S K R A T M O X P S E H T #SCIENCE
#POLITICS #MIND #MEDIA
I S S U E 1 0 • F E B R UA RY / M A R C H 2 0 1 3
A LESSON ABOUT MACBETH YOU DIDN’T LEARN AT SCHOOL
HOW REAL MEN DANCE FROM PUNK TO PYTHAGORAS THE SECRET WORLD OF FOOD FLAVOURS
THE GURU TEAM Stuart Farrimond realdoctorstu.com Jon Crowe Ben Veal benvealpr.com
Editor / Science Guru @realdoctorstu
Deputy Editor/ Molecular Guru @crowe_jon
Media Guru @benvealpr
J. N. Lloyd
Design Guru firstname.lastname@example.org
FEATURED IN THIS ISSUE Anina Mumm transcriptsc.com Matt Linsdell smart-fit.ca
@aninja_m Fitness Guru @smartfitmatt
Daryl Ilbury www.darylilbury.com
Sceptic Guru @darylilbury
Artem Cheprasov Leila Wildsmith Guru Opinions www.writingonthewall0612.blogspot.co.uk Kim Lacey kimberlylacey.com
Mind Guru @kimlacey
James Lloyd thesoftanonymous.com
Physics Guru @jbb_lloyd
Toby Brown Ross Harper
Simon Makin Natasha Agabalyan Food Guru thescienceinformant.com @SciencInformant Abigail James @_abigailjames
Kathryn Lougheed germzoo.blogspot.co.uk
Benjamin Chabot-Hanowell Berit Brogaard
think there’s a little bit in all of us that dreams of being the best. For some of us it will be the fantasy of our cooking prowess being recognized by a Michelin Star; for others, it will be the penning of a novel that sells more than J.K. Rowling. For me, being a world-famous surgeon was high up the list. This ambition was dashed five years ago when I was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Surgeons twice needed to chop chunks out of my grey matter, ultimately forcing me to hang up my stethoscope for good. The upside of surviving the tumour has its downsides: I am told I am now less socially inhibited – speaking my mind too freely, and often being landing in hot water as a result. Brain damage rarely has a good outcome, but that’s not always the case: in this issue we read the story of ‘Jason’,
a beer-swilling womaniser who was transformed into an artist and mathematics prodigy after serious head injury. Inspiration can also be found through Fitness Guru Matt Linsdell’s account of overcoming sporting injury and James Lloyd’s guide to dancing. Sceptic Guru Daryl Ilbury offers a crash course in dinner-party Latin, and our Food Guru Natasha Abagalyan explains how processed food gets infused with our favourite flavours. Read, enjoy – and be inspired. … Want to make Guru Magazine better? Join the Readers’ panel, complete a survey, and tell us what you think. We’re offering a new iPad and some great prizes for those who do. Find out more here.
GURU 10 • February/March 2013 • ISSN 2048-2590 © 2012 Guru Magazine Ltd.
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CONTENTS #HUMAN BODY
5 REASONS NOT TO PREPARE FOR A ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE The zombies are coming! The undead have infected movies, video games and even politics. South African journalist Anina Mumm comes up with five good reasons not to get a shotgun – just yet.
TALES FROM THE WATER COOLER: GETTING THROUGH BACK PAIN
Every Friday we open up the digital gates to reader’s questions – both weird and wonderful. We endeavour to find the best answers and feature them on our website. Here’s a selection of some of the best from the last two months.
OF CAPITAL IMPORTANCE Why can’t kids spell? Leila Wildsmith wags her teacher’s finger at the media. It worries her because if we don’t understand language, we don’t really understand ourselves.
OUT, DAMNED SPOT! THE MACBETH EFFECT
To look at him, you’d consider Fitness Guru and personal trainer Matt Linsdell to be the pinnacle of health, with a physique people would pay good money for. Yet a hidden pain hampers his joie de vivre. He shares his hurt in the hope that we can avoid such pain ourselves.
A soak in the bath can wash away all manner of stresses. But a guilty conscience? Mind Guru Kim Lacey reports on how – subconsciously – regret makes us compelled to wash – remarkably, even after just playing video games.
STRIKE A POSE Michael Jackson liked to ‘Shake his Body’ and Billy Idol would ’Dance on his Own’. Lady Gaga says ‘Just Dance’. Few men can La Bomba like Ricky Martin, but Guru’s resident groovster James Lloyd explains how a guy’s dance floor grind can wow the women.
LATIN, AND THE MODUS OPERANDI OF THE SUPER SCEPTIC It’s never too late to learn new things. If your Latin knowledge is nil, then take a look at Sceptic Guru Daryl Ilbury’s crash course. It won’t just impress your friends: it could also help you win any argument!
REPORTING THE NEWS YOU PROBABLY MISSED… Guru’s writers give a roundup of some interesting and quirky developments that didn’t make it into the popular press.
SOCIAL KNOWLEDGE: THE GAME A mobile app that explains your subconscious – from playing a game? Sounds like it could be fun, but Kim Lacey isn’t impressed…
In between the bread and milk, supermarket shelves are becoming populated by some very weird foods. Food Guru Natasha Agabalyan finds out what goes into making her banoffee pieflavoured yoghurt.
THE FUTURE’S BRIGHT: CONSUMER GENETICS IS HERE It’s a safe bet a Tarot card reader won’t give you a reliable prediction of the future – but ‘buy your own’ genetic testing promises to be a crystal ball for your health. Abigail James asks whether you really want to know.
YOUR GUTS FOR GLORY We all want to do something for humanity – but poo-ing into a pot? Simon Makin puts a peg on his nose…
ALICE IN WONDERLAND SYNDROME: WHEN REALITY GOES DOWN THE RABBITHOLE Kat Lougheed had an odd childhood: reality would distort and twist, making her feel the size of a hobbit. Alice in Wonderland Syndrome is truly bizarre – but helps us understand the mind of an anorexic.
THE CHEMISTRY OF WEIRD-TASTING FOOD
WANT TO BUILD THE PERFECT SMARTPHONE? Dropped calls, frozen screens, disappearing contacts: it can make you want to throw your smartphone in the bath. Doctor John Ankers looks to alternative sources for inspiration to solve mobile frustrations.
LAST MINUTE SHOPPERS ARE NICER PEOPLE Hoping to get something special for Valentines? Benjamin Chabot-Hanowell recommends that you shouldn’t give your beloved too much advance warning of what you want - or those roses might turn out to be a bunch of chrysanthemums.
HEAD-BEATING TRANSFORMS TEENAGE SLOB INTO CREATIVE VIRTUOSO Guest writers Kristian Marlow and Dr Brogaard tell the real-life story of Jason, who underwent a miraculous change after a brutal mugging.
#THE GURU STORY SO FAR...
#THE EVOLUTION OF CUTLERY Page 63
5 REASONS NOT TO PREPARE FOR A ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE
Once, not too long ago, a zombie apocalypse was just a daydream. Now though, the living dead are all the rage, with zombie-fever having spawned dozens of movies, video games and books. But some people are taking it a little too far. Anina Mumm explains why we should cast out all fear of the shuffling dead. At least for the time being… Gun sales in America are booming as Patriots everywhere empty their favourite zombie cartridges at life-size zombie targets – all in practice for their bloody zombie doom. For inspiration, they watch The Walking Dead, and then flip the channel to Discovery’s Zombie Apocalypse to learn more about how to shoot ‘em in the head.
This time we can’t just laugh and say “Only in America!”People worldwide are taking this zombie thing just a little too seriously. Australian Prime Minister, Julie Gillard, even namechecked zombies as a cause of the impending apocalypse (in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way). So should we be worried? In short: no. A basic biology lesson should convince you that life is for the living:
The circulatory system If zombies are dead, they don’t have a heartbeat. Without a pulse, blood cannot be pumped around the body. Blood transports oxygen, blood cells, glucose, minerals and hormones to where they are needed in the body. Even zombies, who must retain some of their former biology, can’t survive without such things. The blood system ties together all the other systems, and so without it nothing in the body would work. In other words, this article could really end here. But, for argument’s sake, let’s pretend…
The immune system Zombies have pale, smelly and oozy skin. This is because they are dead and dead things rot. Rotting happens when bacteria, maggots and all sorts of other bugs start to infest and feed on the body. One of the reasons this doesn’t happen to your lively self is because you have an immune system. So if zombies had this vital system they would not rot at all, and so would lose that winning, wormy smile. Instead, they would lack the white blood cells needed to fight infection. So save your bullets, because their own decay should finish them off before you can say “Ew, get it off me!”
The digestive system According to the internet, and psychiatristcum-zombie-expert Dr Steven Scholzman, the most feasible way to kill and then re-animate a person is through a viral infection. Some say such a virus would cause the hypo-
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5 REASONS NOT TO PREPARE FOR A ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE
Image courtesy Jay Caboz Copyright 2012
5 REASONS NOT TO PREPARE FOR A ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE
thalamus, the part of the brain that controls basic bodily functions, to develop a zombie’s taste for humans through the primal urge of hunger. Your ‘primal brain’ also controls your appetite, of course, but somehow when you become undead your brain would drive you to cannibalism. Really? Even if you were vegetarian? They also say this virus would change the zombie’s DNA so that it would no longer need energy from food. When you eat food, enzymes, acids and bacteria in your gut break it down into smaller pieces that, with the help of hormones like insulin, are absorbed by the body and used for energy. A very large number of genes control this complicated process of turning meat into movement, thoughts and, yes, even farts. Is it really likely then that a zombie-virus could rewrite the human recipe contained in DNA to such an extent that it would develop an entirely new way of getting energy without food, gut bacteria or metabolic hormones? I’ll let you answer that.
The musculoskeletal system Speaking of meat and movement,the jerky advances of the un-dead must be powered by their muscles. Even if zombie muscles could get en-
ergy from that amazingly unlikely new DNA recipe, they still wouldn’t work. Muscles need very specific amounts of minerals like calcium, potassium, phosphates and sodium chloride (that’s table salt to you and me). You should get these from your normal diet and they control how your intricate muscle fibres contract and relax to give you balance and movement. What’s more, without oxygen (from the blood) muscles would stiffen as rigor mortis sets in. If the zombies don’t eat ... and they don’t pop vitamin pills ... and their blood doesn’t flow ... how could they stagger so?
Temperature and pH Some say that a zombie’s body temperature is higher than a human’s. It just so happens that every protein in the human body, including hormones, enzymes (proteins that make the chemical reactions in our body happen as they should) and antibodies (molecules used by the immune system to attack microbes and other alien invaders), work perfectly at 37 degrees Celsius. At lower temperatures (which arise, say, in the case of death) proteins can work, but very slowly. At higher temperatures, they become distorted and stop working. So unless this virus
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5 REASONS NOT TO PREPARE FOR A ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE can cause proteins to work at different temperatures, zombies won’t, unfortunately, end up in your cross-hair. The acidity of the body (its pH) also affects how well proteins can function. Death has this uncanny way of totally disrupting the body’s acid balance, which is normally kept in check by the respiratory and urinary systems. In other words, when you stop breathing and peeing to get rid of carbon dioxide and waste, your body’s pH changes and your proteins malfunction.
The Real Zombie Virus
And a few serious journal articles:
It might be worth a mention that a zombie virus in itself is not altogether far-fetched. Viruses can definitely mutate DNA and can be spread through biting. What is far-fetched is the idea that a virus could recode DNA to such an extent that a corpse could survive rotting, convert to cannibalism, get energy without eating, move without minerals and function at a different temperature and pH. To put it simply, zombie biology just wouldn’t work, so you really can stop preparing for that apocalypse. Wrap your head in aluminium foil instead - because the aliens are coming...
A Harvard Psychiatrist Explains Zombie Neurobiology Psychiatrist Steven Schlozman analyzes what makes the undead tick From Voodoo to Viruses: The Evolution of the Zombie in Twentieth Century Popular Culture The Undead Report Zombie Biology Munz, P., Hudea, I., Imad, J. and Smith?, R.J. (2009) ‘When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling Of An Outbreak Of Zombie Infection’, Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress, pp. 133-150. Ragan, S.M. (2005) ‘Etiology of Remoero-Fulci Disease: The Case for Prions’, J. Zom. Sci., vol. 6, pp. 1519-1523. Smith, R. (2009) ‘A report on the zombie outbreak of 2009: how mathematics can save us (no, really)’, CMAJ, vol. 181, no. 12, pp. E297-E300. Stanley, D. (2012) ‘The nurses’ role in the prevention of Solanum infection: dealing with a zombie epidemic’, J. Clin. Nurs., vol. 21, no. 11-12, pp. 1606-13.
Anina Mumm is a biochemist/journalist by training. She runs Transcript, a science communication company specialising in writing, editing, infographics, social media and photos. She is also an executive member of the South African Science Journalists’ Association. In her spare time she dabbles in data journalism and nurtures her addictions to food, the gym, social media and the colour purple. Anina fights ignorance on twitter as @aninja_m.
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(Model of a Virus) Flickr • eviltomthai
GETTING THROUGH BACK PAIN TALES FROM THE WATER COOLER
MATT LINSDELL • FITNESS GURU
GETTING THROUGH BACK PAIN
In 2008 I developed tremendous back pain. The pain travelled down my left leg and restricted my normal daily activities. After several months, it had begun to diminish when, one day, I was out running and it appeared again. In fact, the pain came on so strongly it felt as if I had been shot with an arrow. My girlfriend forced me to take a bath with eucalyptus-scented Epsom salts. For the record, there is no scientific evidence that Epsom salts do anything other than make the bath water salty. And now I hate the smell of eucalyptus. Despite my girlfriend’s loving efforts, the pain persisted and so I finally went to a walk-in clinic. The attending doctor referred me to an orthopaedic surgeon – setting the wheels of the Canadian healthcare system in motion. Full of jokes, the surgeon examined me thoroughly. He explained that one of the inter-vertebral discs low down in my back had bulged and cracked, and now its juicy centre (known as the ‘nucleus’) was compressing the nerve root in my spine – hence the pain down my leg. Not really a laughing matter. I was destined for the Vancouver Spine Clinic. However, before the surgical consultation finished, the jovial surgeon lowered his voice and his face took on a very serious expression: “Matthew, if your symptoms become worse – if you have any loss of control of your bladder – then you must go to the emergency room immediately. It is possible that the nerve in your back could become irreparably damaged. If that happens you will never have control of your bowels again and you will never have an erection again.” Things got real for me right then. It became clear that this injury, although common, was more than a mere inconvenience – for me or my girlfriend.
Pain? Wait until the surgeons get hold of you Several consultations and a CT scan later, I was offered both surgery and a ‘nerve root block’ – a
steroid injection into the nerve that is causing the pain. Neither was a prospect I fancied: you don’t really want to mess around with sharp objects when the spinal cord is involved. I opted for the less risky nerve root block first. To make sure the needle goes into the right spot, the docs use X-ray imaging. Which is comforting to know. It hurt. Only for a few seconds – but during those seconds it felt like a fire hose was under the skin of my back leg. And the hose was turned on full blast. I endured it, but my symptoms persisted.
Back to normal: the long road Months later I went for the surgery – a procedure called a discectomy (basically cutting out a bit of the broken vertebral disc). My recovery after the operation was slow and I still experienced some pain down the back of my left leg – although thankfully less than previously. 18 months had passed from the time of my first symptoms to the day of the operation – and I learnt that when a nerve is aggravated continuously for this long it becomes hyper–sensitive. So even though the pressure on the spinal nerve had been relieved, it continued to send pain signals. In my case I had low-level ongoing pain. I was lucky. For some people the pain is continuous and extreme. My sister’s ex-boyfriend was one of the unlucky ones. Tragically, he committed suicide because he couldn’t bear the agony. What I want to stress is that some injuries to nerves, if dealt with in a rapid manner, can have much better outcomes. Through my experience as a personal trainer, I know people who have had the same injury as me, with the same surgical intervention, and their recovery was complete. This may have because they only waited weeks, rather than months, before seeking help. Maybe they are just the lucky ones.
Avoid the quacks ‘Non-Specific’ Lower Back Pain is a catch-all term used by medics for this very common malady. Doctors all over the world see people with it every day and often it resolves naturally: the pain restricts what you can do, you take it easy, and so it goes away. The symptoms commonly occur when the pain is from over-stressed muscles, rather than nerves. Because these problems are so common, and often get better over time, they offer ripe pickings for quackery and odd therapies.
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Chronic pain can be a terrible, distressing affliction. Is there ever a time when you need to eschew evidencebased treatments in favour of alternative relief, or rely on the adage that time is a great healer? Fitness Guru Matt Linsdell reflects on his own agonising lessons.
GETTING THROUGH BACK PAIN Confusion arises when muscular back pain is ‘treated’ and then gets better. Most people will attribute their recovery to their treatment – whatever it was. This leads many victims to the ‘logical fallacy’ Post Hoc Ergo Proctor Hoc – translated ‘After therefore because of’. (Check out Sceptic Guru’s (Daryl Ilbury) excellent guide to logical fallacies on page 18). When you are in pain you feel desperate. I know. You are prepared to try anything – and if you try something and notice a lessening of your pain, you sing the praises of the treatment and declare it to be a cure. Everyone is susceptible to this tendency because this is a part of human nature. All manner of quack nostrums have arisen because of this – with sensible-sounding claims of being able to cure back pain. I’ll stay humble: maybe your treatment did help, but maybe it didn’t. Time tends to heal most issues. And time is what passes after we swallow a pill, have a massage, get our backs cracked, stick dozens of little needles in our skin or rub stinky balms all over our body. All these ‘treatments’ have something in common: the passage of time. I was fortunate to make a good recovery, but my pain lingers like a drill sergeant. If I do everything by the book, it won’t bother me. As soon as I stop following the advice given at the Spine Clinic, the pain flares up like that in-your-face shout-fest popularized by American war movies. It should be noted that not all shooting lower back (or ‘sciatic nerve pain’) requires surgery. But by sharing my story I hope to impart some knowledge to all Guru readers about a condition that is very common. This article is a recollection of experiences, not medical advice. My hope is for you to think critically about whatever course of action you take. Is your chosen remedy likely to be a placebo, or is there evidence to support that it works? Did you get better because of the treatment or did enough time pass that it went away on its own? Is your condition serious enough to merit a trip to an orthopaedic surgeon or will a few days of kicking back with a TV remote fix you up? Let my
story ring in your ears next time you feel a stifling pain in your back. I sought out evidencebased medical science. I didn’t want just to feel better – I wanted to be fixed. And if I had to do it all over I would do the same again, only sooner. And I’d skip that nerve root block. Damn that hurt.
THE ‘RED FLAGS’ There are several warning signs that may mean back pain is caused by a serious condition. Immediate medical help should be sought if you experience: • • • • • • • • • • • •
a fever of 38ºC (100.4ºF) or above unexplained weight loss swelling of the back constant back pain that does not ease after lying down pain in your chest or high up in your back pain down your legs and below the knees pain caused by a recent trauma or injury to your back loss of bladder control inability to pass urine loss of bowel control numbness around your genitals, buttocks or back passage pain that is worse at night (From NHS Back Pain advice)
Matthew Linsdell has a degree in Environmental Science and is a certified personal trainer. He calls himself an evidence-based trainer, as training is a field littered with well-disguised pseudoscience. He owns a small exercise facility in Ottawa, Ontario where the emphasis is on teaching the biology behind the exercise – you find can out more at smart-fit.ca
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ASK A GURU Ever had one of those questions that really bugs
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every Friday our team of Gurus will be accepting
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website. Here’s a selection of some of the best:
If a man has gender reassignment surgery will he suffer ‘phantom limb’ type feelings? Phantom limb syndrome is the sensation of a body part being present even after it has been amputated. A most peculiar condition, the amputee can find the absent limb feeling very real and even as if it can be moved and manipulated. It’s a surprisingly common syndrome and can be extremely painful for many: an amputated hand may feel as if it is clenched and the fingernails are digging into the palm. The reasons for phantom limb sensations are unclear but they are thought to be due to the way the brain is ‘hard-wired’ for all its body parts: a region within the parietal brain lobe (the top of the head) has a ‘map’ for receiving sensations from different body regions. When a body part is removed, this – now redundant – brain segment ‘creates’ an image of the missing body part from other bodily sensations. It isn’t imagined – the feelings are just as real as when the body was whole.
Gender reassignment involves (obviously) the removal of body parts. For men, the penis (although not a ‘limb’) seems to be vulnerable to the same problem as for arms, hands, legs and feet. 60% of transsexual men experience phantom ‘limb’ feelings for the absent genitalia after surgery. And not just men are affected: women commonly feel ‘phantom’ breasts after a mastectomy.
Answered by Dr Stu (Science Guru)
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ASK A GURU
Why does my atheist brother-in-law complain when his son refuses to believe in Father Christmas? Asked by @Christomill via twitter I have given this much thought because there are three ways of approaching the issue of challenging personal beliefs: by tip-toeing daintily through the tulips, bashing through the obstruction with a frontend loader, or – my personal favourite – obliterating the tulips with the front-end loader. I’m going to have to take the first route, because ideally as a science journalist I’d need to interview all parties before throwing any light on the matter; and besides, there are some sensitive issues at stake here. Firstly, I have to assume that your atheist brotherin-law doesn’t believe in Father Christmas either. That makes sense because the character doesn’t exist outside of folklore, and even then, in such apparently diverse forms as to render reports of him untenable as proof. Besides, in order to deliver as many presents as needed in a single night (even to only the good children), would require Father Christmas (and his reindeer) to do some interesting things with the laws
of physics (see The Physics of Santa) Secondly, I also have to assume that because the son has been brought up in a home where at least one the parents is an atheist, he has been encouraged to employ critical reasoning. He has therefore come to the logical conclusion that Father Christmas doesn’t exist. This means that – unlike his peers who have been encouraged to believe in nonsense – he won’t grow up to believe in horoscopes and homeopathy. The logical answer to your question is therefore simple… it’s love (altogether now, 1…2…3…”aaaah!”) I can imagine that your brother-in-law doesn’t want to risk his son being prejudiced by his peers (and their judgemental parents) by running around and telling everyone that Father Christmas doesn’t exist.
Answered by Daryl Ilbury (Sceptic Guru)
What is Sausage Skin Made of?
(More Presents!) Flickr • MissMessie, (Sausages) Flickr • Paul Keller
Asked by Heather Young Oh boy. Those of you who are squeamish and want to ensure you continue to enjoy sausages better look away now as there are two answers – and one of them isn’t pretty. Sausage skins are also known as ‘casings’. It used to be the case that all sausage skins were made from the intestines of animals – cows, pigs, sheep, and so on. Yep, the stuff that digests food and makes faeces – the intestines – are used to encase the ground meat you so thoroughly enjoy. However, it’s not that simple. Your intestines, and those of the mammals you most likely eat, are made of four layers. Sausage casings are made from the second layer from the inside, called the submucosa. Somewhat reassuringly, this tough layer has never been in contact with the animal’s poo. During processing, the other layers are stripped off and the submucosa is then cleaned and used for the sausage casings.
Now, for those of you about to vomit at the thought of all of this, don’t despair. New technological developments have allowed the development of artificial casings. These artificial casings can either be made from natural substances, like the hide of a cow, or from cotton. Finally, truly artificial casings can be made from plastic. Only one question remains: how long will this ‘tasty’ information keep you from eating your next juicy submucosal sausage?
Answered by Artem Cheprasov
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ASK A GURU
I have noticed that some products (such as Soy Milk) state a warning that it should be consumed within 4 days after being opened. How accurate is this? ‘Best before’ and ‘use by’ dates are used on different types of food. ‘Use by’ dates relate to perishable foods, which can ‘go off’ easily (like dairy products and meat). The ‘use by’ date indicates the latest date on which the food is definitely safe to eat (if stored correctly, that is: don’t expect milk to be any good on its use by date if it’s been left out of the fridge all day). ‘Best before’ dates are used for foods with a longer life than perishable goods – things like cookies and cakes. This date indicates how long you can expect the food to remain at its best quality. Such foods are typically still safe to eat after their best before date, but may just not be quite so pleasing on the palate. Not good unless you like stale-tasting muffins. Turning to things like soya milk, it’s generally best to heed the advice given on the packaging. Some things – like milk – may look and smell fine, even well after their use-by date, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t become contaminated with some lurking bug or other since you opened it. As a UK Food Safety expert
explains “It’s tempting just to give your food a sniff to see if you think it’s gone off, but food bugs like E. coli and salmonella don’t cause food to smell ‘off’ even when they may have grown to dangerous levels.” So food could look and smell fine but still be harmful. In short, ‘use by’ dates aren’t just produced as a result of guesswork, but rather as the result of careful testing. You can read more about the science behind ‘use by’ dates here. Incidentally, US soya milk manufacturers state that their products remain fresh for between 7 and 10 days, as reported here.
Answered by Jon Crowe (Molecular Guru)
There’s plenty more where they came from. Here are some corkers: •
Could you make someone love you by dosing them with ‘love’ hormones?
How true to real life forensics is CSI?
Why can’t women read maps? Why can’t men shop?
Do pets get mental health disorders?
Why don’t babies lose their voice from screaming?
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(Fridge) Flickr • Ollie Crafoord
Asked by Julio Vazquez via Facebook
LATIN, AND THE MODUS OPERANDI OF THE SUPER SCEPTIC HOW TO WIN ARGUMENTS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE
DARYL ILBURY • SCEPTIC GURU
LATIN, AND THE MODUS OPERANDI OF THE SUPER SCEPTIC English is rapidly becoming the lingua franca of scientific communication, allowing scientists the world over to share their ideas and discoveries. But English is not the only language to empower scientists, and give voice to scientific reason. It’s ironic that one of the most powerful tools for debunking both pseudoscience and those superstitions rooted in archaic thinking is itself thousands of years old. So what is this language? Our Sceptic Guru, Daryl Ilbury, has the answer: it’s Latin.
everyone pauses to ponder what’s just been said, invariably with at least an eyebrow cocked. So here are some handy Latin phrases to keep tucked into your sceptic tool belt, and explanations of how to use them in situations drenched in superstition and pseudoscience:
Don’t laugh and roll your eyes. It’s easy to dismiss Latin as a ‘dead’ language, particularly given that it’s no longer the official language of any country. However, not only is it still used, but it also remains the bedrock of several cornerstones of modern civilisation – most notably law and medicine. And for this reason it evokes strength and authority. RIGHT: A tablet with a 5th century Latin inscription located in the Colosseum in Rome.
It’s also impressive. Whip out the odd Latin phrase in polite discourse, especially with a dash of restrained ceremony, and it has the same impact as George Clooney announcing at a ladies’ book club that he also has a PhD in astrophysics: discussion suddenly stops and
You’re at a dinner party and a woman claims that she is finally pregnant after months of trying, and it’s all because – on the advice of an aunt – she and her husband made love with a potato under the bed. After everyone has smiled and nodded, you lean forward and say wistfully: “Aaah – the classic post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy”. When everyone looks at you with raised eyebrows you explain – with mild surprise that they obviously didn’t get it – it means ‘after this therefore because of this’. This is a commonly-used line of reasoning employed by peddlers of pseudoscience and superstitions, which basically goes like this: if B follows A then A must have caused B. This is ridiculous because it assumes coincidence is causation. Example: after successive games without scoring, a footballer dons a new pair of underpants when getting into his kit, and later scores a goal. Ergo, the new pair of underpants must have been responsible.
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Previous Page: (People) Flickr • Ed Yourdon, (Tablet) Wikimedia • Wknight94, (Pregnant Woman) Flickr • mahalie
The dinner party scenario: ‘How I got pregnant…’
LATIN, AND THE MODUS OPERANDI OF THE SUPER SCEPTIC was given to them by a friend of theirs who has traveled extensively throughout the world and is therefore very wise. Latin has a handy warning for moments such as this: nullius in verba – take nobody’s word for it. It is the motto of the Royal Society, and is explained thus: “It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.”
At the gym A friend shows you their new ‘Quantum Electro-Therapy’ bracelet that supposedly aligns the ‘geomagnetic arterial essences’ in their body. After finally composing yourself and wiping away the tears, you explain it’s a load of pseudoscientific rubbish. Clearly upset, they challenge you by saying: “How can you say that? I see a lot of people wearing them.” That’s when you slowly shake your head, smile and say, “Oh Bob, you’re a victim of the ad populum fallacy. The belief that something being popular is a reason for accepting it as true.”
In the doctor’s waiting room
The argument erupts After hearing your explanation for the above pregnancy, the women in the room angrily snap, “What do you know? You’re stupid!” To this you raise a finger and say, “I see now you’re resorting to an ad hominem argument”. This means ‘to the man’ and refers to the act of saying something is wrong based purely on a – usually irrelevant – judgment of that person. This tactic is generally employed by people who cannot provide evidence to support their argument, so resort instead to attacking the person with whom they are arguing – because they are an atheist, or because they support Manchester City, for example.
(Crystal Ball) Flickr • garryknight
The office scenario: ‘Check out my magic crystal…’ To some degree, this is the flip side of the women’s outburst. Someone in the office shows you a crystal they believe contains magic powers, and they rub it every day because, according to them, it will bring them good luck. They ‘know’ this to be so because the crystal
A friend says they’ve decided to seek the help of a homeopath because “they’ve tried everything” that their doctor has prescribed, apparently without success. The Latin phrase for this ridiculous leap of logic is a non sequitur, meaning ‘does not follow’. Just because one doctor hasn’t successfully diagnosed or treated an ailment doesn’t mean that a homeopath will.
At church You hear of someone who is denying their child medical attention because they believe some form of divine intervention will cure them. Their belief is based solely on faith, but the scientist in you knows this will place the health of the child at risk. You slowly shake your head, and say sadly, “Credo quia absurdum” (“I believe because it is absurd”). This is the seemingly paradoxical justification employed by those who believe that reason and faith are hostile to each other and that faith is superior at arriving at particular truths. So make a note of these phrases. Maybe even keep them in your mobile phone. And when the occasion arises (and if there’s one thing we know for sure it’s that superstition and pseudoscience remain ever popular) you’ll know what to do.
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LATIN, AND THE MODUS OPERANDI OF THE SUPER SCEPTIC
Bitten by the Latin bug? Keen to impress your friends and family with your newfound linguistic skills? Then try these: Argumentum ad lapidem
Argumentum ad nauseum
hen someone simply dismisses your W argument as being absurd, without providing any evidence thereof. Example: “Evolution? What a load of rubbish!”
When someone says the same thing over and over again in an attempt to establish it as true, as opposed to providing proof thereof.
Argumentum ad baculum
Homo homini lupus est
When someone threatens you in order to change your belief.
Which means ‘man is a wolf to his fellow man’. To be used sagaciously when witness to the horrors man often inflicts upon others, often in the name of some authority – for example, should some cult leader encourage his followers to do something that could result in their injury or demise.
Contra principia negantem non est disputandum A last resort. It means ‘against one who denies the principles, there can be no debate’. It should be directed at someone who rejects all logical principles of science. It is therefore fruitless to enter into any kind of discussion with them.
Daryl Ilbury is a multi-award winning broadcaster and op-ed columnist based in South Africa. He has a passion for science that has burned since he was a child. You can see an archive of his work on his website www.darylilbury.com or follow him on Twitter at @darylilbury.
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Of Capital Importance: why can’t people write properly anymore? As an English teacher, one of my pet-hates is the use of lower case letters instead of capitals. In 30 of my pupils’ books, I will see an average of 29 that are missing capital letters – at the start of sentences, for the date – even for a child’s own name. It seems as if they are not familiar with the concept of capital letters at all. In a world that is increasingly doing away with capitalisation, can we really blame them? Is culture, and specifically the media, responsible for this increasing illiteracy? In previous years, the decrease in ‘correct’ (or standard) spellings and grammar was blamed on the increased use of texting and Instant Messaging. A relaxed style of communicating, prompted by limited text message length (historically 160 characters) seemed to encourage a more informal style of language. However, today’s smart phones (which many of us now own) have no such message length restriction and will automatically correct both spellings and grammar, ensuring that punctuation marks (especially capital letters), are in the right places. Perhaps instead of blaming mobile phones, we should look to the powerful force of the media, who seem to be doing away with capital letters with abandon. The British television channel ITV is one such culprit: they have recently overhauled their brand identity, replacing their familiar capitalised logo with a lower case, curvy alternative. The channel describes its new logo as “a warm, bold design based on a formalised version of human handwriting”. This flowing, curvy, new design may well be based on handwriting , but as the name of a brand (and acronym), it ought
to be capitalised. (You can read about the decision behind the rebrand here). Branding that tries to replicate handwriting, and does away with linguistic conventions, raises the interesting question of language and influence. Just like the age-old question of the chicken and the egg, linguists have argued for a long time over which is more influential: language or culture? The words we use may very well shape how we see the world. One fascinating point of view is that the words we choose to represent certain things directly affect our perceptions. Known as ‘Linguistic Determinism’, it is considered the root of the argument for Political Correctness, in which language (along with attitudes, beliefs and policies), is amended to minimise offence in relation to gender, age, race, sexuality, belief etc. For example, masculine labels such as ‘fireman’ or ‘actress’ are replaced by the gender neutral ‘firefighter’ and ‘actor’. The interdependent relationship between language and cultural thought has long been debated, but Lera Borododitsky writes in her article ‘Lost in Translation’: “All this new research shows us that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality… If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world.” (You can read the article in full here.) Whilst language in general may shape how we construct reality, does the misuse of capitals really affect our thinking that much? Although
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students’ writing is not technically ‘correct’ without capital letters, I can still understand it. If our culture is doing away with capital letters, perhaps now is it time for us to shed them too? Facebook and Twitter are two further examples of the interesting link between cultural shifts and language. Despite being proper nouns, neither use a capital to represent their name as it appears in company logos. Again, we can ask: does this reflect a shift in modern culture to omit capitals, or does the omission of capitals on such popular sites encourage others to do the same? Many say that language really does reflect the changes that are occurring in culture already. We see this in the addition of new words popularised by TV programmes, such as ’Amazeballs’ and ’Bridezilla’, to online dictionaries (read
about this here). Perhaps the bigger issue is not the use or misuse of standard spellings and grammar, but the messages that are conveyed by inaccurate use. Yes, writing can still be understood without capital letters (I could have written this entire article without capitals; then again, my computer would make every effort to correct them for me), but what subconscious messages would I have conveyed about myself, or the magazine? That I wasn’t well educated? On a deeper level, inaccurate punctuation can lead us to construct an opinion, not just about a person’s literacy skills, but about their beliefs and values. If I didn’t use capitals, you might think me lazy, or that I didn’t care about my article or the magazine. You might not think much of the editorial staff who allowed this lack of capitalisation. At worst, you might doubt the validity of what we have to say. I doubt you would have thought me ‘cool’ or ‘forward-thinking’. In such a public, professional setting as a digital magazine, there is an expectation that the language used is formal. To follow this line of thought to one extreme, could we perhaps say that there is a direct correlation between the lack of capitalisation of proper nouns and the lack of respect in our society today? If I do not use correct grammar, my students may very well see me in a different light. When I go to see doctor Jones instead of Doctor Jones when I am ill, will I still trust his or her judgment? If I don’t use a capital letter for your name, will you still feel that I value and respect you? Perhaps most importantly the language we use – and specifically the lack of capitals – affects our thoughts about other people and our thoughts about ourselves. If I see myself (and represent myself) as ’i’ and not ‘I’, then I may not appreciate my own significance and importance. Instead, I undermine my own worth and encourage others to do the same. Perhaps our use of capitals really is of capital importance. Leila Wildsmith is an English teacher in a secondary school and, in her spare time, loves writing and reading a wide variety of different books. She occasionally blogs about writing at www.writingonthewall0612.blogspot.co.uk and intensely dislikes misplaced apostrophe’s.
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OUT, DAMNED SPOT! THE MACBETH EFFECT IS ALIVE AND WELL
KIM LACEY • MIND GURU
OUT, DAMNED SPOT!
Alright, get ready to have your mind stretched. (I am the ‘Mind Guru’ after all!) Dig into your memories of Shakespeare, recall the play MacBeth, and imagine yourself as Lady MacBeth for a minute. (Never seen it? Watch a fun condensed animated version here.) I want you to focus on that famous scene in which the guilt-ridden Queen Consort obsessively washes her hands, trying to rid them of imagined blood. She was hoping to rid herself of mental anguish – but how could hand-washing help her? Surprising though it may seem, morally objectionable actions can be ‘washed away’: in a 2006 article published in Science, ChenBo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist proved it. If you think about it, moral cleansing is pretty common. Religions, for example, often couple physical and mental cleansing in regular rituals (think baptism). But Zhong and Liljenquist set out to prove a tangible connection between these two types of cleansing. As a result, they coined term ‘The MacBeth Effect’. To test their theory, they asked participants to think of something ethical or unethical they had previously taken part in, while also bringing to mind any emotions they felt. Switching gears, the researchers then had the volunteers complete six fill-in-the-blank prompts. (There’s a small one on page 27 for you to try out.) Of these six prompts, some could
be completed to form cleansing-related words. What they found was fascinating: participants who thought of an unethical action were more likely to complete the blanks with cleaning terms. Those who originally imagined an ethical action usually filled in the blank with other random words that sounded right to them. But it gets more interesting. They also tried a similar experiment using an assortment of cleaning products and other everyday items instead of fill-in-the-blank prompts. This time, Zhong and Liljenquist asked participants to handwrite a given story – of which some were ethical and others were not. After the writing session, the participants were asked to select an item from an assortment given to them. Those that copied the unethical stories chose cleaning products (like toothpaste or antibacterial wipes) instead of random objects (like candy bars or Post-It notes). Zhong and Liljenquist concluded that seeking physical cleansing does actually ease the mind’s worry over moral infractions.
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Previous Page: (Washing Hands) Flickr • SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget, (bloody hand) Flickr • Jo Naylor
We went through childhood with the words ‘Wash your hands!’ ringing in our ears before every mealtime. But why would a grown adult find themselves reaching for cleansing products after playing a video game? It’s called the ‘MacBeth Effect’. Mind Guru Kim Lacey finds out more...
(Virtual Route Clearance) Flickr • The U.S. Army
OUT, DAMNED SPOT!
Videogaming guilt Shift your focus just a bit and think about how playing videogames might alleviate the stress after a trying day. It’s a common reason to pick up the joypad: the US Army has enlisted the use of videogame consoles to help soldiers become desensitized to violence – or to simply let them blow off steam. But why does playing a violent game – one in which you would ‘kill’ someone – actually make you feel better? A recent study by Mario Gallwitzer and André Melzer, published
in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, took ‘The MacBeth Effect’ one step further to find out the answer. Here’s the scenario: you’re trying to unwind after a tough day. Instead of kicking back with a book (which is my favorite!), you decide to relax by playing a first-person shooter (FPS), the type of video game that takes place from your perspective so it appears like you’re the one performing the action. So there you are, ready to strike from behind a digital bush, and BOOM! You successfully vaporise your target— another human character. OK, stop right there. How do you feel? Energised? Morally conflicted? Not affected? Though you may not realize it, your response to that question has something to do with the amount of time you spend gaming. Frequent gamers would be more likely to say ‘not affected’, while infrequent gamers (like myself) would likely choose ‘morally conflicted’. Gallwitzer and Melzer’s study drew on research that showed how gamers who played on a regular basis were more likely to automatically distance themselves from the characters and actions in the game than those who didn’t play video games often. They predicted that
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OUT, DAMNED SPOT!
infrequent gamers were more likely to use hygiene products after playing because of the ‘moral distress’ they endured. And they were right. For someone like myself, who’s not much of a gamer, Gallwitzer and Melzer’s study represents a key finding. Just as with the original ‘The MacBeth Effect’ experiment, they show that those who experience moral distress virtually (from a video game) are more likely to select cleaning products when given a choice. By contrast, regular gamers don’t feel any moral distress, so don’t feel the need to reach for the cleansing products. (Does this mean gamers smell worse? - Ed) Glancing round my house, I know it’s time for a good spring clean. I’ve not done anything immoral lately, so I’m pretty confident it’s the actual dirt that is prompting me to reach for the vacuum cleaner. That said, next time I’m out shopping I may just psychoanalyse the products in someone else’s cart. And see if they look guilty…
HERE’S A MINI-QUIZ: GIVE IT A GO YOURSELF. Make words by picking letters to fill in the gaps.
W__H SH_ _ER S__P Are you naughty or nice? Wash? Wish? Shower? Shaker? Soap? Step?
Gollwitzer, M. and A. Melzer. (2012). Macbeth and the joystick: Evidence for moral cleansing after playing a violent video game. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48: 1356–1360
Zhong, C. and K. Liljenquist. (2006). Washing away your sins: Threatened morality and physical cleansing. Science, 313: 1451-1452
With a PhD from Detroit’s Wayne State University, Kim Lacey from Detroit, USA knows a thing or two about memory studies, digital media and digital humanities. She also has a serious addiction to combo plates at restaurants. You can read about Kim at kimberlylacey.com or follow her on Twitter at @kimlacey.
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STRIKE A POSE HOW MEN SHOULD REALLY DANCE
JAMES LLOYD • PHYSICS GURU
This Valentine’s Day, romance will be on the minds of many men around the world. But how should a man go about wooing that special girl or guy of his dreams? Well, get your glad rags out guys: according to research published last year, an impressive display of dancing may be one way to win someone’s heart, as James Lloyd explains... It’s a common scenario. You’re at a wedding reception, the speeches are over, and a DJ starts doing his thing in the corner of the room, obscured by a wall of tacky disco lights. Before long, the complimentary champagne begins to work its magic on the revellers. A mildly inebriated Auntie Valerie is the first to wander onto the dance floor, deciding that a slightly dented reputation is a small price to pay for having a good time. Uncle Bob is next to follow, loosening his tie and rolling up his sleeves the minute he hears the opening blasts of ‘Y.M.C.A.’. Meanwhile, the best man – let’s call him Dave – has his eye on one of the bridesmaids, Emily.
Hugging his warm pint of Heineken, Dave looks longingly at Emily as she glides across the dance floor like a swan on roller skates. Feeling ever more tipsy, he puts down his beer and shuffles towards her. Suddenly, ‘Y.M.C.A.’ gives way to the moody drum and bass intro of ‘Billie Jean’. Dave spots his chance. Moving deftly through the throng of dancers, he positions himself opposite Emily and begins to engage in a mating ritual worthy of any bird of paradise. Completely oblivious to the onlooking crowd, Dave bends his torso from side to side like a man possessed, simultaneously shaking his head to the beat whilst performing an elaborate twisting routine with his right knee. The ritual seems to have worked: 30 minutes later both he and Emily are locked in a romantic embrace, gently swaying to ‘Lady in Red’ amidst a sea of teary-eyed couples. Dave’s secret? He’s familiar with a recent article in Biology Letters, which shows that certain dance moves are more likely than others to ignite the passions of a woman. Nick Neave and colleagues at Northumbria University and the University of Göttingen used motion-capture technology to record
RIGHT: Examples of an avatar created for the rating purposes.
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STRIKE A POSE
(Dancing By A Wall) Flickr • garryknight, (Ballroom Dancing) Flickr • mark sebastian
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STRIKE A POSE
the movements of 19 men dancing to a basic drum beat. Each dancer was then mapped onto a computer-generated avatar, and 37 heterosexual women were asked to rate the avatars on their dancing prowess. By correlating the women’s ratings with the avatars’ movements, the scientists were able to come up with a recipe for successful boogieing. The three factors that contributed most strongly to a high dance score were ‘neck internal/ external rotation variability’ (head shaking), ‘trunk adduction/abduction variability’ (sideways bending) and ‘right knee internal/ external rotation speed’ (twisting speed). These movements, claims the study, may provide signals of a man’s suitability as a sexual partner by indicating his physical strength, health, fitness, and/or genetic quality. According to Neave and his colleagues, dance in humans is “a set of intentional, rhythmic, culturally influenced, non-verbal body movements that are considered to be an important aspect of sexuality and courtship attraction”. This links us to wolf spiders, manakin birds, and seahorses (amongst other animals), all of whom perform courtship displays to entice members of the
opposite sex (see sidebox: ‘Nature’s movers and shakers’). So, men, if you’re looking to woo on the dance floor, then you can’t do much better than shaking your body like the proverbial Polaroid picture. And don’t forget to twist those knees like there’s no tomorrow…* *NB: Guru does not accept any responsibility for minor injuries, deflated egos, or red-faced humiliation suffered as a result of this article. Dancing is to be undertaken solely at the reader’s discretion.
Further reading: •
Neave, N., et al. (2011). Male dance moves that catch a woman’s eye. Biology Letters, 7: 221-224.
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STRIKE A POSE
NATURE’S MOVERS AND SHAKERS Humans aren’t the only creatures to shake their booty in an effort to woo potential mates. Here are some of the animal kingdom’s best dancers. Beyoncé, eat your heart out…
Wolf Spider To entice sexy-looking females, the male wolf spider uses a strange kind of semaphore dance. He enthusiastically waves his feelers – or ‘palps’ – in an elaborate fashion, rather like a 1990s raver pulling shapes at the Haçienda. This impressive dance routine requires so much energy that the spider’s heartbeat triples while he’s performing. If she likes what she sees, the female spider will tap her legs to encourage the eight-legged lothario. Then, if successful, the dance will finish with a mating session, in which the male spider uses his palps to pump sperm into his besotted lover.
Manakin Bird The small manakin birds that live in the American tropics are well known for their spectacular courtship rituals. Some use their wing feathers to make buzzing and snapping noises; some fly around in circles; whilst others waggle their bottoms in the female’s face. But nothing compares to the sight of a manakin moonwalking backwards along a branch. That’s right... a bird doing a moonwalk. Backwards. If the female manakin isn’t impressed by that, then she clearly isn’t familiar with the works of Michael Jackson.
White’s seahorse In one of nature’s most elegant courtship displays, White’s seahorses – unique to the Australian coast – carry out a sublime ballet worthy of Anna Pavlova herself. Before mating, the two lifelong partners entwine their tails, circling one another and mirroring each other’s movements. Once this intimate pas de deux is complete, the female deposits her eggs into the pouch of the male seahorse, who lovingly carries them until the tiny baby seahorses are ready to emerge fully-formed. Awwww.
James Lloyd studied physics at university and recently finished a climate science PhD. He’s now swapped semiconductors for semicolons, writing about science and blogging at The Soft Anonymous. James enjoys music making, hill walking and trying to find the perfect flapjack. Find him on Twitter @jbb_lloyd.
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POLITICS MAKING PEACE: IRAN AND ISRAEL SHUN CONFLICT TO WORK TOGETHER
Just as Ali Baba called out the words ‘open sesame’ to unseal the cave of treasures in Arabian Nights, Middle Eastern scientists are hoping to evoke the same spirit of opening doors by naming their collaborative particle accelerator project SESAME.
In a region better known for violent conflict, countries including Iran, Turkey, Egypt and even Israel, are coming together to back the construction of a machine similar to the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland – a synchrotron light-source, and the first of its kind in the Middle East.
Toby Brown Links:
BBC News Sesame.co.jo (Synchrotron Radiation) Flickr • CLS Research Office
Set for completion in 2015, SESAME (Synchrotron light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) will be built in Jordan and will act somewhat like a giant microscope. Electrons are to be accelerated to near the speed of light around a circular chamber by powerful magnets, releasing an energy called ‘synchrotron radiation’, which is then diverted into ‘beamlines’. These beamlines can be tweaked to the specific needs of the research being conducted, with applications ranging from the study of viruses to the development of new materials.
RIGHT: Synchrotron radiation reflecting from a terbium single crystal.
The SESAME venture is aimed at fostering scientific excellence and economic development, using physics to bridge cultural and social rifts. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of SESAME is the cooperation between Iran and Israel, whose relationship has become increasingly strained recently. Officials from each country are putting aside accounts of industrial sabotage and calls for each other’s destruction, choosing to set an example by securing continued funding instead.
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Observers from Western Europe and the US are overseeing the project to ensure that the national scientific interests of each member state are properly represented. Work conducted at the institute must be made available to all, with no allowance given for classified or military research so as not to exacerbate the already volatile political situation. Maintaining relations between the Arab, Iranian and Israeli backers presents the project’s organisers with a serious diplomatic challenge. The recent heightening of tensions between Tel Aviv and Tehran makes the task even more difficult, but the council’s members are hopeful that these usually hostile countries may find common ground in the goal of scientific advancement. Prof. Eliezer Rabinovici, a physicist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is optimistic that peace will prevail: “We are having a rough period now – a very rough period – and it may become even rougher. But I think that as scientists, we have to look at the long range, and in the long range we see no conflict of interest between the people of Iran and the people of Israel.”
STRIKE A POSE
1960S DRUG THAT HELPS US REMEMBER THE GOOD TIMES
Ross Harper Links:
Beyond extinction: erasing human fear responses and preventing the return of fear
Anyone who saw the 1997 blockbuster, Men In Black, will be aware that one day – thanks to a pen torch and some strategically-placed sunglasses – troubling memories will be a thing of the past. Well we may not be there yet, but if Merel Kindt and her colleagues are correct, we’re not that far off. The results from their Amsterdam University labs showed that taking the old-fashioned blood pressure medicine, propranolol, can fully erase fear memories. Sixty volunteers were trained to associate a spider picture with fear by giving them small electric shocks. These volunteers demonstrated that their brains had learned to make the association by showing an exaggerated startle response whenever they were subsequently shown a spider photo. However, Kindt showed that, when individuals took propranolol and were then shown the spider picture days later, their expression of fear was completely abolished – unlike those who did not receive the tablet, whose startle response remained unchanged. This new memory-wiping technique is based on the principle of memory reconsolidation: when we remember something, the invoked memory is retrieved from its long-term storage location (in a part of the brain called the neocortex) – at which point it becomes vulnerable to disruption. (It’s a bit like retrieving a file from a filing cabinet. Once the file is removed, the papers stored in the file could get jumbled up in a way that’s not possible while the file is safely stored away.) The memory is then ‘restabilized’ by being stored back into the neocortex – where it becomes resistant to change once again. It is thought that this process may underlie our ability to strengthen and weaken individual memories based on new experiences.
In her experiment, Kindt managed to block restabilization of the fear memory, causing it to be lost forever: once retrieved from the ‘filing cabinet’ of our neocortex, the memory ‘file’ was basically shredded by the propranolol before it could be safely re-filed. Unfortunately for the sci-fi fans among us, taking propranolol did not cause individuals completely to forget the whole experience of being tested: they expected to receive a shock when presented with the picture of a spider, but didn’t seem to care anymore. This highlights a limitation of the memorywiping technique – the drug seemed only to target the fear-memory link, and nothing else. While it may seem positively ‘James Bond’ that memories can be selectively erased, the idea of blocking restabilization is not a new one. Countless experiments carried out on animals have produced similar results. But Kindt’s work is special because she has shown that taking a drug, which is already well established in the medical community, can selectively erase fear memories in humans. This could prove to be a landmark discovery in the treatment of psychological trauma (in particular, post-traumatic stress disorder) and could even be extended to therapies for drug addiction. So what next? Well, as with all new treatments, rigorous testing will have to be carried out: history is littered with the empty packets of innovative new medicines, which never made it through clinical trials. Indeed, three years after the initial experiment, we are still waiting for any key developments. So, for now, psychologists and neuroscientists sit with crossed fingers – the hope being that the treatment of unpleasant memories will soon be readily achievable through a simple process of ‘therapeutic forgetting’.
RIGHT: An 80mg capsule of Propranolol
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(Capsule) Wikimedia • Parhamr
BRAIN HARNESSING THE HIDDEN POWER OF YOUR BRAIN
Location of Primary Visual Cortex.
Being able to watch your brain’s activity while you work might help you to control your thinking and boost performance, according to a new study from researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London (UCL). The approach, known as neurofeedback, involves letting people watch what their brains are doing on a screen – as it’s actually happening. The team at UCL monitored brain activity using a technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show volunteers the location of activity in their brains as they imagined images. During this ‘training’, volunteers were asked to try to change how they thought to increase activity in the back of their brain – the visual cortex, where visual
information is processed. After a training session, the subjects were given the job of spotting subtle changes in the contrast of a picture – that is, tiny differences in colour intensity and brightness. Those who had been able to control their brain activity during the initial training – by successfully learning how to increase visual cortex activity – were better able to detect the subtle changes in the task. The scientists hope the technique could be used to benefit people with impaired brain function, such as people who have had a stroke, and often have difficulty seeing even though their eyes aren’t damaged. Who knows, maybe one day ‘neurofeedback’ might be a technique we could all use to boost our mental abilities. Well, here’s hoping…
BIOTECH THE THINKING ROBOT: YOUR NEW BEST FRIEND?
(E-Volve) Flickr • Keoni Cabral
Author: Simon Makin
Scientists at the University of Waterloo, Canada, led by Professor Chris Eliasmith, have built the most sophisticated simulation of a working brain ever constructed. Although much smaller than the human brain itself, consisting of only 2.5 million brain cells (compared to 100 billion) and many fewer than some previous simulations – it displays an impressive range of different behaviours. The artificial brain can recognise images, remember sequences, and even complete the kind of complex task you might find in an IQ test. The supercomputer program, called SPAUN (Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network), uses a 28 x 28 pixel digital camera ‘eye’ to gather input from its surroundings and then gives its responses with a robot arm. For instance, when shown the sequence 1 2 3 - 5 6 7 - 3 4 ?, together with an instruction, SPAUN will scrawl the digit ‘5’ on a piece of paper. Unlike IBM’s Watson supercomputer, which was built in 2011 to do one thing (play Jeopardy!) and do it well, but made
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no attempt to copy how the brain works, SPAUN replicates actual brain cell activity and wiring. More importantly, though, it turns this activity into behaviour. This is in contrast to larger, more detailed brain models, such as the Blue Brain Project, which produce detailed simulations of neural activity, but don’t necessarily do anything. SPAUN has two software systems that work in harmony: a ‘working memory’ system that is modelled on the ‘higher’ thinking part of the brain (called the prefrontal cortex – where we make our decisions), and an ‘action selection’ system, which is based on other parts of the brain called the basal ganglia and thalamus (more primitive, instinctual regions). The ‘action
STRIKE A POSE
Toby Brown describes himself as an aspiring writer and purveyor of science and is currently studying for a Masters in Astrophysics at Liverpool University.
effects of ‘killing off’ neurons to simulate ageing, and have seen patterns of decline similar to what happens in old age. Crucially though, SPAUN lacks adaptivity – the ability to learn new tasks. This is a shortcoming the team hopes to tackle in future. Even so, there’s no reason to presume that building on this simulation will at some point produce the more elusive qualities of living brains, such as awareness or intentions: SPAUN doesn’t do any of its impressive tricks because it wants to – it is explicitly programmed and fed instructions, like any other computer system. So without free will, there’s probably not much need to worry about a future version taking control of our missile defence systems just yet…
Ross Harper recently graduated from Cambridge University having studied Biological Natural Sciences. He spent the last year running his somewhat unconventional advertising business, BuyMyFace.com, and is now trying his hand at app development with his new company, Wriggle Ltd. Ross is living proof that you can take the boy out of the lab, but you can’t take the lab out of the boy - no matter what crazy scheme he’s currently working on, he makes sure to devote a bit of time to keeping with the latest in science news. Feel free to say ‘hi’ to Ross on Twitter (@refharper).
Simon Makin is an ex-post-doc researcher in auditory perception turned journalist.
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(Robots) Flickr • ricardodiaz11
selection’ system routes data to the part of the ‘working memory’ system appropriate for the task, which then stores that data, and performs the necessary ‘thinking’ functions. All this is accomplished by software running on a supercomputer, but, as it stands, is still very limited compared to a real brain: SPAUN can only tackle eight predefined tasks, and is far slower than the real thing, taking around two hours of computing time to simulate one second of brain activity. It does however demonstrate a range of cognitive skills and even makes some of the same mistakes we do, such as remembering the first and last items in a list better than the others (known to psychologists as primacy and recency). The team also looked at the
iPad, iPhone and Android app
SOCIAL KNOWLEDGE: THE GAME Developer: GameTogether Content Developed by: In-Mind Foundation Price: Free (Android), £0.69 (iTunes) Rating: I had high hopes for Social Knowledge. It promises to be the perfect app for me as I’m a sucker for quizzes and fun challenges. The app combines a daily quiz, psychology and ‘fun’ whilst on the go. Available for iPhone and Android, Social Knowledge is a lightweight app that asks one psychology-themed question per day. Your selected response is recorded and the correct answer is given the next day. Users can then click on the ‘Why?’ button to see a summary of the psychology research that verifies the answer. Social Knowledge should please the psychologyinclined, but ultimately I found it didn’t fully satisfy. The ‘daily question’ is more of a ‘daily statement’ and is pitched in a limited ‘true or false’ format. Multiple choice answers are pretty
typical of quiz apps, so there’s nothing to really quibble about here. However, the let-down is that the statements are only mildly interesting. Take this example: “If people are persuaded by a message, they probably paid attention to the message.” With only one statement available per day, sadly this app didn’t hold my attention. Social K would be far more engaging if at least a few questions came with immediate answers – rather than having to wait 24 hours. This sort of instant feedback might prompt me to open the app regularly. That said, it’s not all bad news: discovering the research that backs up the correct answer is genuinely interesting. In-Mind’s commitment to research and the inclusion of a full list of the relevant research is to be applauded. However, without a bank of questions or even an archive, I can’t see this app being a good use of time. Overall, it is a great idea but it doesn’t do enough as it stands to make for a truly engaging experience.
With a PhD from Detroit’s Wayne State University, Kim Lacey from Detroit, USA knows a thing or two about memory studies, digital media and digital humanities. She also has a serious addiction to combo plates at restaurants. You can read about Kim at kimberlylacey.com or follow her on Twitter at @kimlacey.
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MIDDLING WICKED IN A GOOD WAY
THE CHEMISTRY OF WEIRD–TASTING FOOD!
NATASHA AGABALYAN • FOOD GURU
THE CHEMISTRY OF WEIRD–TASTING FOOD!
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Today’s supermarkets offer us every item we could possibly need. But take a closer look. In amongst the stacked shelves you’ll notice some seriously weird-flavoured foods in between the veg, meat and bread. Where do these flavours come from and should we be worried? Food Guru Natasha Agabalyan finds out. Banoffee pie yoghurt anyone? It seems the food industry is changing – and weird and wonderful tastes are the future. There’s even charcoal-topped cheesecake – made in response to we consumers, who are apparently looking to broaden our taste horizons. There’s more than a little Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in all of this – but there’s plenty of intriguing food-science that makes it possible.
“Mommy – I want to be a flavourist when I grow up!” Few people realise that most food producers don’t actually conceive the flavours of their foods. Instead, they employ the services of a flavour company and its specially trained chemists: flavourists. A specialist chemist who uses tools and methods similar to perfumers, a flavourist tweaks and
THE BASICS OF FLAVOUR-MAKING: Replicating a flavour is something of an art form. Our friends the flavourists would say that a flavour has three key components: • A character item, which makes a large
contribution to the flavour as it smells or tastes of the required flavour. • A contributory item, which enhances the
main flavour even if, on its own, it doesn’t actually have the flavour we’re after. • A differential item, which is not essential
but can add some character reminiscent of the target flavour.
modifies the taste and smell of food. Much of the training is done on-the-job, so an up-andcoming flavourist may have fairly little formal education. The profession only came about once home refrigeration became affordable. It soon became important to the food industry to make foods which stayed flavourful even after being preserved for long periods. Today, the tools of the trade are often artificiallycreated flavours. Cheaper and more economical than herbs and fruit extracts, many of these concoctions are truly bizarre.
The alchemist’s guide to flavour creation How do scientists discover how to make these synthetic flavours? The best place to start is their naturally-occurring cousins. Chemists start out by analysing the natural oil, juice or extract to discover all the chemical compounds it contains. Armed with the list of taste bud tickling chemicals, the chemists then try to reassemble the natural product in the lab. Those of you still haunted by the memory of school chemistry classes may remember a process called distillation – which involves various bits of glassware, rubber tubing and the trusty school Bunsen burner. Chemicals all boil at different temperatures (water boils at 100°C, while alcohol boils at a lower temperature of 78°C). And because the boiling points of major chemical are well known, the lab workers can use them as clues to figure out the identity of chemicals present in a mixture. Scientists can also look at the chemicals in more high-tech ways – one popular technique is ‘spectroscopy’, which exploits the way different chemicals behave when bombarded with infrared and ultraviolet light to help identify them. The mixture of chemicals in a natural oil or juice can even be analysed using a more visuallyappealing technique called ‘chromatography’. (Going back to school science classes, you may have used a type of chromatograph to separate out all the colours that make up the ink of a pen; other kinds of chromatography work according to a similar principle.) Using these various tests, an astounding number of different chemicals have been found in flavours that we would otherwise have thought to be simple: apple contains 29 and the satisfying taste of coffee relies on nearly 100 different chemicals! Now you might think all chemists would have to do is recombine these chemicals to create
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THE CHEMISTRY OF WEIRD–TASTING FOOD! the perfect flavour. Sadly, though, it seems nature is a lot more complicated: no one has yet been able to recombine the 29 chemicals in apple flavour in the same way nature has. It’s uncertain why man cannot recreate apple, but imperfect testing that misses some essential flavour components is probably the reason.
THE FLAVOURISTS RECIPE BOOK: CHERRY The first synthetic formula for cherry flavour was published in 1917 and was supposed to contain an array of different chemicals:
My favourite flavour secrets Meat flavoured crisps Despite having subjected friends to endless rants on how revolting the concept of meatflavoured crisps (or potato chips, if you prefer) are, I am clearly in the minority: sales of meatflavoured crisps have overtaken many other more ‘savoury’ flavours. So what’s behind meat-flavoured snacks? The chemicals giving meat its main ‘roast’ flavour are created when the meat is cooked – thanks to a chemical reaction called the Maillard reaction. Meats are protein-rich – and proteins are made of strings of chemicals called amino acids. When these amino acids react with sugar in the presence of heat a chemical called gylcosylamine is formed, and this reacts further to form the flavour-giving chemicals. When you know what these chemicals are, you can simply add them to a food to give it that familiar roast meat flavour. (See sidebox.)
Today, the main chemical in cherry flavouring is bensaldehyde, a chemical that emits a pleasant almond Modern odour.
cherry flavours imitate the taste of maraschino cherries – the bright red cherries that have been preserved and sweetened. (You normally see them atop an iced cake or gracing a cocktail.) Maraschino cherries are best because the natural flavour of most cherries is very weak, and when this flavour is ‘amplified’ it just doesn’t taste nice.
Cherry flavoured Yoghurt Love cherries but hate cherry-flavoured products? Me too! I’ve never understood why artificial cherry flavour in particular seems to taste nothing like real cherries.
THE FLAVOURISTS RECIPE BOOK: PORK For a meaty pork flavour, here’s the winning chemical combination. Mix the ingredients until the desired taste is achieved. Butyl-2-decanoate is the differential Pyridinemethanol is 2-methyl-3-furanthiol item and makes the the contributory item is the character item flavour taste ‘fattier’. and adds some pork and gives the food flavour. the required meaty O impact. O
Ingredients available from your local flavourist lab.
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(Cherry) Wikimedia • Benjamint444/Fir0002
Ethyl acetate – a type of chemical called an ester, which has a fruity smell (also found in nail varnish removers) • Ethyl benzoate – a colourless liquid and an ester that has a minty kind of smell • Oil of persicot – extracted from the kernels of apricots and similar fruits • Benzoic acid – a type of chemical called a carboxylic acid that is also used as a preservative (E210 on ingredient packets). • Glycerine – a sweet-tasting liquid, also used in lowcalorie foods • Alcohol
(Orange Slices) Flickr • Nina Matthews Photography, (Lemon) Flickr • *clairity*
THE CHEMISTRY OF WEIRD–TASTING FOOD! Citrus with a twist Did you know that the chemicals that give us the flavour of lemons and oranges are exactly the same, chemically speaking? The main component of both is called limonene; the only difference between ‘orange’ and ‘lemon’ is a very subtle difference in the structure of the limonene molecule. The ‘orange’ and ‘lemon’ versions of limonene are made from exactly the same atoms, which are joined to each other in the same order. The difference is that the two molecules are mirror images of one another. (It’s a bit like a pair of hands: our left and right hands are mirror images of one another, and if you try to put your left hand on top of your right, they don’t match.) This subtle difference is enough for the taste receptors on our tongues to recognize one of the mirror images of limonene as ‘orange’ flavour, and the other as ‘lemon’. Quite a feat! So next time you’re munching your way through a bag of crisps, or chewing on some fruity gum, spare a thought for the army of flavourists who’ve worked wonders with chemistry to tantalise your tastebuds!
The ability of our bodies to distinguish between chemicals that are seemingly identical can have its down-sides, though. Thalidomide, the infamous drug that was used during the late 1950s and early 1960s to relieve morning sickness, exists as two mirrorimage forms, like limonene. While one of the mirror images acts as a sedative, the other causes devastating sideeffects – most often, missing or truncated limbs. When these side-effects were discovered, thalidomide was quickly withdrawn from use. There’s a silver lining to this cloud, though. While thalidomide can be seriously damaging to healthy cells, its growth-limiting effects are now being explored as a potential way to treat both cancerous tumours and leprosy.
Natasha Agabalyan is on her way to becoming a Doctor of Cell Biology in Brighton, UK. In between drinking far too much coffee and blogging at The Science Informant, she has a love of finding out interesting tit-bits from all aspects of life. You can follow her on twitter at @SciencInformant.
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THE FUTURE’S BRIGHT, THE FUTURE’S GENOMIC WELCOME TO THE AGE OF CONSUMER GENETICS
THE FUTURE’S BRIGHT, THE FUTURE’S GENOMIC Have you ever asked yourself: what will things be like in 2025? Will I be happy? Will I be healthy? Or will I be the unlucky 1 out of 3 to develop cancer? Cripes, how will I die!? Finding the answers to these questions is becoming easier than you might think. Your genetic code has now become your personal crystal ball, but finding out your future could be more trouble than it’s worth as Abigail James uncovers. Brace yourself: a genomic revolution is coming. Genes, genomes, chromosomes, genotypes, nucleotides, deoxyribonucleic acid… The world of genetics is a squall of jargon that can easily leave us at sea. Cut through the storm, though, and things can be remarkably simple: the genome is like a cookbook, containing all the instructions needed to make you.
Previous Page: (Fairy DNA) Flickr • kyz, (Saliva Test Kit) Flickr • Nina J. G.
What’s in your cookbook? The recipes that make you, you are written in very tightly-wound lengths of DNA: your chromosomes. These bundles of DNA have instructions (genes) scattered along them like houses on a street. Geneticists have discovered many thousands of different genes – and continue to do so (almost) daily. It is thought that 99.9% of the genetic make-up of each of us is identical; it is the tiny fraction that is different that makes me so different from you – and it’s this enigmatic 0.1% that hides the clues to our future health. Until recently, DNA was weird, elusive stuff: a version of you, in digital form – a seemingly random sequence of four letters, ATGTTATGCCGA... and so on. But it’s no longer so mysterious: we have entered the age of ‘consumer genetics’ – with the promise of being given a glimpse of our futures. And all we have to do is to slobber in a pot and put it in the mail. Yes, really.
Spit and know Like any biological fluid, saliva (the stuff of spit) contains traces of your DNA. If you send a sample of your spit to an obliging laboratory, they’ll be able to extract the DNA and analyse it. At the lab, particular regions of your DNA sample will be compared with a large database. The extent to which your DNA is similar to (or differs from)
other people’s DNA in the database at specific locations can indicate your chances of developing various diseases – compared to that of the general population.
But wait: like many areas of medicine, getting results and knowing what they actually mean to your life are often two very different things. Imagine you’d sent your saliva sample to the lab, and received a report back stating very matterof-factly “You have a 9.8% chance of developing disease X; this risk is 20% higher than the average of your ethnic background.” Wouldn’t that sort of information freak you out? Well, it appears that the general public are remarkably resilient: a study at Boston University has shown that those who discovered they were likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease were no more stressed two years later than those who had not. Knowing the future – even if bad – is therefore not necessarily a bad thing. That said, it is just one study – and consumer-led genetics raises many other concerns.
Tearing the family apart For one thing, your genetic information doesn’t just belong to you: it also belongs to your mother, your father, your sister, your brother. By its very nature, your genetic information is passed through your family – which is why they say you’re a ‘chip off the old block’, and why your mother scolded you for behaving ‘just like your father’. Gene-testing results that are troubling to you can be equally as troubling for your family members – especially if they don’t want to know. If tested, will your brother feel ‘survival’ guilt if it turns out he has a lower risk than you? What
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ABOVE: A Saliva DNA Test Kit.
THE FUTURE’S BRIGHT, THE FUTURE’S GENOMIC
Ethical Impossibilities There are plenty of ethical issues surrounding personal consumer genetics, but there’s room for a lot of good too. In medicine, an individual’s genetic information can be used by medics to choose drugs that are most likely to give good results, whilst minimising the chance of side effects. We are starting to say ‘goodbye’ to ‘onesize-fits-all’ medicines and ‘hello’ to personalised, more effective treatments and healthcare. Personal genetic sequencing offers others a brand new approach – one that’s preventative rather than curative. We may discover what diseases and disorders we are predisposed to long before they take hold, allowing us time to alter their diet and physical activity, or to sign up for regular screening. This approach has the potential to improve our prospects of avoiding disease, or at least delaying its onset.. But remember: while your genes hold clues to your future, they don’t set your fate. Genetic testing may give you an idea of the likelihood that something may happen, but it doesn’t guarantee it. Our health is influenced not just
by our genes, but by a complex interplay between genes and lifestyle. What we do with the result is down to us.
Keeping a lid on Pandora’s Box So would you be brave and crack open the fortune cookie? Would I? I know that current tests are not yet perfect – that different providers often have conflicting interpretations. So I can’t be sure my results would be truly representative of my future. But how about when the technology is more reliable? We would still need to weigh up the implications of such testing. As well as I think I know myself, my psyche, and my outlook on life, I don’t really know how I would respond to ominous results. I’m a relatively fit and healthy person, but diabetes, cancers and heart complications run through my family. Do I want to know which one I’ve drawn from the genetic lucky dip? Though my curious inner-child beckons me, for now I’ll keep Pandora’s Box closed.
References and links • • •
23andme (2012) deCODEme (2012) Feero, W.G, Guttmacher, A.E and Collins, F.S (2008) The genome gets personal – almost, JAMA, 299(11):13511352 McGuire, A.L. and Burke, W. (2008) An Unwelcome Side Effect of Directto-Consumer Personal Genome Testing, JAMA, 300(22):2669-2671
Dear readers: nothing in this article should be taken to imply that Guru Magazine Ltd. endorses the use of unregulated mail order companies, whose results can be highly unreliable. Genetic testing should only be sought under the guidance of a suitably qualified professional.
Abigail James is a Biosciences undergraduate living in Canterbury. She is 5’1”, the President of her university’s Science Society, loves axolotls, weedy seadragons, chai tea and a good book. She blogs at aflyinmyprimordialsoup.wordpress.com and tweets @_abigailjames.
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(Snow White) Flickr • jieq
if an important risk is found and you keep the results a secret – could you live with yourself if you didn’t tell those close to you that their life could be a silently-ticking time bomb? In the future, whole foetal genomes could be sequenced – your baby’s life laid out before it is even born – as depicted in the 1997 film Gattaca. They say knowledge is power, but could information about your unborn child tempt you to take evasive action, prompting an abortion, if your future child doesn’t mean your expectations?
YOUR GUTS FOR GLORY DOO-DOO-ING YOUR BIT TO HELP
Did you know that most of the cells inside you aren’t human? There are roughly ten times as many microbes in your gut as there are cells in your body – and these include several hundred different species of bacteria. They are just part of the trillions of micro-organisms known as the human microbiome that we have living on and inside us. The exact make-up of these microbial communities differs between different body areas and from person to person. They change over a lifetime, and over the centuries. The last 100 years have seen a rapid change in the industrialised world, presumably due to diet, antibiotics, and sterilisation.
Many of these tiny passengers do important jobs, such as bolstering our immune systems or helping our digestion. (See ‘In sickness and in health’ in Issue 9 to find out more.) We don’t yet fully understand how our microbiome relates to health or disease – we just know that it does. The composition of our microbiome has been linked to conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and even depression. Although specific organisms have been implicated in some conditions, often it’s the overall diversity that matters – just like any ecosystem. Now, two new ’citizen science’ projects are
getting the public involved in the study of the human microbiome to help us understand how diet and lifestyle might be influencing these personal ecosystems – and affecting our health as a result. The first of these projects, known as ‘American Gut’, is being run by researchers at the University of Colorado, US, and collaborators at many other institutions, in association with the Human Food Project. The project has been encouraging thousands of Americans to get involved, either by paying fees to submit their own samples for analysis, by simply making a financial donation, or by examining data from the project, which will be made publicly available. Many conditions linked to the microbiome are more common in Western populations. With this in mind, the researchers plan to compare the inhabitants of American intestines with those of people living more traditional existences in places like Namibia and Peru. The project builds on previous efforts, such as the Human Microbiome Project, but is the first to look at this issue on such a large scale. The Human Microbiome Project recruited a few hundred volunteers, whereas this one hopes to enlist 10,000 people - and their household pets. Participants can also send samples from their dogs or cats to help scientists understand the relationship between our own microbes and those of our furry companions. A similar – but smaller – project, UBiome, aims to gather samples from as many people as it can from all over the world. Both projects are now possible thanks to the rapid drop in the cost of DNA sequencing. This, together with computational advances, will allow the researchers to analyse microbial genomes far more cheaply than was previously possible. Participants in both projects will receive a personal analysis, listing the critters living inside them and showing how they compare to others. You can see how many people signed up for American Gut here, or UBiome here.
Simon Makin is an ex-post-doc researcher in auditory perception turned journalist.
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YOUR GUTS FOR GLORY
WANT TO BUILD THE PERFECT SMARTPHONE? TAKE A LESSON FROM YOUR CELLS
The race for gadget supremacy never stops: Apple, Samsung and HTC have all launched new smartphones in recent months. But could the next generation of this evolving technology find inspiration in a not-so-unlikely place? John Ankers finds out. Today’s smartphones could do better. Yes, they send texts; make video calls; talk to satellites; take, edit and share your pictures; play games and music... one even makes a whipping noise if you waggle it a bit. And some of them can even make phone calls, too. But surely there’s so much more that could be crammed in? Smartphones are still evolving. They’re getting smaller, lighter and more streamlined. At the same time we’re always wanting more – ‘more connectivity!’, ‘more integration!’, ‘more features!’ We want apps that talk to other apps; Facebook statuses that automatically log GPS positions; whips that crack by themselves. May-
be we’re spoilt – or perhaps this is all part of the evolution: people expect more because the technology promises so much. Yet increasing the ‘smartness’ of your next phone will probably require a balance between reliability and functionality. A microchip’s capacity will only stretch so far: apps must share the phone’s limited resources. In order for you to multitask, so must your phone. Intriguingly, smartphone developers could learn a thing or two by taking a look inside a mammalian cell. The human cell is multifaceted enough to put any smartphone to shame. The secret, as new research investigates, lies in learning how to multitask. The circuitry inside your cells is very different from what you’d expect in the average phone: microchips and computer code are replaced by networks of genes and proteins that work together to transfer information and carry out app-like tasks. Your cellular circuitry has evolved over millions of years to co-ordinate life’s essential processes.
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WANT TO BUILD THE PERFECT SMARTPHONE?
(Circuit Board) Flickr • Mrs. Gemstone
WANT TO BUILD THE PERFECT SMARTPHONE?
BELOW: A burnt out circuit board.
But in research published in PLoS Computational Biology1, Jeffrey Wong and colleagues found that, surprisingly, trying to do everything at once isn’t always the best option. The team from Duke University, North Carolina, investigated the wiring of one cellular circuit – the E2-Factor (E2F) network. This network of proteins and genes is the program for controlling how our cells grow and proliferate – and when they must die. The team asked a simple question: what happens when you increase the demand on E2F’s wiring? After all, unreasonable demands on your phone might cause it to crash (normally just as you’ve finished writing a text message). So how do our cells’ cirucuitry fare when pushed to the limit? Wong and colleagues built a precise computer simulation of E2F’s wiring, using algebra in place of genes and proteins. (Similar techniques are used to accurately predict everything from air traffic to climate change to volcanic ash clouds. They’ve been used in biology for almost 100 years.) The model was used to simulate the cellular equivalent of an app overload - starting a pair of tasks at the same time to pull E2F in opposite directions. The virtual proteins might have dealt with this by attempting the two tasks simultaneously. But the team found that this didn’t happen. As the strain or ‘tension’ in the network increased, it would become less ‘robust’ and more liable to break or crash – with disastrous consequences for the cell.
Instead, the team found that the E2F network copes by hopping between competing tasks – or even by duplicating part of its wiring temporarily to cope with the tug-o-war. And these findings reflect real life: the real E2F network does dynamically change as cells grow, divide, and ultimately die. Dr Wong believes E2F (and other circuits in our cells) evolved to minimise the tension in our cells’ wiring. He suggests that multitasking in this way is an “evolutionary feasible” way of “reusing a common set of components... to accomplish multiple biological goals.” Of course, today’s smartphones also juggle tasks, giving priority to important apps and keeping others ‘frozen’ or running in the background. And yet there are still problems: internet forums are plagued with complaints, customer service hotlines glow in fury. Phones are unreliable: sometimes they just crash. You see, today’s smartphone developers have a problem: demands keep changing. Tearing their hair out behind easels and blueprints, developers are forced to second-guess us, the fickle consumers. Is it really possible to design a phone for everyone – the teenage tweeter, the young professional, and the ageless cynic who doesn’t care about Angry Birds but would quite like to finish a phone call without the battery running out? The evolving cell discovered – as phone developers are now realising – that there is often a balance between functionality and reliability. Even so, our cells still manage to co-ordinate and control hundreds of processes – even while communicating with their surroundings and defending themselves against attack from the viruses in the world around them. Given the similarities, perhaps the truly smart smartphone developer will be keeping an eye on cell biology research. They might just save themselves millions of years’ worth of trial and error.
Wong, J. V., Li, B. & You, L. (2012) Tension and robustness in multitasking cellular networks.
Doctor John Ankers is a researcher at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Integrative Biology. He’s normally found in a dark room looking at the inner workings of cancer cells. Or sleeping. He won the BSCB Science Writing Prize in 2011 and currently writes freelance for the MRC’s Biomedical Picture of the Day. He blogs at toomanylivewires and you can follow him on Twitter @JohnnyAnkers.
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ALICE IN WONDERLAND SYNDROME WHEN REALITY GOES DOWN THE RABBIT-HOLE
ALICE IN WONDERLAND SYNDROME They say it is what’s inside that counts. Yet how we view ourselves always seems linked to what we see in the mirror. Close your eyes and the ‘inner you’ navigating your imagination probably looks a lot like the outer version everyone else sees (if perhaps a bit better-looking). But very odd things start to happen when the normal link between these two versions of ‘you’ gets broken. Take a journey with me down the rabbithole… As a child, I occasionally experienced the unsettling sensation that my limbs had grown to a size approaching that of a small planet. I now know that this wasn’t the onset of insanity, or the beginnings of my metamorphosis into a superhero, but a condition known as Alice in Wonderland Syndrome (AIWS). For a sufferer like me, AIWS may mean you perceive your body to be ballooning, shrinking, or distorting in shape. A truly bizarre condition, the cause is often unknown although it has been linked to some viral infections including influenza. It is also sometimes experienced by epileptics or during a migraine – making it tempting to speculate that migraine-sufferer Lewis Carroll found inspiration for his fantastical stories from this condition. Of course, his laudanum habit may also have helped.
messing around with the normal firing patterns. But fully understanding a rarely-diagnosed condition isn’t an easy task, especially when the number of people who suffer AIWS (in the absence of other conditions) is vanishingly small. I grew out of my AIWS, but a few can be stuck with this sometimes debilitating condition forever.
Voodoo dolls and phantom limbs It turns out that Kathleen Brumm’s study is just one of many where a specific area of the brain – called the parietal lobe – has been linked to problems with the mind’s construction of body image. Building our inner perception of our outer self relies on our brain building a complete point-for-point map of our body (see image). Like a giant voodoo doll, the physical body transmits information from different body parts to this map, which acts as a switchboard, piecing together physical sensations to form our personal experience of the world. However, the brain map on the inside doesn’t always match up with the body on thr outside, which can lead to us perceiving ourselves differently from how we actually are. LEFT: The location of the parietal lobe.
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The Alice in Wonderland Brain What goes on in the brain of an AIWS sufferer to make them believe they are shape-shifting is a bit of a riddle – but one that Kathleen Brumm and her colleagues from San Diego State University have tried to solve. They used magnetic resonance imaging on a 12-year-old boy with viral-onset AIWS to watch what goes on in the brain (a technique called functional MRI). During an AIWS episode they saw some unusual activity in the regions of the brain involved with making sense of what we see and for processing the sensations we feel. The boy’s brain seemed to be misfiring and incorrectly processing information arriving from his eyes, which made him think that objects around him were much smaller than they were in reality. When AIWS is triggered from an infection (as with my episode) it seems likely that the virus inflames such brain areas, and effectively
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LEFT: A rough layout of how the brain maps out the body’s surface sensations located inside the parietal lobe.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND SYNDROME One of the leading names in this field of body image research is Vilayanur Ramachandran from the University of California. His work revolutionised our understanding of phantom limbs – the phenomenon that causes amputees to continue to feel the presence of an arm or leg long after it has been removed. As a member of his laboratory explained, “Our brain has to dynamically update our internal representation of our body, but this doesn’t happen instantaneously.” It seems that, in its effort to make sense of a sudden loss of sensory information, an amputee’s brain effectively ‘borrows’ signals and sensations from other parts of the body to trick itself into believing the limb is still present. But what happens when it is the inner map that is ‘missing a limb’? Body Integrity Identity Disorder is a rare condition in which purportedly sane people find the presence of a healthy limb so intrusive that they express the desire for it to be chopped off – often seeking an amputation. In these cases, the brain’s sense of body ownership appears to not include the offending body part. Even more distressing, a disorder known as Cotard’s syndrome takes this feeling of ‘not belonging’ to its extreme: a person becomes so disconnected with the outer version of themselves that they believe themselves to be dead, or decaying, or sometimes immortal – despite all evidence to the contrary.
A link to anorexia? While such disorders have been linked to changes in normal brain activity (as Kathleen Brumm’s work found), cause and effect can be difficult to tease apart. What comes first — the changes in the brain or the delusional behaviour? Eating disorders are one case in point: Workers in Vilayanur Ramachandran’s laboratory have proposed that similar brain ‘errors’ could partially explain eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. Author of the study Laura Case has considered the following conundrum: people with anorexia feel large,
but why can’t they look in a mirror and use the accurate visual image of themselves to correct their distorted sensations? Her theory is that anorexics have difficulty incorporating sensory information into a correct body image. If true, this explanation adds an extra dimension to the well-known psychological issues that occur in such disorders.
‘Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!’ says Alice. In the words of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it, ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’” Each of us faces the ‘great puzzle’ of who we are and how we see ourselves. Thanks to the work of people like Brumm and Ramachandran, we now possess some, but not all, of the pieces.
Brumm K. et al. Functional MRI of a child with Alice in Wonderland syndrome during an episode of micropsia. J AAPOS. 2010;14(4): 317–322. Ramachandran VS. et al. Synaesthesia in phantom limbs induced with mirrors. Proc Biol Sci. 1996;263(1369):377-86. Case LK., et al. Diminished sizeweight illusion in anorexia nervosa: evidence for visuo-proprioceptive integration deficit. Exp Brain Res. 2012;217(1):79-87. Ramachandran, VS. Consciousness and body image: lessons from phantom limbs, Capgras syndrome and pain asymbolia. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 1998; 353(1377): 1851–1859.
Kathryn Lougheed is a research scientist at Imperial College London, working on the lung disease tuberculosis. She has an unhealthy interest in bacteria, blogging about research of the single-celled variety at germzoo.blogspot.co.uk in addition to running a popular science website for kids at ilovebacteria.com, answering such important questions as ‘Why do papercuts hurt so much?’
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SPONTANEOUS GENEROSITY (AND CALCULATED STINGINESS) WHY LAST-MINUTE SHOPPERS ARE NICER PEOPLE
SPONTANEOUS GENEROSITY (AND CALCULATED STINGINESS)
By monitoring individual’s behavior in a variety of money-orientated situations, psychology researchers have observed that people are more generous when they make decisions quickly – and more stingy when they take their time. One conclusion is that kindness and co-operation
are intuitive to humans, and that we become selfish only when we calculate and think too much.
How to get what you want Based on such results, we could employ some rather devious tactics. Should we consider buying gifts earlier, whilst encouraging family members to put it off so that we get more expensive gifts? The evidence that last-minute shoppers spend more stretches back many years and is controversial. In 1993, marketing researcher Anthony Miyazaki found no link between the amount spent on Christmas gifts and time pressure. However, his experiments were flawed: for each individual he observed, Miyazaki only recorded one day out of what might have been many days of holiday shopping. More recently, former Internet company Meebo sampled shopping and personality data from over 2,000 users. They found that last-minute shoppers were 45 percent more likely than regular shoppers to purchase luxury gift items and 27 percent more likely to plan on spending more during the holiday season this year than last
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In the Game of Thrones, Ned Stark warns us to brace ourselves because winter is coming. In our Earthly realm, however, it’s less about bracing ourselves from the White Walkers of Westeros and more for the onslaught of needing to continually buy stuff. December brought Christmas and this month it is Valentine’s Day. Some cope with the onslaught by shopping early. Procrastinators, however—well, they procrastinate. These last-minute shoppers may be spending more on gifts than the early birds: recent research published in the prestigious Nature hints at one possible reason for this phenomenon…
SPONTANEOUS GENEROSITY (AND CALCULATED STINGINESS) year. In contrast, early bird shoppers were 34 percent more likely than regular shoppers to say they were bargain hunters, and 30 percent more likely to use coupons. So there’s at least some evidence that late shoppers are willing to spend more at crunch time.
(Pound) Flickr • Mukumbura, (Mall) Flickr • ceratosaurrr.
Are we mean-spirited or just masking the pain? The traditional theory for why time pressure leads to higher spending has nothing to do with being generous. Renowned marketing researchers like Leonard Berry and economists like Gary Becker claimed that as we run out of time (a limited ‘resource’ that can be ‘saved’ or ‘spent’), we become more willing to give up other resources (like money) to fulfill our goals – like getting a gift for paternal affine Great Uncle Bart to help him remember you in his will. Other marketing researchers believe that we are willing to pay more when we are pressed for time because we are trying to make up for the emotional pain we will feel in the aftermath of disappointing someone else with our lack of planning and forethought.
The tortoise and the hair: the devil and the angel For psychologist-economist-Nobel Laureate and best-selling author Daniel Kahneman, emotions and gut feelings play a central role in our gift giving. In his recent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes two reasoning systems that operate on different time scales. ‘System 1’ is fast: it is automatic, emotional, stereotypic, and subconscious. We use it frequently because rules of thumb, while imperfect, aren’t too intellectually taxing, and they often work. ‘System 2’ is slow: it is effortful, logical, calculating, and conscious. We use it infrequently because it takes a lot of energy and time to think this way. Evolutionary biologists and some economists think that we use System 2 so much because today’s problems are so varied and complex. Under such circumstances, methodical calculation is more costly than more flexible – albeit flawed – rules of thumb. Among humans, natural selection has favored a brain that operates under System 1 when we find ourselves in a tight spot. Yet given enough time to think about something, we shift into ‘analytical’ System 2 thinking, which is less cooperative – and, as a new study suggests, more stingy. Experts from Harvard’s Department of Psychology wrap it up like this: when in doubt, cooperate. Harvard researchers analyzed the behavior of four participants in a ‘public goods’ game. The rules are that players are given a number of money tokens at the start and secretly choose how many to put into a public pot. The researchers found that individuals who took 10 seconds or less to make a decision made contributions about 1.2 times the size of those made by individuals taking longer than 10 seconds to decide. More generally, contributions decreased with each additional second of decision time. They also found that individuals forced to make a decision quickly made slightly larger contributions than individuals whose decision time was unconstrained, who in turn made slightly larger contributions than individuals
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SPONTANEOUS GENEROSITY (AND CALCULATED STINGINESS) whose decisions were deliberately delayed. An even more interesting finding may reassure anyone with a happy home life: generosity came more naturally to people who graded their daily social partners (e.g. their husband or wife) as cooperative. So what does this mean for your gift shopping? Will you overspend on your true love this Valentine’s Day? If you are worried about being a disappointment, I might advise that you give it some serious thought. But then again, your Valentine won’t thank me for that.
Berry LL (1979) The time buying consumer. J. Retailing 55: 58-69. Binmore K, Samuelson L (1994) An economist’s perspective on the evolution of norms. J. Inst. Theoretical Econ. 150: 45-63. Becker G (1965) A theory of the allocation of time. The Economic Journal 75: 493-517. Houston AI, McNamara JM, Steer MD (2007) Do we expect natural selection to produce rational behaviour? Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 29: 1531-1543. Hutchinson JMC, Gigerenzer G (2005) Simple heuristics and rules of thumb: Where psychologists and behavioural biologists might meet. Behavioural Processes 69: 97-124. Kahneman D (2011) Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 499 p.
Miyazaki AD (1993) How many shopping days until Christmas? A preliminary investigation of time pressures, deadlines, and planning levels on holiday gift purchases. In: McAlister L, Rothschild ML, editors. Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20. Association for Consumer Research. pp. 331-335. Morgilin C, Aaker JL, Pennington GL (2008) Time will tell: The distant appeal of promotion and imminent appeal of prevention. J. Consum. Res. 34: 670-681. Rand DG, Greene JD, Nowak MA (2012) Spontaneous giving and calculated greed. Nature 489: 427430. The Meebo study was originally reported by Ki Mae Heussner for Adweek.
Benjamin Chabot-Hanowell is an evolutionary anthropologist who studies generosity, social inequality, aggression, warfare, and cooperation. He was a Fulbrighter to the Eastern Caribbean, where he learned to play a mean game of dominoes. His is better known as ‘Brash Equilibrium’. His wife calls him Babe. His daughter calls him Papa. He blogs intelligently and publishes statistical analyses of political fact checking at www.mynof3.com and tweets impulsively @BrashEQLibrium.
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(Hands and Gift) Flickr • asenat29
WHEN A BAD BOY TURNS GOOD A VIOLENT ATTACK TRANSFORMS TEENAGE DROPOUT INTO BOY-WONDER
BERIT BROGAARD • GUEST CONTRIBUTORS KRISTIAN MARLOW
WHEN A BAD BOY TURNS GOOD On Friday September 13, 2002, 32year old Jason Padgett stopped by a local bar to pick up his friend. As he left, he noticed two patrons giving him dirty looks. These bar thugs advanced upon him and struck the back of his head, bringing him to the ground. His next memory was of being in a Tacoma hospital. For Jason, reality would never be the same again. LEFT: ‘Pi’ drawn by Jason Padgett
as we can. In 2005, Jason decided to draw what he saw when he looked at light bouncing off a car window. He grabbed a pencil and created a striking image using only straight lines. Putting pencil to paper helped Jason deal with the new world he had found himself in. Eventually he returned to his job as a furniture store sales person – and, from his first day back, started decorating the white walls with his colorful drawings. Customers were curious about the peculiar but fascinating artwork. “Who made them?” they asked. “I did,” the skinny, autodidact artist would reply. “They are hand-drawn. If you look at them close up, you can see it for yourself.” People were shocked: Who knew the dorky guy in the furniture store could draw? Soon enough, most locals in town were talking about the eccentric man in the furniture store who was drawing amazingly complex images by hand. Jason couldn’t think about anything but patterns all day long. But, as time went by, he realised that, while his drawings captivated people’s attention, most couldn’t understand his explanations for his creations. He might as well have spoken Russian! Try as he may, he couldn’t explain why, but had the odd sense that his imagery somehow related to mathematics. In an attempt to ease his frustrations, a mathematician friend advised him that if he wanted to make himself understood, he would have to learn to speak the language of mathematics. Until then, Jason’s only interests had been getting drunk (and getting women), but eager to find answers, he signed up for a trigonometry class and a couple of calculus
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After a hasty in-and-out by the doctor, he was diagnosed with internal bleeding and a concussion and sent home to rest. But Jason barely made it home before he sensed that something was wrong – unusually freaky, in fact. Reality was broken! Jason looked around at a grotesque, almost eerie world: vases and windows would seemingly shatter spontaneously. It was as if someone had grabbed a rock and powerfully tossed it at reality, cutting the contours of everyday objects into tiny pieces. As cars moved away, reality split into geometrical patterns: light bounced off their shiny paint, ripping open empty air to reveal rainbows of right-angled triangles. To Jason’s dismay, these new visions didn’t go away. Frightened, he locked himself inside his apartment and stayed there for three years. He left only when his reservoir of canned beans was running low. Jason also saw motion differently. After his violent attack, objects no longer moved smoothly. Instead, he saw motion in ‘picture frames’. He was apparently suffering from ‘motion blindness’, an exceptionally rare condition that gives the appearance that reality is frozen. In 1983, Josef Zihl and his colleagues wrote of a patient (called ‘LM’) who had sustained damage to both sides of the brain (in an area known as the posterior temporal cortex). LM found pouring a cup of coffee nearly impossible “because the fluid appeared to be frozen, like a glacier.” The frozen image would eventually be replaced by an image of the cup overflowing with coffee. Jason’s condition was similar: though motion did not appear completely frozen to him, it did seem discontinuous. “It is as if someone is pressing the pause button on a video very quickly,” Jason told us. Thankfully, because his ‘picture frames’ are replaced by new images very quickly, Jason could pour a cup of coffee as well
WHEN A BAD BOY TURNS GOOD RIGHT: Jason in 1988. His only interests were to in alcohol, women and a combination of the two.
classes at a local community college. A schooldropout, Jason was about to embark on a truly exciting journey. Last time, Jason had cheated on his geometry high school exam. Now he couldn’t get enough. He absorbed mathematics with enthusiasm and, after learning the basics, Jason found himself understanding mathematics in terms of the images he continuously saw around him. Over time, he began to intuitively form images for mathematical formulae in his mind’s eye. He didn’t stop his sketching and eventually started submitting his drawings to competitions, achieving recognition in 2010 as Best International Newcomer in the Art Basel Miami Beach Competition.
As anyone who has had an MRI can testify, getting inside a brain scanner is a tight squeeze: think Tom Cruise crawling through the vents in Mission: Impossible. Once inside a scanner, subjects have to lie extremely still for the brain images to come out clearly. Given these restrictions, we weren’t able to test Jason’s brain activity while he drew his complex images. Instead, we chose to focus on the visions (which we call ‘synesthetic images’) that Jason experiences when he looks at mathematical formulae. We worked with Jason to create one list of formulae that caused him to experience complex geometrical images and another list that another list that didn’t. Inside the brain scanner Jason was shown the formulae, one at a time, in a random order. We then studied the differences in his brain activity when looking at image-inducing versus non-inducing formulae. What we found was surprising. The popular explanation for the emergence of special talents after brain injury, such as artistic or musical abilities, is that certain regions of the left brain – responsible for the inhibition of ‘creative right brain’ – have been damaged. This loss of the left brain results in the hyperactivation of the
(Jason ‘88) Rick Cordova
We meet Jason It was a chance encounter with New York author and journalist Maureen Seaberg that first put us in contact with Jason. After seeing him on the local news in Tacoma, Maureen realised that he had not yet met any scientists working on conditions such as his. She knew our lab was looking for new subjects and so recommended that he contact us to see if we could find out what was going on in his brain. After completing initial interviews and standard tests, we performed a functional magnetic resonance imaging study (fMRI) in collaboration with neuroscientists Simo Vanni and Juha Silvanto from the Research Unit and Magnetic Imaging Centre at Aalto University in Finland. Unlike regular MRI brain scans, this type of imaging allows us to see which areas of the brain become active when someone performs a particular task.
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BELOW: Jason being tested for metal before the fMRI scan.
WHEN A BAD BOY TURNS GOOD right brain, giving rise to heightened creativity. Research has shown that most cases of special talent involve injury to the left side of the brain, supporting this theory. But our results showed that, for Jason, his visual experiences weren’t actually occurring in the right side of his brain, but the left! Our finding means that there needs to be a rethink in the accepted theories for ‘acquired savant syndrome’.
Inside the prodigy’s mind It is difficult to say what sort of brain injury took place when Jason was mugged. When someone is hit on one side of the head, brain damage may occur on both sides: a forceful impact makes the brain violently bounce back and forth inside the skull. Also, Jason was hit and kicked many times on both sides of the head when he had collapsed, which may have injured many parts of his brain. However, our results do offer us some insight into what happened on that fateful day. The initial blows that rendered him unconscious landed on the right side towards the back of his skull; it is underneath these locations where the regions of the visual cortex process visual properties such as object boundary and color. Damage here is probably what prevents him from seeing continuous motion. Our functional MRI study also helps to explain why Jason has visual experiences. We knew that the left side of the brain is normally largely responsible for producing visual images, which goes hand-in-hand with Jason’s hallucinations. When Jason enrolled in community college he suddenly had to make sense of mathematical equations, so it is likely that his brain turned this new learning into complex imagery. Remarkably, these visual images probably helped him understand tricky new mathematical concepts. Our study had one final surprise. Previous
research into such visual hallucinations have consistently shown increased activity in the region at the very back of the brain that processes visual information – the visual cortex. So, we expected this area to also become activated when Jason experienced mathematical imagery – but it didn’t. Instead several areas with altogether different functions – thinking in three dimensions, planning and calculating – were stimulated. (see sidebox) The main activity associated with the imagegenerating equations in Jason was found in an area of the temporal cortex, located on the side of the head, and areas of the parietal cortex, located on top of the head. The temporal cortex is used when thinking and planning about things in three dimensions. The parietal cortex is associated with numerous functions, including preparing for spontaneous action and everyday mathematical activity, such as counting. Despite these remarkable insights, we cannot say on the basis of Jason’s brain scans why his brain produces equation-induced geometrical visions. We think it could be his failure to see continuous movement that triggers his visions: His brain may interpret fragmented, overlapping images of moving objects as complex geometrical patterns. All of this, of course, will remain speculative until scanning technology becomes more sensitive. Jason’s assault was traumatic and devastating. For most people, such an ordeal would change their life for the worst. He is one of the lucky ones – a directionless dropout transformed into an artist and mathematical prodigy. It gives us all hope, for further unlocking Jason’s mind may someday show us how to turn the tragedy of brain damage into something good.
Berit Brogaard, DMSci, PhD is Professor of Philosophy with joint appointments in the Department of Philosophy, Psychology, and the Center for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri in St. Louis as well as the Network for Sensory Research at the University of Toronto. She is Director of the St. Louis Synesthesia Lab, a research group focused on synesthesia and savant syndrome. Kristian Marlow, MA is a graduate student, member of the Center for Neurodynamics and Associate Director of the lab. Like all good academics – after a few too many glasses of wine – Berit and Kristian began writing about the fascinating cases they’ve studied for their forthcoming book The Superhuman Mind: True Tales of Extraordinary Mental Ability.
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