science

*sighs heavily, walks over to big DAYS SINCE MAX GOT TOO DRUNK AT AN OFFICE PARTY AND EMBARRASSED HIMSELF sign, flips number back to 0* —Max Read

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15 years ago, the neurosciences defined the main function of brains in terms of processing input to compute output: “brain function is ultimately best understood in terms of input/output transformations and how they are produced” wrote Mike Mauk in 2000.

Since then, a lot of things have been discovered that make this stimulus-response concept untenable and potentially based largely on laboratory artifacts.

For instance, it was discovered that the likely ancestral state of behavioral organization is one of probing the environment with ongoing, variable actions first and evaluating sensory feedback later (i.e., the inverse of stimulus response). […]

In humans, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies over the last decade and a half revealed that the human brain is far from passively waiting for stimuli, but rather constantly produces ongoing, variable activity, and just shifts this activity over to other networks when we move from rest to task or switch between tasks.

{ Björn Brembs | Continue reading }

The whool of the whaal in the wheel of the whorl

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A group of leading biologists called for a worldwide moratorium on use of a new genome-editing technique that would alter human DNA in a way that can be inherited.

The biologists fear that the new technique is so effective and easy to use that some physicians may push ahead before its safety can be assessed. They also want the public to understand the ethical issues surrounding the technique, [which holds the power to repair or enhance any human gene, and] could be used to cure genetic diseases, but also to enhance qualities like beauty or intelligence. […]

{ NY Times | Continue reading }

Genome-editing technologies may offer a powerful approach to treat many human diseases, including HIV/AIDS, haemophilia, sickle-cell anaemia and several forms of cancer. All techniques currently in various stages of clinical development focus on modifying the genetic material of somatic cells, such as T cells (a type of white blood cell). These are not designed to affect sperm or eggs. […]

The newest addition to the genome-editing arsenal is CRISPR/Cas9, a bacteria-derived system that uses RNA molecules that recognize specific human DNA sequences. The RNAs act as guides, matching the nuclease to corresponding locations in the human genome.

{ Nature | Continue reading }

photo { Darren Holmes }

related { Genetic Origins of Economic Development }

And now we’re flyin’ through the stars, I hope this night will last forever

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{ American scientist James Stuckey and volunteer Judy Creeden demonstrate the human body’s ability to function as a conductor of electricity during a lecture in New York sponsored by the Atomic Energy Commission, 1966 | photo by F. Roy Kemp }

What one refuses in a minute, no eternity will return

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8,000 Years Ago, 17 Women Reproduced for Every One Man

[A] member of the research team, a biological anthropologist, hypothesizes that somehow, only a few men accumulated lots of wealth and power, leaving nothing for others. These men could then pass their wealth on to their sons, perpetuating this pattern of elitist reproductive success. Then, as more thousands of years passed, the numbers of men reproducing, compared to women, rose again. “Maybe more and more people started being successful,” Wilson Sayres says. In more recent history, as a global average, about four or five women reproduced for every one man.

{ Pacific Standard | Continue reading }

The boots to them, them in the bar

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Our eyes are drawn to several dimensions of an object–such as color, texture, and luminance–even when we need to focus on only one of them, researchers at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania have found. The study, which appears in the journal Current Biology, points to the ability of our visual system to integrate multiple components of an item while underscoring the difficulty we have in focusing on a particular aspect of it.

{ EurekAlert | Continue reading }

photo { George Pitts }

When love absorbs. War! War! The tympanum.

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The ability to express empathy — the capacity to share and feel another’s emotions — is limited by the stress of being around strangers, according to a new study.

{ ScienceDaily | Continue reading }

related { People in the study were more likely to disclose something personal about themselves after laughing together, although they didn’t realize it. }

‘Humility is pain arising from a person’s contemplation of their own impotence.’ —Spinoza

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Over a decade ago, psychologist Barry Schwartz published what might be the ultimate psychological life-hacking tome, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. […]

If you ever aren’t sure if you attended the very best party or bought the very best computer, just settle for “good enough.” People who do this are called “satisficers,” and they’re consistently happier, he’s found, than are “maximizers,” people who feel that they must choose the very best possible option. Maximizers earn more, Schwartz has found, but they’re also less satisfied with their jobs. In fact, they’re more likely to be clinically depressed in general.

The reason this happens, as Schwartz explained in a paper with his Swarthmore colleague Andrew Ward, is that as life circumstances improve, expectations rise. People begin comparing their experiences to peers who are doing better, or to past experiences they’ve personally had that were better. […]

Schwartz’ solution […] just settle for something that’s acceptable—even if you know there’s likely something better out there.

{ The Atlantic | Continue reading }

photo { Jeff Mermelstein, New York City, c. 1993-1997 }

‘It is one thing to show a man that he is in error, and another to put him in possession of the truth.’ –Locke

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For two years the researchers tracked transactions at a supermarket in America. Perhaps unsurprisingly, shoppers who brought their own bags bought more green products than those who used the store’s bags. But the eco-shoppers were also more likely to buy sweets, ice cream and crisps. Psychologists call this sort of behaviour “moral licensing”: the tendency to indulge yourself for doing something virtuous. […]

A study from 2011 on water-conservation in Massachusetts shows how. In the experiment, some 150 apartments were divided into two groups. Half received water-saving tips and weekly estimates of their usage; the other half served as a control. The households that were urged to use less water did so: their consumption fell by an average of 6% compared with the control group. The hitch was that their electricity consumption rose by 5.6%. The moral licensing was so strong, in other words, that it more or less outweighed the original act of virtue.

{ The Economist | Continue reading }

art { Malcolm Levy }

‘Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing?’ –Heidegger

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Imagine a virus wipes out everyone on the planet except [a man]. […] He finds the last woman on Earth. […] Can they repopulate the Earth? To do so, their children would have to mate with one another, or mom and dad, in order to rebuild the human race. All the incestuous taboos aside, is this even genetically possible?

Inbreeding has unfortunate genetic consequences due to the increased inheritance of recessive genes, which can result in neonatal death. Inbred children that survive are at increased risk of congenital birth defects, reduced fertility, smaller size, immune deficiencies, cystic fibrosis, and more. These defects are also likely to be passed on to their children as well. […]

Some real-life examples of the consequences of inbreeding can be found in places where there are restricted breeding opportunities — for example, within monarchies, islanders, or closed societies. Hemophilia was notoriously prevalent in European royal families. Some Amish societies have a larger number of children born with extra digits on their hands or feet. Jews of Eastern European descent tend to have higher rates of a number of genetic diseases, including cystic fibrosis. […]

The net result of inbreeding is that the resulting population loses a diverse genetic portfolio, which means they are less resistant to rare diseases and deformities. The smaller the gene pool, the faster it gets dirty. Such individuals would also have less diverse immune systems, making it much easier for a single germ to wipe them all out. […]

In addition to the genetic landmines, the family would likely have a very difficult time overcoming the innate resistance most species have against inbreeding. Evolution knows that inbreeding is not good for the species, so it engineered a built-in “incest taboo” that creates a strong aversion to such behavior. A devil’s advocate, however, could argue that the biological barrier to familial sex could be overcome through artificial insemination.

What about using a sperm bank? Sperm is stored in liquid nitrogen, so it would stay frozen for a short time after the power goes out. However, you’d have to act fast because no one is around to monitor the storage tanks and top off the liquid nitrogen as it evaporates.

There are practical concerns to consider as well. The last man and woman, as well as their kids, would need to have large numbers of children and, unless one of the founders happens to be a doctor, it is hard to imagine many of these babies surviving in such a world. Even if they (and mom) survive childbirth, there are countless opportunities for them to perish in this type of environment before reaching childrearing age.

{ The Scope | Continue reading }

art { Hilo Chen, Beach 166, 2010 }

Now, baby, Cissy Caffrey said. Say out big, big. I want a drink of water. And baby prattled after her: A jink a jink a jawbo.

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Recent studies have shown that women are more sensitive than men to subtle cuteness differences in infant faces. It has been suggested that raised levels in estradiol and progesterone may be responsible for this advantage. […]

Thirty-six women were tested once during ovulation and once during the luteal phase of their menstrual cycle. In a two alternative forced-choice experiment, participants chose the baby which they thought was cuter (Task 1), younger (Task 2), or the baby that they would prefer to babysit (Task 3). […]

During ovulation, women were more likely to choose the cuter baby than during the luteal phase, in all three tasks. These results suggest that cuteness discrimination may be driven by cyclic hormonal shifts.

{ Hormones and Behavior | Continue reading }

art { Henri Chopin, La crevette amoureuse, 1967-1975 }

‘The bassoon or the piccolo, grumbling its discontent or shrilling its longing, personify the empty stomach for me.’ –Gioachino Rossini

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Scientists are increasingly convinced that the vast assemblage of microfauna in our intestines may have a major impact on our state of mind. The gut-brain axis seems to be bidirectional—the brain acts on gastrointestinal and immune functions that help to shape the gut’s microbial makeup, and gut microbes make neuroactive compounds, including neurotransmitters and metabolites that also act on the brain. […]

Microbes may have their own evolutionary reasons for communicating with the brain. They need us to be social, says John Cryan, a neuroscientist at University College Cork in Ireland, so that they can spread through the human population. Cryan’s research shows that when bred in sterile conditions, germ-free mice lacking in intestinal microbes also lack an ability to recognize other mice with whom they interact. In other studies, disruptions of the microbiome induced mice behavior that mimics human anxiety, depression and even autism. In some cases, scientists restored more normal behavior by treating their test subjects with certain strains of benign bacteria. Nearly all the data so far are limited to mice, but Cryan believes the findings provide fertile ground for developing analogous compounds, which he calls psychobiotics, for humans. “That dietary treatments could be used as either adjunct or sole therapy for mood disorders is not beyond the realm of possibility,” he says.

{ Scientific American | Continue reading }

related { Is Neuroscience Based On Biology? }

And the cloud that took the form (When the rest of Heaven was blue) Of a demon in my view

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[O]ne in six serial killers are female. Their crimes tend to go undetected for longer than their male counterparts, likely in part because “our culture is in denial of women’s proclivity for aggression.”

Harrison and her team have profiled 64 US female serial killers active between the years 1821 to 2008. […] The female serial killers had murdered between them at least 331 victims (making an average of 6 victims each). Their victims are of both sexes, but disproportionately male. The women had an average of age of 32 at the time of their first killing, and poisoning was the most common method. […] “the women in our study poisoned, smothered, burned, choked, shot, bludgeoned, and shot newborns, children, elderly, and ill people as well as healthy adults; most often those who knew and likely trusted them.”

Many of the homicidal women had stereotypically female professions, including being nurses and baby-sitters. They tended to be above average in physical attractiveness, which may have helped to engender trust in their victims.

As to motives, the most common was “hedonistic”, a category in forensic psychology that refers to killing for financial gain, lust or thrill, with nearly half the sample fitting this category. The next most common motive was “power-seeking”, which includes killing people in one’s care. […]

Quotes from some of the killers hint at their psychopathological thinking:

“They [the children] bothered me, so I decided to kill them.”

“I like to attend funerals. I’m happy when someone is dying.”

“That is my ambition, to have killed more people – more helpless people – than any man or woman who has ever lived.”

A striking contrast with male serial killers is the relative absence of sexual violence and deviance. Two exceptions were a female serial killer who was a rapist, and another who reportedly barked like a dog during sex. But overall, the researchers highlighted how the women in their study primarily killed for resources, while their male counterparts kill for sex. This follows evolutionary theory, Harrison and her co-authors explained, in the sense that men are said to be motivated more by seeking multiple sexual opportunities, while women are motivated to find a committed partner with sufficient resources. […]

The new analysis points to a worrying trend: a 150 per cent increase in the number of reported cases of female serial killers since 1975.

{ BPS | Continue reading }