Alix Spiegel

Alix Spiegel has worked on NPR's Science Desk for ten years covering psychology and human behavior, and has reported on everything from what it's like to kill another person, to the psychology behind our use of function words like "and", "I", and "so." She began her career in 1995 as one of the founding producers of the public radio program This American Life. While there, Spiegel produced her first psychology story, which ultimately led to her focus on human behavior. It was a piece called 81 Words, and it examined the history behind the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

In January 2015, Spiegel joins NPR Science Reporter Lulu Miller to co-host Invisibilia, a new series from NPR about the unseen forces that control human behavior – our ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and thoughts. Invisibilia interweaves personal stories with fascinating psychological and brain science, in a way that ultimately makes you see your own life differently. Excerpts of the show will be featured on the NPR News programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. The program will also be available as a podcast.

Over the course of her career in public radio, Spiegel has won many awards including a George Foster Peabody Award, a Livingston Award, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, a Scripps Howard National Journalism Award, and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.

Originally from Baltimore, Maryland, Spiegel graduated from Oberlin College. Her work on human behavior has also appeared in The New Yorker magazine and The New York Times.

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Shots - Health News
2:23 am
Fri January 16, 2015

By Making A Game Out Of Rejection, A Man Conquers Fear

Daniel Horowitz for NPR

Originally published on Tue January 20, 2015 6:56 am

Fear is one of the strongest and most basic of human emotions, and it's the focus of Fearless, the second episode of Invisibilia, NPR's new show on the invisible forces that shape human behavior.

This segment of the show explores how a man decided to conquer his fear of rejection by getting rejected every day — on purpose.

The evolution of Jason Comely, a freelance IT guy from Cambridge, Ontario, began one sad night several years ago.

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Shots - Health News
2:33 am
Mon January 5, 2015

What Heroin Addiction Tells Us About Changing Bad Habits

U.S. soldiers at Long Binh base in South Vietnam line up to give urine samples at a heroin detection center before departing for the United States. About 20 percent of soldiers said they were addicts, but most didn't continue drug use back home.
AP

Originally published on Mon January 5, 2015 3:15 pm

It's a tradition as old as New Year's: making resolutions. We will not smoke, or sojourn with the bucket of mint chocolate chip. In fact, we will resist sweets generally, including the bowl of M&M's that our co-worker has helpfully positioned on the aisle corner of his desk. There will be exercise, and the learning of a new language.

It is resolved.

So what does science know about translating our resolve into actual changes in behavior? The answer to this question brings us — strangely enough — to a story about heroin use in Vietnam.

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Shots - Health News
2:17 am
Mon September 1, 2014

Our Use Of Little Words Can, Uh, Reveal Hidden Interests

Katherine Streeter for NPR

Originally published on Sun October 5, 2014 8:50 pm

One Friday night, 30 men and 30 women gathered at a hotel restaurant in Washington, D.C. Their goal was love, or maybe sex, or maybe some combination of the two. They were there for speed dating.

The women sat at separate numbered tables while the men moved down the line, and for two solid hours they did a rotation, making small talk with people they did not know, one after another, in three-minute increments.

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Shots - Health News
3:07 pm
Mon July 7, 2014

The Secret History Behind The Science Of Stress

Camel marketed smoke breaks at work as time spent relaxing instead of stressing. Camel, 1964.
Stanford University

Originally published on Tue July 8, 2014 2:47 pm

The modern idea of stress began on a rooftop in Canada, with a handful of rats freezing in the winter wind.

This was 1936 and by that point the owner of the rats, an endocrinologist named Hans Selye, had become expert at making rats suffer for science.

"He would subject them to extreme temperatures, make them go hungry for long periods, or make them exercise a lot," the medical historian Mark Jackson says. "Then what he would do is kill the rats and look at their organs."

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Shots - Health News
2:27 am
Mon June 23, 2014

How A Woman's Plan To Kill Herself Helped Her Family Grieve

Maria Fabrizio for NPR

Originally published on Mon June 23, 2014 4:06 pm

This story is in no way an endorsement of suicide. It's a description of one woman's choice and what came of it.

Five years ago, after doctors told her that she had Alzheimer's disease that would eventually steal her ability to read, write and recognize people, Sandy Bem decided to kill herself.

Sandy was 65 years old, an unsentimental woman and strong willed. For her, a life without books and the ability to recognize the people she loved wasn't a life she wanted.

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Shots - Health News
2:22 am
Mon April 14, 2014

Mind Over Milkshake: How Your Thoughts Fool Your Stomach

Bianca Giaever for NPR

Originally published on Mon April 14, 2014 1:58 pm

It was late, almost 9 at night, when Justin Holden pulled the icy pizza box from the refrigerator at the Brookville Supermarket in Washington, D.C.

He stood in front of the open door, scanning the nutrition facts label.

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Shots - Health News
5:30 pm
Mon April 7, 2014

Play It Again And Again, Sam

Rick Blaine, the sentimental tough guy in Casablanca, pined for "As Time Goes By."
The Kobal Collection

Originally published on Wed April 9, 2014 7:57 am

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Parallels
2:55 am
Wed April 2, 2014

So You Think You're Smarter Than A CIA Agent

A group of 3,000 ordinary citizens, armed with nothing more than an Internet connection, is often making better forecasts of global events than CIA analysts. Here, a man crosses the CIA logo at its headquarters in Langley, Va.
Saul Loeb AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Wed April 2, 2014 12:04 pm

The morning I met Elaine Rich, she was sitting at the kitchen table of her small town home in suburban Maryland trying to estimate refugee flows in Syria.

It wasn't the only question she was considering; there were others:

Will North Korea launch a new multistage missile before May 10, 2014?

Will Russian armed forces enter Kharkiv, Ukraine, by May 10? Rich's answers to these questions would eventually be evaluated by the intelligence community, but she didn't feel much pressure because this wasn't her full-time gig.

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Shots - Health News
3:43 pm
Fri December 27, 2013

When Memories Never Fade, The Past Can Poison The Present

Having a perfect memory can put a strain on relationships, because every slight is remembered.
Katherine Streeter for NPR

Originally published on Mon December 30, 2013 7:08 am

On Feb. 21, Alexandra Wolff ate steak, mashed potatoes and broccoli for dinner. Later that night, sitting in her room, she spent 20 minutes scanning pictures in InStyle magazine.

She remembers those things, just as she remembers that on Aug. 2 she stopped at Target and bought Raisin Bran; and on April 17 she wore a white button-down shirt; and on Oct. 2 she went to TGI Fridays and spoke to the hostess, who was wearing black leather flats with small bows on them.

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Shots - Health News
2:04 am
Mon May 20, 2013

If Your Shrink Is A Bot, How Do You Respond?

Ellie is a computer simulation designed to engage real people in meaningful conversation and take their measure. The computer system looks for subtle patterns in body language and vocal inflections that might be clues to underlying depression or other emotional distress.
YouTube

Originally published on Mon May 20, 2013 4:19 pm

Her hair is brown and tied back into a professional-looking ponytail. She wears a blue shirt, tan sweater and delicate gold chain. It's the first time she has met the man sitting across from her, and she looks out at him, her eyes curious.

"So how are you doing today?" she asks cautiously, trying to build rapport.

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Shots - Health News
3:26 pm
Mon April 29, 2013

Big Sibling's Big Influence: Some Behaviors Run In The Family

iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Wed May 1, 2013 11:02 am

Patricia East is a developmental psychologist who began her career working at an OB-GYN clinic in California. Thursday mornings at the clinic were reserved for pregnant teens, and when East arrived the waiting room would be packed with them, chair after chair of pregnant adolescents.

It was in this waiting room, East explains, that she discovered her life's work — an accidental discovery that emerged from the small talk that staff at the clinic had with their young clients as they walked them back for checkups.

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Shots - Health News
9:18 am
Wed April 17, 2013

Boston Blasts Remind Us Of Fragility Of Life

Jillian Blenis, 30, of Boston reacts while stopping at a makeshift memorial to marathon bombing victims Wednesday.
Julio Cortez AP

Originally published on Wed April 17, 2013 4:33 pm

From the first explosion in Boston on Monday to the second, just 15 seconds elapsed. And in those 15 seconds, three people were mortally wounded, including an 8-year-old boy. The number of injured topped 100, and for those of us watching, it was a profound reminder of a reality we'd prefer to ignore.

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Shots - Health News
4:55 pm
Mon April 8, 2013

Would Angry Teens Chill Out If They Saw More Happy Faces?

Researchers say that aggressive people tend to interpret ambiguous faces as reflecting hostility.
iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Mon April 8, 2013 8:59 pm

All day long we're surrounded by faces. We see them on the subway sitting two by two, pass them on the sidewalk as we make our way to work, then nod to them in the elevator.

But most of those faces don't tell us much about the emotional life of the person behind the face.

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Shots - Health News
2:41 pm
Mon April 1, 2013

Mining Books To Map Emotions Through A Century

When anthropologists tallied the use of emotional words through a century of literature, they included many books without clear emotional content — technical manuals, for example, and automotive repair guides.
Steve Debenport iStockphotography

Originally published on Tue April 2, 2013 9:18 am

Were people happier in the 1950s than they are today? Or were they more frustrated, repressed and sad?

To find out, you'd have to compare the emotions of one generation to another. British anthropologists think they may have found the answer — embedded in literature.

Several years ago, more or less on a lark, a group of researchers from England used a computer program to analyze the emotional content of books from every year of the 20th century — close to a billion words in millions of books.

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Shots - Health News
3:41 am
Mon March 11, 2013

New Voices For The Voiceless: Synthetic Speech Gets An Upgrade

Samantha Grimaldo was born with a rare disorder, Perisylvian syndrome, and has never been able to speak.
Ellen Webber for NPR

Originally published on Wed March 13, 2013 12:23 pm

Ever since she was a small child, Samantha Grimaldo has had to carry her voice with her.

Grimaldo was born with a rare disorder, Perisylvian syndrome, which means that though she's physically capable in many ways, she's never been able to speak. Instead, she's used a device to speak. She types in what she wants to say, and the device says those words out loud. Her mother, Ruane Grimaldo, says that when Samantha was very young, the voice she used came in a heavy gray box.

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Shots - Health News
3:32 pm
Mon February 25, 2013

To Spot Kids Who Will Overcome Poverty, Look At Babies

For some kids who grow up in poverty, the bond developed with Mom is especially important in dealing with stress.
iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Wed February 27, 2013 5:25 am

Why do some children who grow up in poverty do well, while others struggle?

To understand more about this, a group of psychologists recently did a study.

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Shots - Health News
2:33 am
Mon February 11, 2013

Why Even Radiologists Can Miss A Gorilla Hiding In Plain Sight

Notice anything unusual about this lung scan? Harvard researchers found that 83 percent of radiologists didn't notice the gorilla in the top right portion of this image.
Trafton Drew and Jeremy Wolfe

Originally published on Thu February 14, 2013 8:37 am

This story begins with a group of people who are expert at looking: the professional searchers known as radiologists.

"If you watch radiologists do what they do, [you're] absolutely convinced that they are like superhuman," says Trafton Drew, an attention researcher at Harvard Medical School.

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Shots - Health News
2:25 am
Mon January 28, 2013

No Mercy For Robots: Experiment Tests How Humans Relate To Machines

Could you say "no" to this face? Christoph Bartneck of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand recently tested whether humans could end the life of a robot as it pleaded for survival.
Christoph Bartneck

Originally published on Tue January 29, 2013 4:15 pm

In 2007, Christoph Bartneck, a robotics professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, decided to stage an experiment loosely based on the famous (and infamous) Milgram obedience study.

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Shots - Health News
3:20 pm
Thu December 27, 2012

Shootings Leave Sandy Hook Survivors Rethinking The Odds

People visit a memorial outside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 15.
Spencer Platt Getty Images

Originally published on Thu December 27, 2012 10:02 pm

About a month ago, Declan Procaccini's 10-year-old son woke him early in the morning in a fright.

"He came into my bedroom and said, 'Dad, I had a horrible, horrible dream!' " Procaccini says. "He was really shaken up. I said, 'Tell me about it,' and he told me he'd had a dream that a teenager came into his classroom at his school and shot all the kids in front of him."

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Shots - Health News
4:11 pm
Fri November 30, 2012

Weekend Vote Will Bring Controversial Changes To Psychiatrists' Bible

iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Mon December 3, 2012 11:18 am

This weekend, 20 people from around the country will meet in a nondescript hotel room in Arlington, Va., and take a vote. A passing stranger who stumbled on this group wouldn't see much of anything, just a bunch of graying academic types sitting around a table.

But millions of people will be touched by that vote because the graying academic types are voting to approve the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual — the bible of psychiatry.

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Shots - Health News
3:49 am
Mon November 26, 2012

Give And Take: How The Rule Of Reciprocation Binds Us

A Hare Krishna distributes food gifts from a chariot during a festival in London in 2011. The religious group began distributing books, flowers and gifts to strangers in the 1970s, drawing on the rule of reciprocation to raise money.
Matthew Lloyd Getty Images

Originally published on Mon November 26, 2012 8:44 am

In 1974, Phillip Kunz and his family got a record number of Christmas cards. In the weeks before Christmas they came daily, sometimes by the dozen. Kunz still has them in his home, collected in an old photo album.

"Dear Phil, Joyce and family," a typical card reads, "we received your holiday greeting with much joy and enthusiasm ... Merry Christmas and Happy New Year's. Love Lou, Bev and the children."

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Shots - Health News
2:29 am
Mon November 12, 2012

Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning

Chinese schoolchildren during lessons at a classroom in Hefei, east China's Anhui province, in 2010.
STR AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Thu November 15, 2012 1:17 pm

In 1979, when Jim Stigler was still a graduate student at the University of Michigan, he went to Japan to research teaching methods and found himself sitting in the back row of a crowded fourth-grade math class.

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Superstorm Sandy: Before, During And Beyond
3:51 pm
Tue November 6, 2012

Jersey Shore Storm Survivors Face Uncertain Future

Jennifer Ruiz and her 2-year-old daughter, "Moo Moo," at a Red Cross shelter in Little Egg Harbor Township, N.J. Ruiz and her daughter evacuated from their home in Seaside Heights.
Alix Spiegel NPR

Originally published on Tue November 6, 2012 7:37 pm

The barrier islands off the coast of New Jersey were hit hard by Superstorm Sandy, and for the moment, most residents are banned from living in their homes because the area is far too damaged.

Which is why this past weekend, in a Red Cross shelter at Pinelands High School in Egg Harbor, N.J., on the mainland, around 100 stranded island residents were lining up for dinner, while Red Cross volunteers worked hard to keep things reassuring.

"Excuse me everybody!" shouted one of the volunteers, waving her arms above her head. "Is there a Jan and a Manny in the house?"

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Politics
4:46 pm
Tue October 23, 2012

Charming, Cold: Does Presidential Personality Matter?

With the advent of radio and television, presidential charisma became a more important personality characteristic. Above, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who is rated one of the most charismatic presidents; John F. Kennedy; Bill Clinton.
Getty Images

Originally published on Thu October 25, 2012 8:59 am

As part of NPR's coverage of this year's presidential election, All Things Considered asked three science reporters to weigh in on the race. The result is a three-part series on the science of leadership. In Part 2, Jon Hamilton examined leadership in the animal kingdom.

Charming or cold. Flexible or rigid. Paranoid or impulsive or calculating.

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Science
2:33 am
Wed October 3, 2012

How Politicians Get Away With Dodging The Question

In a 2004 debate in St. Louis, President Bush answers a question as his opponent, Sen. John Kerry, listens. Both candidates used a number of "pivots" in their debates.
Ron Edmonds AP

Originally published on Wed October 3, 2012 9:14 am

Brett O'Donnell is a debate consultant who trains Republican candidates. He has worked with George W. Bush and John McCain, and for a short time earlier this year, he helped prep Mitt Romney.

O'Donnell is an expert on "the pivot."

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