“Motivation and emotion are two sides of the same coin” – Conversation with Ross Buck (Ph.D.) at University of Connecticut

          While Buenos Aires boiled like soup in a caldron in the middle of summer, the campus of University of Connecticut was covered in snow. I had traveled to the United States because of my job, but once I fulfilled my objective, I postponed my return home long enough to take a bus to the north, and go meet Ross Buck.

          The truth is, it was not something sudden or improvised. I had already planned it beforehand. I had even booked some vacation days so as to spend them up in the States before coming back to the ‘porteña’ city. From the moment I realized I was going to be so close to Buck -weeks before travelling- I decided I could not miss the chance to meet him personally. I had read about his extensive research on the brain mechanisms of human emotion and motivation. I knew he had written hundreds of articles, reports and papers; even three books. His ideas on the relationship between emotion and motivation, something I research and I’m especially interested in, moved me –talking about motivation- to look for a face-to-face conversation. That’s how I asked him if I could pay him a visit to his office in the Department of Communication Sciences, at least for a little while. Once he learned what I am working on, Ross agreed very kindly.

          When the time came, I got off the bus at Storrs, where the University of Connecticut is located. I found the place particularly peaceful and integrated with the natural landscape. That’s why I behaved like the typical tourist and couldn’t help taking some pics. My ridiculous omission was that I later did not remember to take a pic together with Ross Buck! (Ross, you owe me this one for the next time!). So I attach here a couple of his pictures retrieved from his own profile webpage from the University (click to link: http://coms.uconn.edu/directory/faculty/rbuck/).

          I walked for several minutes until I found the building where Ross performs as professor of Communication Sciences. He was already waiting for me in his office. The walls were covered in books. Continue reading

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Circuits of empathy

Empathy seems to be the internal stage where others’ emotions are performed. We empathize with someone when we feel their pain, their sadness, happiness or enthusiasm. Each one of us knows the experience: our heart shrinks as we see a homeless kid sleeping in the street, or we get so deep into the plot of a movie that we are moved by the main character’s experiences; or we even catch the fun that seems to rapidly spread in a party.

What lies in the bottom of this empathic feeling? Less than twenty years ago, scientists discovered a certain kind of motor neurons that fire not only when we do some movement –for instance, taking a cup and lifting it from the table- but also when we just see that movement. That is, neurons activate when we are mere witnesses of someone else, not ourselves, taking the cup. This group of neurons was called <<mirror neurons>>, because they kind of reflect what we have in front. This is an outstanding finding. It means that part of the brain processes devoted to move our body achieve to identify the movements of other people. As if they internally performed what we see in order to make out what we could do as well. Continue reading

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‘Bad Blood’ (mala sangre)

In a very traditional local way, my grandma would say: <<Don’t get your blood bad!>>. Well, I bet my grandma was not the only one; many other grandmas have said it… In fact, they keep doing it. Sometimes I wonder which intuition lies behind such popular sayings. Because there are some that get it pretty right, as science demonstrates.

Yes, indeed, when we get mad or stressed, a very particular emotional alchemy flows in our veins. I am talking about hormones. The <<stress hormones>>, as specialists call them. There are basically three of them: Firstly, the famous epinephrine, all the rage for extreme sports people. Then, one that holds a similar name, norepinephrine, is in charge of increasing the level of mental and bodily activity (arousal). It speeds up all muscle responses in arms and legs. Finally, glucocorticoids. As you can tell by their name, they have something to do with glucose and corticoids.

These three hormones gallop frantically in our bloodstream in order to distribute energy throughout our body and to put glucose in motion (which is, precisely, muscle fuel). The reason why this happens can be traced back to ancient ages. Our evolutionary ancestors –I am talking about hundreds of thousands of years back, mind you- were always at risk. They could be lions’ meal anytime, or breakfast for any other predator of that age (great-great-grandpas of current lions), so every attack should be faced… either fighting or else fleeing as fast as possible. Nature is wise; Continue reading

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The man with two brains?

When a new year begins, we spontaneously review the highlights of the year that has just ended. Well, here in this blog, the review didn’t happen in January… because I decided to enjoy holidays and take a little break. I admit it. However, in terms of neuroscience, one of the best meetings I had last year took place in November. I met the brilliant Michael Gazzaniga, who was for the first time in Argentina –in the auditorium of the Argentinean Scientific Society (Sociedad Científica Argentina)- thanks to INECO foundation (which stands for Cognitive Neurology Institute in Spanish). I wouldn’t have learned that event would take place if it hadn’t been for a student of mine (thanks, Silvia!).

Michael Gazzaniga is considered “the father of cognitive neuroscience”. Professor of Psychology in the University of California, Santa Barbara, Michael is important because he has been providing -already for several decades- fundamental answers about how our mind works based on the neural processes of the brain. And, as a consequence, about the principles of some of our emotions as well. So that you get an idea of how relevant his work is, you should only learn that he carried out his Ph.D. dissertation on psychobiology under the guidance of Roger Sperry, a guy who deserved the Nobel prize (precisely because of the research together with Michael!).

Back in the ‘60s, Sperry and Gazzaniga studied the behaviors of epileptic patients who had undergone the same kind of surgery several years before. The intervention had attempted to alleviate the massive fits of epilepsy, and had consisted in “disconnecting” both brain hemispheres. The procedure itself consisted in severing an area of the brain –called corpus callosum- which transfers signals between the right and left hemispheres. Thus, patients could keep up with a relatively normal life, without fits as before. They were called “split brain” patients. Sperry basically showed that each brain hemisphere works as an independent conscious processing unit, and he also contributed to the understanding of the lateralization of brain functions. Continue reading

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Hope and Overcoming

While the warehouses of three ‘escolas de samba’ (samba schools) were in flames –on the first days of February last year, in Rio de Janeiro-, their members and fans were in tears. Their crying, however, was not enough to put out the fire: Portela, Uniao da Ilha and Grande Rio saw how their costumes and floats got decimated and burned down. In a huge supporting gesture after the accident, several other escolas financially assisted those affected; and also lent them resources so that they could partially rebuild the ‘allegories’. The Escolas-de-samba League cooperatively allowed them to parade anyway, no matter the condition they might be able to reach by the beginnings of march (date of the 2011 carnival).

Yet, when the time came for Grande Rio to parade, adversities seemed not to have ceased. As they had to perform under torrential rain, their dancers slipped a couple of times and hit hard on the wet floor (sprains included). Continue reading

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Bullies to school

          Last week news got filled with headlines such as these: (articles linked)

<<He was hit for being fat, then video uploaded in the web>>

<<More school violence: now girl hit for being pretty>>

          In these cases, school bullies went too far. But this kind of things happens every day among kids and teenagers. Some opinions hold that the matter is children’s stuff, and the problem only truly arises if it spreads to young adults. However, lying behind these headlines we find a teen kicked and elbowed who ended up down on the floor –while several others enjoyed filming in round- and also a girl with a broken tooth and an injured lip who fainted after perceiving her own bleeding. Where is the thin line that separates harmless children’s stuff from irreversible hurting? Including, of course, emotional damage: not just limited to immediate humiliation but also comprising the condition of remaining internally ‘vulnerable’, ‘undervalued’ and with a whole repertoire of anticipatory fears.

          Knowing how social conditioning imprints in our brain wiring (yes, we literally talk about changes in the way neurons connect), it is somehow a crime to emotionally abuse somebody or to subject them to any kind of moral harassment. Because, in fact, it promotes a lasting feeling of scorn within that person. It leads to a self-image of inferiority or helplessness (even stronger in young human beings, since they have a more ‘plastic’ brain). That imprint generates in the long run a self-model of identity that later in life discourages self-esteem and strengths. As Swiss François Ansermet and Pierre Magistretti would say, we are talking about a self-restricting <<synaptic footprint>> here.

          But on the other hand, there is another modern knowledge counterbalancing the previous argument. Continue reading

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“Acceptance is fundamental” – Conversation with Ludmila Marcote

They say that when you are already aged and look back, you can tell how worth your life is by the experiences you have had. That’s what we can take along with us. It’s about that which remains inside. Material things vanished behind our path. So, why not making sure of having beneficial experiences and emotions until the very last moment?

          That’s precisely what Ludmila Marcote came up with. She –together with her partner Lucía Rebagliati- decided to start up En Compañía. A company which promotes the well-being of <<those above 60>> through integration, fun and other activities. It takes into account the quality of life of the elderly in our society.

          Moreover, Ludmila and Lucía were awarded with Buenos Aires Emprende 2010. Evidence of a very particular talent to integrate vocation with a sustainable solution. Model for the aspiration of many young people, Ludmila -29 years old- is already her own boss and works on what she loves.

          This convergence is not minor, and that’s why we treated matters such as: the fear of admitting oneself as aged (age-denial), the effort of entrepreneurship, empathy and emotional contagion, loneliness, the need of being useful. And a brain which is still active and neuroplastic even when old.

          Ludmila has the exactly balanced character to promote the bond that conciliates two different generations… separated by two generations of age.


- Your role is observed by two very different clusters, evidence of the two fundamental aspects of your job. One cluster is the elderly. And the other one is the niche of young people willing to be entrepreneurs or already on their way to it. Those who don’t want to be employees; instead, their own bosses. Where do you place your largest effort? In entrepreneurship or in the aged?

[Ludmila] – It’s a balance of both. I weigh them constantly. Continue reading

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Contemporary anxiety

          If we list our most frequent emotions, we will surely find anxiety in our top-ten. And I bet that many people have it falling under their top-5, though they might not be aware (due to how used we are to it!).

          No one could depict it better than Nik with his Gaturro, so this time he gets the picture-of-the-day award. Endemic anxiety is clearly a contemporary phenomenon. Not that our early ancestors hadn´t felt it –let us not forget that emotions bear an evolutionary ground and have been developing with their variations along tens of thousands of years in our species. But the reasons for anxiety have become more than abundant in the last couple of centuries.

          Can we recognize any pattern in the mechanism of anxiety, or is it that each one of us gets affected in an absolutely particular way? The truth is the answer goes: both. And that’s not playing with words. In fact, each one of us will feel this emotion depending on the circumstances in which we are immersed (as Ortega y Gasset accurately used to say, “I am I and my circumstance”). Anyway, patterns can be noticed; kind of ‘macro’ themes. Deep down these core themes can be explained by certain <<quality>> of stimuli. They are the ones that, decoded by our mind, act as very precise triggers to start the internal mechanism that turns us anxious.

          Paying attention to several issues simultaneously, running from one place to another, not getting on time, not making ends meet, deadlines, multiple demands at once… All these drive us towards anxiety. But beneath this chaotic foam, identifiable triggers underlie.

          The trigger par excellence is related to that feeling of wanting things <<RIGHT NOW>>. And thanks to it, we can begin to explore the mechanism: Continue reading

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“If you control expectations, you control emotions” – Conversation with Mr. Li Zhuming

Emotions are an essential aspect of management, for sure. Particularly in high level positions, such as the one held by Mr. Li Zhuming, who has performed as CEO of Huawei in Argentina for the last five years. Jim, as he is also called, led the fastest growing vendor of telecommunications in the country -and also in the world.

So, what does this leader think (and feel) of emotions when it comes to merging two apparently separate cultures –Chinese and Argentinean? Which were the main motivational challenges given the current Argentina scenario?

Jim, with a calm and thoughtful personality, shows that he thinks twice before opening his mouth. Wisely, he delivers clear messages and drops no extra words in his speech. Being a good listener is an obvious feature in his character too. Jim strongly believes emotions at work are very important.

Apart from the issues above, we talked about learning to control our emotions, making decisions, cultural differences between Chinese and Western methodologies, and even medicine and some philosophy of life.

Jim also revealed himself as a deep connoisseur of the I-Ching book, the bible of change, which also led to a wonderful off-the-record discussion about the different stages in life and the patterns of permanent mutation in nature.

Thanks, Jim, for the inspiration!


- Is there a specific emotional difference between Chinese and Argentinean people?

[Jim] – No, there’s not a difference due to nationality. It depends on the background of the person, on his/her experience and character, not on their nationality. Continue reading

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Secret vote and private emotions

          The hot topic of August: primary election, of course. I mean, the result of it. The final count of the votes surprised even the ruling party itself, whose expectations were only getting 40% to consolidate towards the major election in October. The point is, before Sunday 14th, although you could still hear conflicting opinions, many comments in bars, offices, gyms and meetings with friends spun around <<I wouldn’t ever vote Cristina>>.

What happened then? The purpose here is neither to take sides about the result, nor to promote or criticize anybody. What is interesting about this situation is that once again we find a cliché that rings the bell to all of us. I’m talking about the one which goes <<I didn’t vote him (HER)>>. This deserves our attention.

The phenomenon <<I-didn’t-vote-him>> is by no means a deviation of the Argentinean psyche, for those at first tempted to reach that conclusion. In fact, it is a rather common response throughout contemporary democratic societies. We can cast an eye, for instance, on the www.yonovoteazp.es wristbands, which claim to exonerate the wearer from the supposed ‘blame’ of having contributed to take Zapatero to the Spanish government.

I would like to venture an explanation resourcing to the <<Johari Window>>, which I used precisely a few days ago in a seminar, and to its <<Secret>> quadrant. Conceived in the ’50s by the Americans Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham, it matches what we perceive and know of ourselves with what the others see of us.

The best case is that in which we and the others both share the same opinion about ourselves: no dark areas. We can link confidently –or simply decide not to do so- because we are clear on each part’s attributes. But, what happens in the <<Secret>> zone? It is there where we are aware of personal features that others ignore … and in fact we try it to be so. That’s the environment of our private life, contributing to our individuality, which we safeguard in order not to feel vulnerable.

The most apish and funny example comes naturally: we don’t want anybody to see what we do sitting in the toilet or when singing in the shower. Continue reading

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