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Seeking Patterns

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Fine. Randomness may govern the world around us, but does it guide US?? Jonah Lehrer joins us to examine one of the most skilled basketball teams ever, the '82 - '83 '76ers, and wonders whether or not the mythical "hot hand" actually exists.

Then we meet Ann Klinestiver of West Virginia, an English teacher who was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1991. When she began to take a drug to treat her disease, her life changed completely after one fateful day at the casino. Jonah discusses the neurotransmitter dopamine and the work of Wolfram Schultz, whose experiments with monkeys in the 1970s shed light on Ann's strange addiction and the deep desire for patterns inside us all.

Comments [12]

Lee from Oceania

I think it's kind of tragic that this woman stopped taking her medication to free herself of her compulsion to play gambling machines, because it probably wasn't necessary back then, and it's almost definitely not necessary nowadays.

My mother likes gambling, and her favorite way to gamble is by playing poker machines. But I've been able to "divert" her away from gambling from time to time by getting video games for her to play instead. She played Zuma twice all the way through before it got boring enough for her to gamble again. She also liked a game called Snood. Lately she plays mostly card games as well as Mah Jong and its many variants on the computer too.

Brightly-colored games with sound effects and animations associated with "achieving" something in the game affect people's brains the same way that gambling machines do, even if spending money isn't involved. There are many casual games lately that can get addictive but don't require paying more than the original price of the game. However, games that require spending money for extra bonuses, perks, etc. should be avoided. (A lot of casual games that are actually "pay as you play" or require spending extra for "premium content" are widespread on Facebook and mobile phone app stores. For someone inclined to gamble compulsively, those should definitely be avoided.)

Jun. 17 2016 10:55 AM
till meinhof

The December issue of JAMA Internal Medicine includes the following article: "Reports of Pathological Gambling, Hypersexuality, and Compulsive Shopping Associated With Dopamine Receptor Agonist Drugs" - congratulations on scooping a top medical journal. While this side effect wasn't unknown, the scope of it seems to only become clear now.

Radiolab is what keeps my faith in humanity alive! If a public radio station can be that interesting, all is not lost.

Dec. 17 2014 01:24 AM
John from Manhattan

Dr. Jemour Maddux, an NYC forensic psychologist, published an article about how the courts should deal with individuals like this. Here's a link and excerpt:
"What if someone's dopaminergic medication for their Parkinson's Disease caused significant psychological impairment that ultimately resulted in a criminal act? This example is the focus of this article, which aims to demonstrate the etiologic and phenotypic similarities between a mental disease or defect as typically defined by courts, and the treatmentinduced dopaminergic syndrome commonly seen in patients with Parkinson's Disease. Hopefully this will prove to be useful in answering the question of whether some medication-induced psychological conditions that are causally related to a crime are exculpatory within courts' current interpretation of these criminal defenses, assuming sufficient cognitive or volitional impairment can be demonstrated."

Dec. 01 2014 10:08 PM

Heh heh, just looking at all these comments should underline the message that we urgently WANT to see those patterns and want those patterns to show Ultimate Truth.

Nov. 30 2014 09:56 PM
george from DC

After listening to the randomness of streaks (no hot streaks)and then the dopamine story I saw a grave disconnect. If neurotransmitters actually have a function, and from the gambling addition it appeared that function could fluctuate, then logically streaks should happen because of fluctuating neuro responses. Other physiological traits would also be expected to fluctuate, perhaps: fluid in the lung, recently ingested foods. If so hotter and colder streaks should be expected. Otherwise why would sports authorities worry about performance enhancing drugs?

Nov. 30 2014 01:47 PM
Dead Rodent Typing from California

Good show BUT as an ex-neuroscience grad student, it irks me (yes, I have been irked) that your show *seems* to neglect mentioning the underlying behavioral principles. Which have been known for decades, and which in general neuroscience does not (imho) alter; rather, it gives us or attempts to give us clues as to underlying mechanisms.

IMHO. Keep up the good work.
Best Regards,

May. 01 2013 11:52 AM
Ted Fridirici from Harrisburg, Pa

Either I dont get it, which is quite possible, or their logic regarding a "hot" basketball player is flawed. Their flaw seems to me to be that they only consider what a players field goal percentage (FGP) was or has been in the past....through his career so far ....and not what his final FGP is when his career is over. While its quite possible it would stay about the same throughout his career he could also get a new shooting coach or trainer or a new guru and make a much larger percentage of shots in the latter part of his career. This would result in a much higher FGP than what they are assuming or basing their discussion on. They are looking to the past to predict what he might do in the future. They cant know if he will be a better shooter from the point forward from which a discussion of his "hotness" ensues ...or worse ....or about the same. Taken to the extreme consider this, a lifetime FGP of 50% could be made up of 10,000 missed shots in a row followed by 10,000 made shots in a row. If you pick up the discussion after he's missed his 9999th shot what are you likely to predict? You cant know because you cant predict the future. Is he or will he be hot or not? If you knew his final FGP at the end of his career would be 50% you would say he is or will soon be VERY "hot". If you instead somehow knew his FGP when he ended his career would be 0% well then you would know he was not. If you knew it would be 75% than you know he is going to make quite a few more than he misses FROM THIS POINT IN TIME FORWARD and doing that over a given period is called being "hot".

Ok so what am I missing?

Apr. 29 2013 07:22 AM

My father was almost president of the United States. He was skipper of the PT 108.

Jul. 15 2012 01:13 PM
Spencer from utah

I still think that the idea of streaks being something that doesn't happen is incorrect. Were the statisticians trying to say that a basketball player will have the same shooting percentage every year of their career? And that every game they play will fall into that same percentage. Because I know for a fact that isn't true. I've seen guys shoot 2 for 10 one night and then 9 for 10 then next? Tennis players will have a their percentages go down as they age usually, and will still have the off night or the on night. I just don't buy it at all, unless I am misunderstanding what was being said.

Jun. 30 2011 07:22 PM
Avi from Michigan

Robert misspoke. (Sorry!) Schultz was not measuring actual dopamine release, he was only measuring the activity of dopamine neurons. It's difficult to connect an action potential with actual neurotransmitter release. That is the main problem with all of his studies (and all electrophysiology), they tell you nothing about actual release, nor where that release is taking place (dorsal striatum vs ventral striatum vs PFC).

Dec. 08 2010 02:59 PM
Eric Anderson from New Mexico

On Jonah Lehrer's comment about Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak being the only outlier in sports. There has been a paper published to show that this isn't the case. Samuel Arbesman and Steven H. Strogatz (who I think contributes to some other episodes) published a paper after simulating ten thousand 100 year histories of baseball and found that a streak of that nature is likely to have occured, but not likely to have been preformed by Joe. Here is a link.

Dec. 03 2009 03:34 PM
Chuck from Midwest US

Regarding basketball players and streaks, your statistician was not entirely correct.

To paraphrase, he was saying that streaks will occur even if the probability stays constant over time. I agree with that. But that does NOT prove that the probability stays constant. Streaks will also occur if the probability fluctuates - so will apparent "randomness.

To put it another way - the basketball player's state at any given time influenced by all previous states. Also, the environment is different at each moment in time. What are the odds that is probability of making a given shot are exactly the same as every previous shot? That seems pretty unlikely to me.

Oct. 02 2009 12:28 PM

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