I love improv comedy because of its authenticity. You might ask me, how can a dramatic form where the performers are literally making everything up as they go possibly be authentic? To that I would say, “Yes, and… Fuck, I really should’ve thought that one out more.”

I’ve always been a fan of comedy, but five years ago, if you had asked me to go to an improv show, I would have passed, saying (or at least thinking), “It may be a great way for comedians to hone their skills, to build those 10,000 hours, but I want to watch their best, painstakingly edited final product, not their practice session.”

Last night, I was walking down a crowded street, earbuds in, listening to Comedy Bang Bang. My face was so lit up by the comedy, that it drew multiple strangers to me who asked why I was so happy and try to absorb some of my overflowing joy.

Because that’s the thing—emotions are contagious. This is why multi-cam sitcoms have laugh tracks. But real emotions are also hard to fake, and this is why canned, exaggerated laugh tracks feel so jarring.


Can you spot the genuine smile? Your unconscious can.

Expressing emotions is one of the most honest things we do. It’s difficult to fake a genuine smile. Sure we can pull up the corners of our mouth into a “say cheese” grin, but like a Japanese emoticon a true smile comes from the scrunching of the eyes. ^^;

When we really smile and form a so-called Duchenne smile[1], we smile with our mouth but also contract the muscle that surrounds the eye, the orbicularis oculi, which squints the eye and often produces crows-feet (why they call them laughter lines). The orbicularis oculi is partly under conscious control and partly under the control of the autonomic nervous system, the unconscious system, which regulates processes like your heartbeat, blood pressure, and intestinal flow.

It’s popular myth says it’s impossible to fake a Duchenne smile, but a recent study shows that using a photo of a Duchenne smiles as an example, a subset of participants can at least fake a passible Duchenne smile, though it’s unclear exactly how good these imitations really are. I do wonder if talented actors and models have more control of these muscles either directly and consciously, or through some sort of cerebral Rube Goldberg machine of inner thought.


Similarly, it’s equally difficult to fake a laugh or to add that beautiful giddy tinge to words that you can hear when someone speaks after they laugh. And that’s the thing about an improv show like Comedy Bang Bang: you can hear that people are having fun. You can hear their stifled laughs, their genuine surprise at what’s just been said. At moments it feels like you’re back at a sleepover at that precise moment around 3AM when everything becomes funny for no apparent reason.

Can you tell which of these clips is the real laugh: ダウンロードClip A,ダウンロードClip B

As an aside, WikiHow, AKA reptilians’ and sociopath’s favorite site for learning how to fake being a human, contains this useful 15-fucking-step illustrated guide to faking a laugh: “Fake laughing is a useful social skill that you can employ… By its very nature, laughter is irregular, so the measured tones of your fake laughter can easily be spotted. Add variety to your laughter by starting with low tones and ending with a higher pitch, or vice versa… Human brains distinguish between real and faked laughter by the breath inserted between your chuckles and chortles.”

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Of course, genuine emotion isn’t unique to improve comedy. Some of my favorite SNL memories are of comedians breaking and cracking a smirk, and one of my favorite Beatles moments is the verse in Maxwell’s Silver Hammer where Paul laughs in the middle of the take. Maybe it’s surprising it took me so long to come around to improve, but now a show like Comedy Bang Bang or Harmontown can make my day.

True emotions are also sometimes captured in more unusual ways. For example the Mumblecore show Togetherness (season 1 is phenomenal) would sometimes edit in shots of actors’ genuine expressions taken from when the cameras rolled between scenes.

Writing this blog post has made me wonder why we haven’t evolved the ability to fake genuine emotion. Why can’t we make ourselves cry on command, why can’t we fake a genuine smile, make our faces red with anger—why is acting so hard for most of us? Is their some sort of advantage to our inability to fake our emotions? Is the value of being trusted after a genuine smile greater than the value of being able to fake one?

Or have our brains just not evolved to that point where our conscious mind has gained control over our evolutionary ancient, hard-wired emotional responses. Are we all stuck in evolution at the point where we are the emotional equivalents of characters in the world of the invention of lying:


I’m not a comedian, but like many comedians, I do this because of my insatiable need for the approval of strangers. So if you liked this please let me know or share this article with the links below, or follow me to see more contents like this.


[1] The Duchenne smile is named after this crazy dude, Duchenne de Boulogne who shocked people’s facial muscles into different emotions.

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“Autism is about having a pure heart and being very sensitive… It is about finding a way to survive in an overwhelming, confusing world… It is about developing differently, in a different pace and with different leaps,” Trisha Van Berkel.

How do genes—DNA, these physical atoms: carbons, hydrogens, and nitrogens—influence our subjective experience of consciousness? And how can mutations to genes lead to the alterations in behavior and consciousness seen in disorders like autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is now estimated to affect 1 in 68 children in the United States and causes difficulties with social interaction, and a tendency towards repetitive behaviors and restricted interests. A surprising new study published in Cell indicates that two well-studied mutations that cause autism may actually be acting outside of the brain, and an oft-overlooked symptom may be more important than we’ve thought.

This new study—which we’ll return to in a moment—connects fundamental autism biological research to an emerging line of research that shows our body contains a special set of nerves whose function is detecting pleasant social touch.

Orphaned monkeys, cattle squeeze chutes, and hypersensitivity to touch.

Touch is an integral part of social experience. In the 1950s, In response to radical behaviorists like B.F. Skinner, who thought that a child’s love for his or her mother came from the repeated association of the mother with food, Harlow showed that monkeys have an intrinsic desire for touch:

Those poor cute Harlow monkeys…😦

Harlow raised baby monkeys in complete social isolation, unless you count the two monkey mannequins in their room. The first was made of metal wire and dispensed milk, and the second had no clear functional benefit to the baby monkey, but it was covered in soft cloth the monkey could cling to. Harlow showed the monkeys would feed from the metal monkey, but spend their time with the cloth one and seek it out when they were distressed.

Parental touch plays an important role in soothing a child’s negative emotions[1], and is a large component of early interactions between parent and child such as nursing, cradling, and swaddling, the foundation upon which social interaction may begin to be learned.

However, many autistic people report difficulties with their sense of touch. Temple Grandin, a neuroscientist on the spectrum described her experience: “As a child, I craved to feel the comfort of being held, but I would pull away when people hugged me. When hugged, an overwhelming tidal wave of sensation flowed through me.” This desire to be embraced (and some bovine inspiration) prompted her to invent a “squeeze machine,” that allowed her to simulate being embraced without the overwhelming, unpredictable stimulation of direct human contact.

While Grandin isn’t representative of the typical ASD patient, her experiences with touch are. In a survey of caregivers of nearly 300 children with ASD, 60% reported their child experienced tactile sensitivity differences greater than two standard deviations from the mean—for example experience severe distress during grooming. These symptoms are now become acknowledged as representative, and the latest version of Psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (DSM) includes sensory abnormalities as a core feature of the disorder.

スクリーンショット 2016-08-19 12.15.57 PMsource: https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.61.2.190

So, what is causing these sensory differences in autism? Why is touch important for human interaction and social development? Can social deficits in autism be explained by sensory hypersensitivity?  Continue reading ‘Two well-studied autism mutations cause social defects in mice. But they’ve now been found to do so through effects outside the brain. How can this be?’

I wasn’t suicidal, but I was curious what would happen. Surely, the live-streaming app bought by the $10 billion dollar company Twitter had thought of this use case. I imagined a notification would pop up, advising me who to call if I needed help, but no, the post went through.

Instantly, fifty people joined compared to my usual two or three viewers, and some messaged homophobic slurs and goaded me on to suicide, but it wasn’t all bad. Concerned people asked if I was okay. Others told me what I was doing was a horrible, irresponsible joke, and one person shared a story about how upsetting my post was as her father had committed suicide on the exact same day a year before.

I felt bad about what I had done, but still felt Periscope should have predicted these situations and somehow handled it better.

Then, three months ago, a French 19-year-old, did it for real–again, goaded on by users.

While the internet may be guilty Continue reading ‘A year ago, I typed ‘suicide’ into Periscope and hit stream — Why aren’t we using social media to screen for mental illness and offer access to care?’

3,250 meters above the sea and 1,000 meters above the clouds, in a wooden cabin that fits 250 people into bunks like sardines…
Continue reading ‘Everything changes at once (nothing ever changes)’

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We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”―Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

After Fight Club was published in 199,6 our dreams have further devolved and divorced themselves from aspirations of talent. Now we just want to be loved, famous, and privelidged? Why aim high and put all the work into becoming a movie star, when you can just ride someone’s coat-tails Entourage style or become the next Kim Kardashian.

Millennials are the most narcissistic generation, fueled by our self-esteem obsessed culture, exemplified by children’s song lyrics like “I am special, I am special, look at me…” Or such is the gist of the argument San Deigo State personality psychology professor Jean Twenge has made in several books and recently, where I caught wind of this story, on NPR’s Brain Matters podcast. I’ve heard this sentiment made before. Indeed, most Millennials have heard this sentiment and have internalized it[1].

But is it true?

Are Millennials really Continue reading ‘Are Millennials Really Narcissists?’

flipping the script

Monkey see, monkey do. We may not be monkeys, but we frequently ape others, mirroring their posture, behavior mood. When we act angrily, others respond with anger. When we act kindly, others respond in kind.

Invisibilia’s latest episode looks at what we can do when we flip this script, and respond in an unexpected way with non-complementary behavior. Here I’ll discuss some of science mentioned in the show and extend it into the wonderful world of mirroring to teach you a very important life skill–how to spot the coolest dude in the room.

So what is non-complimentary behavior?

See example 1 of armed robbery, wine, and non-complimentary behavior from the show illustrated with puppets:


And example 2, eerily similar story of armed robbery, wine, and non-complementary behavior Continue reading ‘Breaking the Feedback Loop: How non-complementary behavior can save your life. Also, how to know ‘Who’s the coolest guy in the room?’’


A recent Invisibilia episode discusses frames of reference—the frames we use to interpret our world—and how our own frame of reference can clash with that of others, even our own family. For immigrants and their children, differences in culture, generation, class, and historical context lead to dramatically different frames of reference—after all what is a little bullying in school compared to the Holocaust. My own non-immigrant father’s stories of waking up at 5am to milk the cows before going to school made me grateful for my upper-middle class suburban life and guilty if I messed up in school.

But frames of reference extend far past Continue reading ‘Frames of Reference – Why Smart People Feel Stupid, Money Buys Happiness, and You Will Never Feel Truly Satisfied’


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