Tania Lombrozo

Tania Lombrozo is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an affiliate of the Department of Philosophy and a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Lombrozo directs the Concepts and Cognition Lab, where she and her students study aspects of human cognition at the intersection of philosophy and psychology, including the drive to explain and its relationship to understanding, various aspects of causal and moral reasoning and all kinds of learning.

Lombrozo is the recipient of numerous awards, including an NSF CAREER award, a McDonnell Foundation Scholar Award in Understanding Human Cognition and a Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformational Early Career Contributions from the Association for Psychological Science. She received bachelors degrees in Philosophy and Symbolic Systems from Stanford University, followed by a PhD in Psychology from Harvard University. Lombrozo also blogs for Psychology Today.

On Thursday, families across America will participate in a yearly ritual around the Thanksgiving table: expressing their gratitude. Some will be grateful for friends and family, others for health or material well-being, for safety, the natural world or the meal before them.

But what does gratitude look like in 2015, with Thanksgiving coming on the heels of significant loss of life in terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris and beyond? With Syrian families fleeing a bloody civil war? With international news that's anything but reassuring?

At last Tuesday's Republican presidential debate, Sen. Marco Rubio advocated for vocational training, stating: "Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers."

At a press conference last Friday, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson responded to allegations that he lied about various aspects of his past, including whether he received a scholarship to West Point (apparently he never applied) and whether he was violent in his youth. In turn, Carson exhorted the media not to lie in its coverage of him.

An article in The Guardian earlier this year declared: "A war is being waged within the cloistered world of academia." It pressed on, stating that "currently fixed in the crosshairs are the disciplines of the humanities."

Childhood is a time for pretend play, imaginary friends and fantastical creatures. Flying ponies reliably beat documentaries with the preschool set.

Yet adults are no strangers to fiction. We love movies and novels, poems and plays. We also love television, even when it isn't preceded by "reality."

Every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department Health and Human Services convene an advisory committee to develop dietary guidelines based on the latest scientific and medical research. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines won't be released until later this year, but they're already generating debate.

When discussing the Oregon shooting at Umpqua Community College last week, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush explained that "stuff happens," suggesting that such events can't be prevented and, by implication, that legislators — and gun control laws — are not responsible.

I forgot to schedule a haircut last week. I regularly forget my usernames and passwords. I've forgotten anniversaries, birthdays and promises.

If these confessions sound familiar, it's because we forget all the time. And when we notice we've forgotten, it usually means the thing we forgot was important. Forgetting in these cases is a failing and we naturally wish our memories were more complete. It's no wonder, then, that forgetting has a bad rap.

The scene at last week's debate of Republican presidential candidates was a familiar one: one woman, 10 men.

The results of a new poll, released last week by the Pew Research Center, suggest that the American public's scientific literacy is — to use a technical term — so-so.

The killings of two journalists in Virginia last week have reignited a national conversation on mass shootings and gun control.

No one wants dangerous people with dangerous guns, but different parties point in different directions when it comes to laying the blame for gun violence or proposing appropriate policies moving forward.

When I was pregnant with my first child, friends and family inevitably asked about my diet.

"Are you sticking to vegan food?" they wondered, with variable admiration or anxiety.

For some, the curiosity was about cravings. One mother told me she was irresistibly (and unexpectedly) drawn to hot dogs her third trimester; another confessed her sudden fascination with red meat. Surely, I'd crave things beyond the vegan sections of Whole Foods? (I didn't. Mostly.)

Many illnesses are contagious. You'd do well to avoid your neighbor's sneeze, for example, and to wash your hands after tending to your sick child.

But what about mental illness?

The idea that anxiety, autism or major depression could be transmitted through contact may sound crazy — and it probably is. There's a lot we don't know about the origins of mental illness, but the mechanisms identified so far point in other directions.

A new paper, just published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, provides insights into the risks and benefits of coffee consumption.

It's the latest scientific study to hit the media. But different headlines give a very different picture of what the study found.

Some headlines depict good news:

"Here's More Evidence That Coffee Is Good For Your Brain" (Forbes.com)

Last April, I joined more than a dozen cognitive scientists at a workshop called "Breaking New Ground in the Science-Religion Dialogue." The workshop, organized by Cristine Legare at the University of Texas at Austin, aimed to encourage a sophisticated, evidence-based look at the psychology behind science and religion, as well as psychological factors that affect people's perception of believers, atheists and the relationship between science and religion.

In an interview earlier this year, Sen. Harry Reid argued that it's time for a woman to run for president.

"Women have qualities that we've been lacking in America for a long time," he told New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney. For instance, he said, "Women are much more patient."

The Magic Of Words

Jul 14, 2015

The philosopher George Berkeley famously argued (contra John Locke) that we can never have truly abstract ideas — ideas stripped of all particulars and details. When I think of a triangle, I imagine a particular triangle, not some abstract idea of "triangle." When I think of a dog, I imagine a golden retriever or a Yorkie or a mutt — not a "general" dog that embodies only the essence of "dogness," devoid of all nonessential features.

About 94 percent of Americans know how to ride a bike. For some, it's a primary form of transport, for others an occasional diversion.

The theory of evolution by natural selection is among the best established in science, yet also among the most controversial for subsets of the American public.

Say "philosopher" and most people imagine a bust of Socrates, obscure texts or intellectual tête-à-têtes in the so-called Ivory Tower, away from the muddle of real-life concerns. But three issues this past week made something clear: We need philosophers engaged in public life — and a public willing to engage them.

I confess: As a Ph.D.-carrying mother of two and student of human behavior, I couldn't resist reading Primates of Park Avenue, the provocative memoir about motherhood on New York City's Upper East Side, released this month.

If you follow the headlines in nutrition science, you may have come across the claim that a daily bar of dark chocolate could help you lose weight faster. Websites touted the sweet news earlier this year:

"Excellent news: Chocolate can help you lose weight!" (3/31, Huffington Post)

To function effectively in the world, you need to acquire a whole lot of information. You need to know exactly which medicine is appropriate for each ailment. You need to know how to fix your car and your router and your irrigation system. You need to know the date of every major holiday and how it is observed.

Right? Of course not. That would be crazy.

In 1998, my colleague Alison Gopnik wrote a provocative paper comparing the drive for explanations to sexual desire. Just as we're motivated to engage in an evolutionarily beneficial activity — reproduction! — by the promise of orgasm, so, too, we're motivated to discover the basic structure of the world around us by the promise of a satisfying explanation. It's the "aha!" moment that makes the learning feel worthwhile.

In anticipation of Mother's Day, I offer you a found poem: the output of Google's autocomplete search function. Start a search for "motherhood is" and you'll learn:

May your Mother's Day this year combine a recognition of the hard with a celebration of the magical.

Why do so many people oppose genetically modified organisms, or GMOs?

According to a new paper forthcoming in the journal Trends in Plant Science, it's because opposition to GMOs taps into deep cognitive biases. These biases conspire to make arguments against GMOs intuitive and compelling, whether or not they're backed by strong evidence.

We associate technology with the shiny and new. But humans have been using technology to change the environment and themselves since at least the lower Paleolithic period, when our ancestors were making stone tools.

Is the technology of today fundamentally different? In particular, does it change the way we think of ourselves or our relationships to each other and the environment? Does it change the way we think about what exists (metaphysics), about what and how we can know about it (epistemology), or about how we ought to live (ethics)?

Last week, I participated in a workshop on the science-religion dialogue during which I was asked: Are scientific and religious explanations philosophically incompatible?

I've been thinking about the question ever since. The simple answers — "yes" or "no" — have advocates, but they don't seem to do the issues justice.