Four articles this month. Three of them are about humans the last one, about giraffes, is just something I threw in for fun. The three articles about people deal respectively with yet another mooted cause for schizophrenia, how our sense of touch affects our judgment and an unconventional, but very intuitive, way of determining whether or not someone is lying.
The first article is from The Economist and deliberately evokes a scenario that could have come right out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There have been many different causes mooted for schizophrenia over the years and some of the theories I’ve read even include pathogens. But this is the first time I’ve heard that it’s caused by one that explicitly causes behavioral changes in its host to ensure its own propagation.
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (June ’10)
Three articles of scientific import for the first month of the new year. The first one is about stem cells. Nothing really exciting except that it demonstrates, if in a rather grisly manner, how magically effective they work at staving off the effects of aging. The second one is about liquid diamond on the planets Uranus and Neptune. The last one is about a new theory on how human brains understand music and why we find it appealing.
Stem cells are old news by now but this article from Harvard Magazine describes a simple experiment that nonetheless successfully demonstrates the regenerative powers of stem cells in a very dramatic fashion. The experiment, led by Amy Wagers of Harvard University, surgically joined two mice so that their blood supply became shared. One of the animals was old. The other was young. The idea was that the blood from the young mouse would awaken the stem cells of the old mouse and enhance its regenerative abilities.
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (January ’10)
Three articles this month and all of them are related in some way to the study of human nature. The first article touches on an explanation of why depression occurs from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. The second one demonstrates that humans really are that irrational when it comes to making economic decisions. The last one is on how caffeine might hold the key to curing Alzheimer’s disease.
The first article is from The Economist and covers a theory by Randolph Nesse of the University of Michigan. Dr. Nesse thinks that depression can be thought of as being analogous to physical pain. Just as pain serves to dissuade us from doing things that cause us physical harm, so depression serves to dissuade us from doing things that cause us mental harm. By this, he means specifically the pursuit of unreachable goals. Since pursuing goals that are ultimately unreachable wastes precious time and energy, he theorizes that depression exists as a mechanism to inhibit doing so.
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (July ’09)
I’ve only noted one science article of any interest this month. Perhaps the financial crisis is taking its toll on scientific research as well? This one is from The Economist and covers how social animals make collective decisions. One study by Christian List of the London School of Economics and Larissa Conradt of the University of Sussex examined how bees choose a site to migrate to and start a new nest. As described, scouts are sent out to find suitable locations and when they get back they perform the bees’ infamous waggle dance to tell the rest of the hive what they’ve found out. The longer the dance goes on, the better the site. The entire hive needs to sort out which site is the best one and make a collective decision to move the queen and the worker bees to it.
The scientists found that the hive manages to make extremely reliable decisions even though there are only minor differences in quality between the sites. In order to find out how they did this, they created a computer model to simulate the results from different variables. They found that two aspects of their decision-making process were crucial towards correctly determining the best course of action: one, freely sharing information between the scouts and the rest of the hive and two, the independence of other bees to confirm the scouts’ findings by following their routes, checking out the site for themselves and then confirming the results to the rest of the hive by performing waggle dances of their own.
The implications for human behavior are obvious, though I think that the attempt by The Economist to link this to the theories of the 18th-century philosopher Nicolas de Condorcet, who believed that decisions taken collectively by a large group of people are more likely than those taken by a select few, is a bit of a stretch.
Three articles for this last installment from 2008, though two are from The Economist, both of which are related to human sexuality in some way. The last one is speculation about a device that could one day be used to let someone see what another person is dreaming about.
The first article from The Economist covers a paper by Rosalind Arden of King’s College, London and her colleagues on correlations between genetic fitness, general intelligence and, of all things, sperm quality, in human males. Researchers have recently discovered that general intelligence is correlated with many aspects of an individual’s health including his or her lifespan. This is unsurprising, because it can be expected that people who are more intelligent might take extra care to live healthier lives, but evolutionary psychologists are also interested in the idea that intelligence is a manifestation of a general, genetically-based healthiness which is attractive to the opposite sex. They believe that humans evolved general intelligence above and beyond its usefulness in everyday life as part of a genetics arms race to attract mates, in the same way that male peacocks have evolved elaborate tails.
Continue reading Recent Interesting Science Articles (December ’08)
The role of the brain in determining religiosity gets put into the spotlight again by a new study by the University of Missouri. As reported by ScienceDaily, this is one of the first studies that use individuals with traumatic brain injury to investigate the connection between religion and the human brain. The data gathered from this particular study lends support to a neupsychological model that links specific forms of spiritual experiences with decreased activity in the right parietal lobe of the brain.
The type of religious feeling that is relevant here is selflessness and the transcendence of feeling a strong connection with others and the universe. The researchers found that people who had suffered brain damage in that area of the brain reported higher levels of these types of spiritual experiences. The researchers also suggest that it is possible to induce such feelings by reducing activity in that part of the brain through conscious meditation or prayer.
As my post title indicates, however, this is far from the first time that religious inclination has been linked to brain damage. This BBC article from 2003 for example, suggests that people who suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy are prone to suffer from hallucinations that they may interpret as being religious in nature. Even more interestingly, that article references an experiment that involved studying the brain activity of a Buddhist who was meditating and found that the parietal lobes of the brain were almost completely shut down during that time, the same part of the brain that was involved in this new study. According to the BBC article, this area of the brain is responsible for giving us our sense of time and place, which might help explain why shutting it down would make humans feel that they’re not an individual but are instead a part of the wider universe.
I don’t really have the time to examine this in-depth today but this new study does raise an interesting perspective for me personally. In the BBC article, Richard Dawkins, probably the most famous living atheist today, was found to be more or less immune to the effects of a magnetic field directed around the temporal lobes of his brain, while others who had undergone the experience reporting feeling some sort of “presence”. This led the article to suggest that different people may have a variable “talent” for religion. In the same way, would this mean that humans whose parietal brain regions are naturally more active or well developed innately feel more individualistic and self-centered?
A while back, I blogged about how philosophy is embracing empirical experiments. A couple of experiments, one by the University of Minnesota and the other by the University of British Columbia, make for a great example of this. Both experiments had similar aims: to examine what effects belief in free will has on human morality and were structured similarly. The experimental subjects, mostly college students, were separated in two groups. One group was given text to read that expressed skepticism on the subject of free will, arguing that human actions and decisions were mechanistically determined by a variety of genetic and environmental factors. The other group was given either a neutral text in the case of the first experiment or a text that explicitly endorsed and defended free will in the second experiment.
After reading the texts, the students were given the task of completing a test. In both experiments, the students were given the opportunity to cheat on the tests, while being erroneously led to believe that their cheating would not be detectable. The results were that students who were given texts that were skeptical on the subject of free will were more likely than the others to cheat on their given tests. The researchers wisely caution against reading too much from these results, but at first glance, they appear to confirm concerns that advances in our understanding of how our minds work have far greater long-term ethical implications that the more publicly known worries over genetic engineering and nanotechnology.