results indicate that surprising or contradictory information helps them to confirm and test their knowledge, and try to explain events that seem to go against what they know.

“It raises exciting questions about whether surprise is something educators, parents and doctors can harness to enhance and shape learning,” says Stahl. She’s exploring, for example, how surprise can help in learning even with older children in more naturalistic environments, outside of artificial lab experiments. “Our research shows that when babies’ predictions about the world don’t match what they observe, that signals a special opportunity to update and revise their knowledge and to learn something new.”

Video: Johns Hopkins University Office of Communications; Len Turner, Dave Schmelick and Deirdre Hammer

TIME Research

Level Up! Gamers May Learn Visual Skills More Quickly

HaloFest for Xbox One
Matt Sayles—Invision/AP Xbox fans play games from the popular “Halo” franchise at HaloFest at the Avalon Theatre in Los Angeles on Monday, Nov. 10, 2014

Practice not only makes perfect, it may improve gamers' ability to learn

A small study from Brown University suggests video gamers, who are already known to have a better visual-processing skills, may also be able to improve on those attributes faster than the average person.

According to Brown University press, the study analyzed nine gamers and compared them with nine nongamers during a two-day trial. Researchers required participants to complete two visual tasks, one right after the other. The next day they repeated the exercises (in a random order) and compared how participants improved.

What they found is that the second task interfered with the ability of nongamers to improve on the first — while gamers improved equally well on both exercises.

“We sometimes see that an expert athlete can learn movements very quickly and accurately and a musician can play the piano at the very first sight of the notes very elegantly … maybe [gamers] can learn more efficiently and quickly as a result of training,” senior author Yuka Sasaki said.

The authors admit the findings require more study, conceding that there is no proof that video games caused the learning improvement, since people with quick visual-processing skills could be naturally drawn to gaming.

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