Tag Archives: study

Music can be used to estimate political ideology to an “accuracy of 70%”, researchers say

Do you like Pharrell’s “Happy”? Then you’re probably a conservative.

If you’ve ever tried to argue with a stranger on the Internet about politics (or with your family at Thanksgiving dinner), you’re well aware that it’s a recipe for disaster: political ideology is often so deeply rooted that it feels hard-wired into our DNA. Political ideology strongly influences our views on things like economics and social policies, but could it also have far-reaching influences on things we aren’t even aware of? The Fox Lab at New York University believes the answer is yes.

Their theory?

“Ideology fundamentally alters how we perceive a neutral stimulus, such as music,” said Caroline Myers, who presented her research at the 2018 Society for Neuroscience Meeting.

To examine the influence of political ideology on musical preference, participants self-reported their political ideology as liberal, conservative, or center, and then listened to clips from 192 songs. For each song clip, they would rate how familiar they were with the song and then how much they liked or disliked it. These songs included the top 2 songs each year from the Billboard Top 40, iconic songs across certain genres, and a selection of more obscure music. Participants additionally ranked how often they believed they listened to certain genres of music — which led to some surprising findings.

For example, 60% of individuals who identified as liberals said that they listen to R&B music, and yet they weren’t any more familiar with these songs than any other group — and they actually liked R&B songs less than their conservative counterparts. Liberals also stated they listen to jazz but were not any more familiar with jazz music than the other groups.

They also looked at individual song preference across the various ideologies. Some did not showcase any major differences, with classical music being the least divisive of all the musical genres. The most polarizing song, however, was “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. Conservatives love it, while liberals hate it. And there’s actually evidence of this in the real world — just two weeks ago, Pharrell issued President Donald Trump a cease and desist order for using the song at one of his rallies.

While we can use this information to create a kick-ass playlist for our like-minded friends, is there any evidence that we can guess an individual’s political ideology purely based on musical taste? Surprisingly, the answer is yes.

“We were able to estimate individual’s ideological leanings to an accuracy of 70%,” said Myers.

Myers is currently working on addressing the limitations of her study such as the limited number of conservative participants due to heavy on-campus recruiting for the study. However, the results are still striking, and quite concerning, from a personal data standpoint. It goes to show that, even if we’re not actively posting personal details on social media, companies may still have other means to gain insight into our personal preferences – and we might not even be aware of it.

Humor done right helps in the classroom, 99% of students report. Bad humor hurts

When in doubt, crack open a funny one.

Shadow joke.

Image credits Hans Braxmeier.

Science classrooms stand to benefit from humor, new research suggests. This first-of-its-kind study revealed that humor can have a positive impact on students’ ability to learn, but also a negative one if wielded improperly. Luckily, the team also identified which kind of jokes go over smoothly and which risk offending students.

The ‘Ha-ha’ factor

Humor can help lighten the mood and help students establish rapport with their instructors. The study, penned by researchers from the Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences, found that students appreciate when instructors tell jokes in science class. Female and male students, however, differ on what topics they find funny or offensive.

The team surveyed students from 25 college science courses on their perceptions of instructor humor. Out of the total of 1,637 respondents, 99% said they appreciate instructor humor and feel it improves the overall experience of college. Many also said it helps decrease stress, enhance the relationship between students and the instructor, and remind them what was taught in class.

It came as a surprise, the team admits.

“I went into [this study] thinking that maybe we shouldn’t be joking in the classroom, but I left the study thinking that instructors should use humor as a way to better connect with students,” said Sara Brownell, associate professor in the school and senior author of the paper.

“But, as might seem obvious, we need to be careful with what we’re joking about because we found the topics that instructors are joking about can have different effects on different students.”

With great humor, however, also comes great chance to offend somebody.

The good news is that lukewarm jokes — those that students don’t actually find funny — won’t do any damage; such jokes don’t change the students’ attention to course content or their relationship with the instructor, the team reports. The bad news is that if an instructor tells a joke that students find both unfunny and offensive, they can seem less relatable and make students pay less attention, according to over 40% of respondents. The effect seems to be more pronounced on female students, the team adds.

As a group, male and female students will also laugh at different jokes — and they’ll be offended by different jokes, too. In the survey, science students were presented with a list of hypothetical topics that a professor could joke about and asked to rate how they feel about each.

Male students were more likely to find jokes told by the instructor about gender, sexual orientation, religious identity, and race funny. Female students were more likely to find these same hypotheticals offensive. Both, however, found jokes about science, college, and television to be palatable.

“There were 23 subjects that males were more likely than females to report that they might find funny, including all 14 subjects related to social identities,” the paper reads. “However, there was only one subject, food puns, that females were more likely than males to report that they might find funny

“More and more studies are starting to paint a picture that the classroom environment is really important for student learning,” Brownell explains. “Science classrooms and the instructors teaching the science are typically described by students as boring, unapproachable and difficult. So, science instructors who try to be funny can create better learning environments, as long as they are not offensive.”

The authors suggest that instructors weave humor into their course, but that they pay attention to what kind of jokes they crack. “Is it a joke about cute animals? Probably OK.”, says co-author Katelyn Cooper”.A pun about science? Probably OK.”

The study is the product of a collaboration between the team and 16 students (graduate and undergraduates) enrolled in a class focusing on biology education research. The entire class worked on the project for one semester, acting as investigators — formulating the initial research idea, collecting and analyzing data, and editing the final manuscript.

The paper “To be funny or not to be funny: Gender differences in student perceptions of instructor humor in college science courses” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Recents studies show how coffee is good for your health

Steaming hot, iced, blended, black, creamy. Coffee! It comes in many forms, and it’s part of my daily routine. It’s part of many others’ too. Last week several established publications’ websites were running coffee-related articles, touting this beverage’s health benefits. Scientists have remarked on this drink’s healthful qualities in the past. The idea that coffee is good for you is not a new one.

The Relationship with Diabetes

The delightful drink seems to help in warding off type 2 diabetes. The sex hormone-binding globulin, or SHBG for short, is a protein which controls the sex hormones in the human body: testosterone and estrogen. It has also been considered to have a key role in the evolution of this specific type of diabetes.

It has been observed that drinking coffee will increase the amount of plasma of SHBG. A few years ago, a study showed that women who ingested a minimum of four cups each day were slightly less likely to develop diabetes as opposed to those who didn’t drink it at all.

Help in Other Areas

The Best Way to Start the Day Right. Source: Pixabay.

Coffee, primarily the caffeinated kind, has been known to prevent as well as alleviate Parkinson’s disease. The consumption of caffeine has been found to significantly decrease the number of Parkinson’s cases. In fact, it may even aid in simple movement in individuals afflicted with the disease.

It provides some benefits for those who are concerned about their heart. Small daily doses can assist in preventing heart failure. In one study, it was shown that the risk of heart failure in people drinking four European cups of coffee per day was reduced by 11%.

Newer studies show that the regular intake of a relatively small amount of coffee can bring down the chances of premature death by 10%. Additional benefits could possibly include preventing cirrhosis, decrease the likelihood of multiple sclerosis (MS), and prevent the onslaught of colon cancer. However, to be certain whether these benefits are actually present in coffee more tests are needed. It is also one of the very best sources of antioxidants which protect the human body against destructive molecules called free radicals. This is good since free radicals are believed by many scientists to bring about cancer, blood vessel disease, and other serious ailments.

The Biggie: Coffee and Liver Health

From Pot to Cup. Source: Pixabay.

Perhaps the biggest health factor it basks in being associated with is liver health. Marc Gunter, head of a recent large-scale European study noted by National Geographic, has stated coffee drinking is linked to good health in the liver and circulatory systems. He also says it can account for lower inflammation levels in those who drink it as opposed to those who don’t.

The discoveries this study has led to supply the strongest defense to date for the healthful qualities of coffee. Gunter informed the scientific community and the public that he plans to examine the beverage’s chemical compounds in an attempt to know what makes it healthful.

We have actually seen how it can aid in liver conditions for several years. For instance, it was found that consuming three cups of coffee on a daily basis reduced the chances of getting liver cancer by 50%! Decaf also decreases the number of enzymes located in the liver. Thus, it is seen that caffeine is not always the prime healthy aspect provided in coffee. Drinking the beverage frequently has been associated with decreasing the risk of primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) which is a rare disease infecting the liver’s bile ducts.

As we’ve seen, coffee has quite a few benefits when drunk regularly and moderately. The important thing to recognize now is that many specific studies need to done on coffee itself and how it relates to treating various illnesses.

Reading in forest

Peer to your peers for motivation, not your teachers, if you actually want to study

If you need motivation to study look to your peers, not your professors, new research from Michigan State University says. The paper found that students get much better results in school when incentive is provided by their colleagues rather than teachers.

Reading in forest

Image credits Sasin Tipchai.

Studying is good for you. It’s also really hard to get yourself to do it, to the point where ‘procrastination’ has almost become synonymous with ‘student’. So every bit of motivation helps, a fact which has not eluded professors the world over who try to nudge their students as best as possible towards working hard.

But teachers’ efforts to tell students why they should study and how much it will benefit them may be why they’re so bad at getting their studying on, a new paper argues.

“These findings suggest that what instructors were good at was getting across cold facts, while the peers seemed to be tapping into an identification process,” said study co-author Cary Roseth, associate professor of educational psychology.

“In other words, as a student, I can identify with my peers and imagine myself using the course material in the same way they do. This gives the material meaning and a sense of purpose that goes beyond memorization. When I hear a peer’s story, it connects to the story I am telling myself about who I want to be in the future.”

The team conducted their investigation during an online college course. Enrollment for the courses has grown dramatically over the past decade, with more than 7 million (more than a third of) U.S. higher-education students today having enrolled in at least one such course, the authors note. In this setting, the team wanted to see what effect peer and instructor rationales had on motivating the students to follow up on their courses. It is the first study to investigate this link between student outcome and source of motivation.

They chose the introductory-level educational psychology course at the MSU, which is required of all teacher education students. The team randomly assigned students to receive either a ‘peer rationale’, an ‘instructor rationale’, or no rationale whatsoever for why the course was important and how it could benefit their careers in the future.

Peer motivation

The peer and instructor rationales were scripted and identical, the only difference was that of context — i.e. where the students thought it originated.

By the end of the semester, the group who had received the peer rationale had an average score of 92 percent. Students in the instructor rationale group had an average of 86 percent. But most strikingly, students who received no rationale got an average final grade of 90 percent, higher than the instructor-motivated group.

“We found that receiving the instructor rationale led to lower final grades than both the peer rationale and no rationale conditions,” Roseth said.

“This gives support to the idea that, motivationally, the fact that instructors control grades, tell the students what do to, and so on, may be working against their efforts to increase their students’ appreciation of why the class is important.”

So does this mean that well-intended teacher motivation actually dooms students to a life of average final grades? Not necessarily. It’s the first study of its kind to be performed, and it only had a small sample size of 59 undergraduate students to work with. It’s also tricky to expand findings from online courses to traditional ones, in my view, as they may not yet have that ‘real class’ feel courses in school or university have.

But until more research can confirm or deny the results, better stay safe — let the kids motivate one another, or just pretend to be one of them on-line and whip up some enthusiasm. I guess that works too.

The paper “Effects of peer and instructor rationales on online students’ motivation and achievement” has been published in the International Journal of Educational Research.

Shaky science: 9 Retracted Studies That Left a Big Mark

Image via Wikipedia.

Scientific publishing is a competitive environment, under heavy scrutiny from reviewers, editor and peers. Over the years, some studies get retracted, and that’s not a bad thing in itself; a study can be retracted because more data is available, disproving it, or because a human or technical error snuck in – that’s perfectly understandable, and the review and correction process helps science move on. However, sometimes, the science can be shady, impossible to reproduce, biased or even fabricated – and even if the study gets retracted, the damage can already be done. Here is a list of such studies: studies that made a big impact, were proven to be wrong or faked, but still left a big mark.

Vaccines and Autism

In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a study that still sends ripples today; he claimed that vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella can cause autism in children. The effects were almost instantaneous; vaccination rates in the UK plummeted, and this was quickly echoed in the US. But from the start, there were doubts about his study.

No one was ever able to replicate his results – and this is one of the main principles behind science: it has to be reproducible. To add even more doubt, a 2004 investigation by Sunday Times reporter Brian Deer identified undisclosed financial conflicts of interest on Wakefield’s part. Most of Wakefield’s collaborators retracted their support of the study. Deer also found that children with autism were subjected to unnecessary invasive medical procedures such as colonoscopies and lumbar punctures and that Wakefield acted without ethics. In February 2009, The Sunday Times reported that a further investigation by the newspaper had revealed that Wakefield “changed and misreported results in his research, fabricating the appearance of a possible link with autism”

In 2010, The Lancet retracted the study due to Dr. Wakefield’s shady practices, ireproducible results and financial conflicts of interests. Despite being retracted, many people today still quote it and still believe that vaccination can cause autism; this is perhaps the most damaging studies ever published.

Transistors at the Bell Labs

Between 1998 and 2001, Bell Labs announced a series of spectacular advances in physics, mostly in the field of transistors and superconductors. Before he was exposed, Jan Hendrik Schön had received the Otto-Klung-Weberbank Prize for Physics and the Braunschweig Prize in 2001 as well as the Outstanding Young Investigator Award of the Materials Research Society in 2002 and published numerous papers.

Bell Labs is one of the most prolific research centers in the world. Image via Wikipedia.

In 2001 he was listed as an author on a peer-reviewed paper on average once every 8 days. Many other researchers and even private companies began to look into his work, because his research indicated that we could move away from a silicon based transistor to molecular transistors.

But a panel found that 17 papers relied on fraudulent data, blaming Schön alone. Schön acknowledged that the data were incorrect in many of these papers. He claimed that the substitutions could have occurred by honest mistake, but admitted to falsifying data. It was the downfall of one of the world’s most brilliant physicists.

Ecstasy is not Amphetamine

In 2002, in the journal Science, a paper called “Severe dopaminergic neurotoxicity in primates after a common recreational dose regimen of MDMA (ecstasy)” was published. Basically, scientists found that using MDMA, even in small doses, leads to an alarming level of toxicity in primates. There was only one problem with the study: they used amphetamines instead of MDMA.

Naturally, the study was retracted, but this led to many questions about the peer review system that failed to catch the intentional error and criticism from the scientific community.

In an interview in The Scientist, British scientists Colin Blakemore and Leslie Iversen called the study an attempt to tell governments what they want to hear about illegal drugs.

Dr. Oz’s miracle pills

miracle cure

Dr. Oz has been accused of many things, most notably, of promoting things that just don’t work. ‘Miracle pills’, ‘magic’ – words like this were common occurrences in his shows, with little or no scientific evidence to support the claims. In the biggest scam he ever promoted (yes, I think it’s safe to call it a scam at this point), he stated that green coffee pills have a myriad of health benefits, including helping you lose weight.

This was based on heavily flawed studies, which were since retracted. They got a $9 million fine, but even today, many marketers still brand green coffee as a miracle cure – and people buy it.

Pesticides and estrogen

A 1996 report, again published in Science found that some pesticides might cause hormonal disruptions, causing cancer and birth defects in humans.  In 1997, the paper was withdrawn after its senior author, John A. McLachlan, admitted the results could not be reproduced.

This study led to a frantic round of research, but even today, there are still many open questions about the connection between pesticides and hormones.

Human cloning and stem cells

Hwang Woo-suk was one of the most prominent scientists in the world after publishing papers in which he detailed major progress in human cloning and the extraction of stem cells – most notably,  he reported to have succeeded in creating human embryonic stem cells by cloning. At one point, he was actually called “The Pride of South Korea” in his native country.

However, it was showed that much of the data was fabricated. He was convicted of embezzlement and bioethical violations in South Korea and the fraud was confirmed by several investigations. However, despite being fired and legally convicted, he was granted a patent for work in 2014 in the US.

Stem cell production

Haruko Obokata. Image via Huff Post.

In the 2000s, Haruko Obokata was the rising star of genetics. She got her PhD, impressed all her collaborators, and went on to publish what was supposed to be groundbreaking research: an easy method to create multipurpose stem cells, with eventual implications for the treatment of diseases and injuries.

However, months later, all the authors, herself included, issued a retraction of the study after it was shown that they tampered some of the images used in the study. Her short, promising career was stunted, but even sadder, her personal adviser and one of her co-authors, Yoshiki Sasai, committed suicide. He hanged himself.

Gay marriage and politics

A recent addition to the list is a study about gay marriage. Another prominent rising researcher, Michael LaCour found that it’s easy to change some people’s minds on gay marriage – all it takes is a short conversation. Sadly, this was another case of fabricated evidence, as everyone that tried replicating his study quickly understood.

But this episode doesn’t only cast a black cloud on LaCour and his career, it casts doubts on the entire scientific publishing system. The entire situation seems almost surreal – why would people fake results on gay marriage opinions – but it becomes much more understandable when you look at the bigger picture. LaCour seemed to have it all – the great idea, the money to back it up, and the means to complete it. But it’s a dog eat dog when it comes to publishing science, and only interesting results are published. If your results are not positive, or not spectacular, it suddenly becomes much more difficult to publish; and if you don’t publish, you’re no one. This is one of the main causes behind so many retracted studies.

Lying and pain

From 1996 to 2009, Scott Reuben published a number of studies that were retracted after it was discovered that he never conducted any of the trials he claimed to run. Scientific American has called Reuben the medical equivalent of Bernie Madoff, the former NASDAQ chairman who was convicted of orchestrating a $65-billion Ponzi scheme.

“Doctors have been using (his) findings very widely,” said Dr. Steven Shafer, editor of Anesthesia and Analgesia, a scientific journal that published ten articles identified as containing fraudulent data. “His findings had a huge impact on the field.”[5] He also described Reuben’s actions as the biggest case of fraud in the history of anesthesiology. Paul White, another editor at the journal, estimates that Reuben’s studies led to the sale of billions of dollars’ worth of drugs which may have actually slowed down recovery times for patients.





Be careful, kids – high grades are contagious

Highschool students whose friends have higher grades than them have a significant tendency to raise their own grades over the course of a year, a study conducted by Hiroki Sayama from Binghamton University and his collaborators from Maine-Endwell High School in Endwell, New York, including 4 high school students.

teen studying

Previous research had already shown that a student’s social network can influence his weight, emotional state and other cognitive traits and behavior. However, this is the first to examine how peer groups can influence academic progress over time. This is actually the opposite of the traditional “rotten apple” belief – if in a group one student has lower grades, the tendency will be for him to improve, and not for his colleagues to decline.

In order to conduct the study, they first asked eleventh grade students to categorize their peers as best friends, friends, acquaintances, strangers or relatives. They then mapped how each one of them does in school compared to his peers. They correlated their social network with their performance over the period of an academic year.

They found that majority rules: students whose social group was doing better than them will improve themselves, while at the opposite end, students with lower performing friends tended to have lower grades as well. The authors also found that the strongest link between a student’s GPA change and that of their peers was likely to be with those they had ranked as friends, rather than best friends or acquaintances.

While one could argue that this is already common knowledge and it’s only natural that teenagers are influenced by their friends, this is the first scientific study to document this.

“While most educators already know the importance of social environment for a student’s academic success, our study presents the first quantitative supporting evidence for such empirical knowledge.”

Scientific journal

Increase Your Memory… With a Pill?

What if you could increase your ability to remember with a pill?  This may not be an idea just for science fiction novels.  Scientists have discovered a method that could strengthen long-term memories.

A protein called PKR functions to maintain a relatively low level of excitability by enhancing GABA synaptic transmission.  GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter; it decreases synaptic stimuli by flowing from one synapse to another.  PKR increases GABA flow, which is known to be a crucial part of memory association.

Scientists turned off the genes in mice responsible for the creation of PKR and tested the results of GABA function.  The mice’s ability to recall memories was tested in a Morris water maze.  This pretty much consists of a big container of water that has platforms hidden in it.  The researchers show the mice where the platform is and the mice are tested on their ability to remember and locate it.

The mice that didn’t have the PKR protein were significantly better at remembering where the platforms were as compared to the normal mice that did have the PKR protein.

So, it may be a long way off, but this could be a key target in helping patients with disorders associated with long-term memory loss (i.e. Alzheimer’s disease).  An injection or pill that inhibited PKR could be administered to help increase the ability to recall memories.  Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be released to the general public (as much as all of us students would LOVE that).

Picture source

Caffeine consumption linked to hallucinations

You can’t believe everything people say, but you sometimes can’t even believe what you hear, especially if you’ve had 3 or more cups of coffee. Australian researchers from La Trobe University have just published a study suggesting that people on a major coffee buzz are prone to hear and seethings that aren’t there.

The thins is that this might raise new concerns about caffeine use, but if you ask me, for the average coffee consumer who hears about studies like this all the time, this is hardly going to amount to anything more than background noise.

They employed a simple method to test this; they asked a number of subjects, some caffeineted (over 3 cups) and some not; they put on headphones, and told them to focus on the noise, and that White Christmas would be playing on the background – which was a plain lie. The researchers concluded that more than five cups of coffee can be clearly linked with hallucinations – most of the subjects stating that they heard the music.

Of course this study refers only to mild hallucinations, and there a huge gap between hearing White Christmas and full scale hallucinations; but then again, that’s how it starts, doesn’t it ?

The colour red increases speed and strength of reactions

What can possibly link together speed, strength, and the colour red ? Nope, it’s not a brand new Ferrari – it’s your muscles ! A new groundbreaking study published in the journal Emotion shows that if you see red, your reactions become faster, more powerful, and you won’t even realize it.

Science and sports

Of course, due to the crazy amounts of money that are put in sports these days, one of the first thing that comes to mind is using this advantage to become a better athlete. A brief burst of speed and strength is often all you need to overcome your competition, but scientists warn that the ‘colour energy’ is likely short lived.

“Red enhances our physical reactions because it is seen as a danger cue,” explains coauthor Andrew Elliot, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and a lead researcher in the field of color psychology. “Humans flush when they are angry or preparing for attack,” he explains. “People are acutely aware of such reddening in others and it’s implications.”

But a threat is a double edged sword, Elliot and coauthor Henk Aarts, professor of psychology at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands argue. Along with the increased qualities, side effects also include “worry, task distraction, and self-preoccupation, all of which have been shown to tax mental resources”.

Good for reactions, bad for your mind

Red has already been proven as counter productive for sustained mental activities, such as studying, for example; it has been shown that students exposed to red before an exam fare slightly worse than those who weren’t.

“Color affects us in many ways depending on the context,” explains Elliot, whose research also has documented how men and women are unconsciously attracted to the opposite sex when they wear red. “Those color effects fly under our awareness radar,” he says.

Testing students’ reactions

The study was conducted by measuring the reactions of students in two experiments.

In the first one, students from 4th to 10th grade pinched and held open a metal clasp. Right before doing so, they read aloud their participant number written in either red or gray crayon.

In the second experiment, undergrads were asked to squeeze a handgrip with their dominant hand as hard as possible when they read the word squeeze on a screen. The word appeared on a blue, gray, and red background.

In both scenarios, red increased the strength significantly, and in the second experiment, it was proven that not only the power, but also the reaction speed was increased. The colours in the experiment were also exactly controled, in terms of hue, brightness, and chroma (intensity) to insure that reactions were not a result of some other variable besides colour.

“Many color psychology studies in the past have failed to account for these independent variables, so the results have been ambiguous,” explains Elliot.

If you ask me, it’s another great example of how the most mundane elements around us, like colour, can have a significant impact on our lives. Hopefully, studies will be continued in this direction so that there will be even a vague method of quantification.

Picture sources: 1 2

Study shows one in five drivers would fail written test

If every driver in the US would be required to take the test today, almost 20% of them would fail, according to results of the 2011 GMAC Insurance National Driver’s Test. That’s 36.9 million American drivers, who technically speaking, shouldn’t be on the road, due to their lack of knowledge. Come to think about it, this isn’t such a big surprise; one might even say that’s an optimistic number, especially if you look around.

An interesting find is that after a few years, New York doesn’t rank last, moving up to 45th place; the District of Columbia now holds this special position. Surprisingly or not, men fared better than women, earning an average score of 80.2 percent, while women recorded 74.1 percent.

What little good news can be drawn from this study is that – shockingly – things improved slightly from last year, but this can always be a statistical error. The study interviewed 5,130 licensed drivers ages 16-65, from 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Everybody can contribute to this study, whether licensed or unlicensed, at GMAC’s Web site, but be prepared – you will have to enter your email and name if you want to see the results.

Monkeys have regrets too

Much like humans, monkeys too exhibit signs of regret, and they wonder themselves what might have been, according to a recent study published by researchers from Yale.

The study, published in the Neuron journal, suggests that aside from regrets, monkeys often wonder about how different actions would lead to different outcomes; as researchers state, aside from being extremely interesting in itself, this could also shed some light on some of the most basic human psychological traits.

The general belief is that animals learn only on their previous experiences, mostly on a trial and error basis. But Daeyeol Lee, a professor of neurobiology at the Yale School of Medicine said he has long believed that this was inaccurate, and set out to prove his hunch; he succeeded.

“When people have regret, they’re thinking about what could have happened; it’s about imagining what could have happened,” said Lee, co-author of the study. “The reason you do this is because it actually broadens the potential for learning tremendously. It seems like such a fundamental question that I would be surprised if it were exclusive to humans.”

To test their theory, researchers set out and taught the monkeys to play a computer simulation of ‘rock, paper, scissors’, while monitoring their brain’s activity. If they won, they would get a large reward, if they tied, a small reward, and they got nothing when they lost. Most of the monkeys, they observed, would pick whichever symbol they would have won with in the previous game. In other words, Lee said, they were able to think abstractly and imagine an alternative outcome.

With the help of brain imaging material, the Yale researchers were able to pinpoint the activity in the brain triggered by this kind of thinking, and the different forms that it takes. According to them, regret takes place in two different forms, both of which take place in parts of the prefrontal cortex. Most regret is also good, and helps you learn and evolve.

“Your brain is running this mental simulation about how you could do things differently in the future to get a better outcome.”

But when people obsess about their regrets, this often leads to depression.

“It’s an important first step,” he said. “If someone has a pathological amount of regret, and you want to ameliorate it some way, you can target those areas. And when you’re testing those drugs, then you know where to look.”

1 in 5 young adults suffering from high blood pressure in the US

Researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have found that more and more young adults are suffering from a condition that has traditionally been the problem of older adults – high blood pressure.

The researchers believe that general problems, such as an unbalanced diet, coffee, and obesity are the main causes for this surge in heart related issues amongst this category of people. Published in this week’s edition of the online journal Epidemiology, the study states that they tested over 14.000 people between the ages of 24 and 32, and found that almost twenty percent were suffering from high blood pressure, a number five times bigger than the generally accepted one.

The thing is, high blood pressure is extremely easy to overlook, especially if you don’t expect it – like anyone in their 20s. Kathleen Mullan Harris, co-author of the paper and interim director at the University of North Carolina Carolina Population Center believes that the findings are results of a dormant epidemic.

“We tend to think of young adults are rather healthy, but a prevalence of 19 percent with high blood pressure is alarming, especially since more than half did not know that they had high blood pressure,” she said.

It is yet another sign of the huge problems obesity brings with itself, especially teamed up with a sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle.

Research unveils increased rate of autism

Autism is still yet poorly understood, and researchers are just starting to figure out the mechanisms behind this strange condition which seems to affect more and more children (and not only) with each passing year.

A 6 year autism study

The ambitious six year effort attempted to gauge the rate of autism in a South Korean city, and the results absolutely shocked researchers, and the results will probably change the way autism numbers are estimated throughout the world.

They reported a figure of 2.6 percent of all children aged 7 to 12 in the Ilsan district of the city of Goyang, which is more than double the estimated number throughout the world – and even that estimated number has grown significantly, from 0.6 to 1 in just 4 years in the United States.

However, study authors claim that it doesn’t in fact reflect a growth in the autism children, but just that the study was done more thoroughly than before.

“This is a very impressive study,” said Lisa Croen, director of the autism research program at Kaiser-Permanente Northern California, who was not connected with the new report. “They did a careful job and in a part of the world where autism has not been well documented in the past.”

Ilsan has a community of 488,590 people, so there is little doubt about the number of children analyzed. In contrast to this study, the United States estimates are done in a different fashion: they examine and verify records of reported cases and cases where parents have seeked out special schools, which almost certainly leaves out a significant number of children who never sought special education.

“From the get-go we had the feeling that we would find a higher prevalence than other studies because we were looking at an understudied population: children in regular schools,” said the lead researcher, Dr. Young-Shin Kim, a child psychiatrist and epidemiologist at the Yale Child Study Center.

A thorough effort

Due to the underestimation of the children suffering from the autism condition, their situation is not taken as seriously as it should be, especially as the Korean study reported that most of the autism disorder cases were reported in regular schools, for children who had never received special education or other mental health special treatment. The children were pretty similar to those in the United States, and everywhere in the world.

Fifty-nine percent were intellectually disabled, or mentally retarded; more than two-thirds had full-blown autism, as opposed to milder forms like Asperger’s; and boys outnumbered girls five to one. However, when analyzing only children from regular schools, the numers aren’t so heavy: only 16 percent were intellectually disabled, more than two-thirds had a milder form of autism, and the ratio of boys to girls was unusually low: 2.5 to 1. Furthermore, 16 percent of them had actually higher IQ’s than average, which is extremely interesting.

What can cause autistic children in regular schools to fare so much better than those who receive special treatment ? Is it the (forced) adaptation to unwanted conditions that forces children to understanding things better and faster ? Or is it the competition that always appears at elementary schools ? It’s extremely hard to say at this point, but hopefully this is just the beginning in a long series of studies which will shed some light on autism, especially as it seems we have underestimated it so far. Also, the high number of autistic children in regular schools shows the low level of awareness, which absolutely has to be changed.

Antarctica threatened by alien species invasion

First of all, don’t think of alien species as extraterrestrials; if you came here wanting to hear about that – sorry. Thankfully, the sci-fi scenario is not upon us. I’m talking about species which haven’t originated from Antarctica – seeds, fungi, microorganisms, they go wherever they are taken, and wherever people take them. If you have researchers or some tourists, they can carry a significant amount of intruders, which can be extremely harmful to the aborigen environment.

Preventing is better than treating

There have been numerous examples of intruder species harming a local environment, and even destroying an ecosystem, which is why researchers are paying extra attention to the matter, even when it comes to microorganisms.

“We are still at the stage when Antarctica has fewer than 10 non-native species, none of which have become invasive,” said Kevin Hughes, an environmental scientist with the British Antarctic Survey. “Unless we take steps now to minimize the risk of introduction, who knows what will happen.”

Invasive species often fluorish when brought to a new habitat, and when it comes to bacteria or fungi, some of the most resistant and adaptable creatures in the world, this is definitely a problem you don’t want to cause. Hughes and other researchers have set out to find exactly what has been brought unintentionally to the pristine Antarctic lands by some of the international research teams.

In order to do this, they tested more than 11,250 pieces of fresh produce arriving at nine research stations in the Antarctic and the sub-Antarctic islands; the produce, which included everything you would expect in this case, from apples to pawpaw trees to turnips, was shipped from around the world. What came with it was extremely diverse, including at least 56 invertebrates – slugs, butterflies, aphids, twelve percent of them had soil with them, and more than a quarter were rot from bacterial infection.

An alien problem in Antarctica

“Are these numbers surprising, or does it mean this is likely to be a problem? It’s pretty hard to say,” said Daniel Simberloff, a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who was not involved with the research. “The upshot is that there’s just enough people going to some parts of Antarctica nowadays that lots of organisms are carried there. I have to think this isn’t good, and some subset of them are going to pose environmental problems.”

The study was actually part of a larger effort to see exactly what arrives in Antarctica; the bad thing is that there is little that can be done to prevent anything from actually entering, all researchers can do is minimize the risk.

“To be quite honest, the only way we are going to stop the introduction of nonnative species is to stop going to Antarctica, to cut off all the pathways,” Hughes said. “What we can do is try and minimize the risk of introduction and we can do that by relatively simple steps.”

He concluded that the best thing which can be done is to pay more attention to where the food comes from, as well as create a more responsible system of disposing of the leftovers.

So far, alien species have had little success in the harsh environment, with only a tiny fly, the black fungus midge, managing to barely survive in Antarctica, but they might get a little more help from global warming, which will cut from the severity and harshness of the environment.

Lap dance study yields surprising results

This is one of those studies which makes you realize that being a researcher definitely has some unexpdected perks; it was funded by ERSC, and let me tell you, to get a grant from them, you really have to have a solid project, because the approval rate is somewhere around 17%. What they concluded from the study was worth it, because it was a definite shocker.

The expansion and birth of erotic dance bars comes as a result of a growing number of lap dancers, and not as a result of a growing demand.

Which is quite logical considering the next conclusion they drew:

Most dancers are very satisfied with their jobs. You get to choose your hours, you get paid instantly, and much more than in other fields, and you also combine business with fun. They also feel pretty safe at work.

However, dancing is not something you do as a long term job. Most of the girls were doing it alongside another job, or during their superior education. Now, when you have a job like this, odds are you don’t want anyone to know about it, and don’t talk a lot about it; this is one of the reasons why erotic are perceived in a wrong way, which doesn’t do anybody a lot of good.

The study is extremely interesting, as it focuses on different aspects, on the more humane side of the job, and really has some surprising results. If the media will be interested in this study, remains to be seen, but it good to change some of the wrongly formed opinions on the matter.

Justice served cold before lunch time: hungry judges less likely to grant parole

Law is a highly demanding field, in which its practitioners are required to have an objective and stoic approach at all times, but a recently published very interesting study shows that court judges can be just as biased as any of us and their rulings, however rational we’d love them to be, are influenced by moods and swings, and … lunch breaks.

Shai Denzeger from Ben Gurion University of the Negev studied 1,112 parole board hearings in Israeli prisons, over a ten month period, to see weather there’s a correlation between the proportion of favorable/negative parole hearings and the order in which they’re presented to the judge during the day. The results of the study can be observed in the graph below which features on the vertical axis the proportion of cases where the judges granted parole, while on the horizontal axis the order in which the cases were heard during the day is shown  – the dotted lines represents the moments of the day in which the judges went for their snack breaks.

If some of you might have been amused at the beginning of the article, then there’s a good chance you’re pretty amazed right now, maybe even scared. Yes, in the beginning of the day the chance a prizoner has of a parole being granted is around 65%, only to plummet to nearly 0% towards mid-day!

The rulings researched in the study were made by eight Jewish-Israeli judges, each with an average of 22 years of judging behind them. Their verdicts represented 40% of all parole requests in the country during the ten months. Every day, each judge considers between 14 and 35 cases, spending around 6 minutes on each decision. They take two food breaks that divide their day into three sessions. All of these details, from the decision to the times of the breaks, are duly recorded.

Jonathan Levav, who led the study, says, “There are no checks about the judges’ decisions because no one has ever documented this tendency before.  Needless to say, I would expect there to be something put into place after this.”

Denzeger’s explination is a simple one: repetitive action leads to intense mental resources depletion and fatigue, which leads to something called “choice overload”. When this happens, basically, we generally tend to choose the default option, in this case the default option is “deny parole”.

Nita Farahany, a professor of law at Vanderbilt University, says, “To me, this study underscores that decision-making is complex and does not occur in a theoretical or formalistic vacuum.” She says that similar studies have found that people from medical residents to air force pilots make more errors when they go for long periods without rest.

“Such studies have helped inform policy changes designed to minimize human errors that arise from lack of sleep, and mental and physical exhaustion,” Farahany says. “That legal decision-makers might also be impacted by mental or physical exhaustion should be unsurprising. Improvements in medicine, military combat, and other critical decision-making contexts have required that attention be paid to the effects of exhaustion. Likewise, improvements in the justice system may likewise require that society acknowledge the effects of biological contributions to legal decision-making.”

Study published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

Approximately 1 in 50 researchers falsifies or modifies data in studies

The topic of modification of data in scientific research is definitely a hot one; the frequency at which researchers fabricate or falsify data is extremely hard to quantify and make a statistic from it. Many different studies or surveys have tried to do this, but the results varied greatly and were difficult to compare and synthesize.

I read a study on PLoS that definitely sheds some light on the matter. Without going into details about what surveying system they used and how they assigned different weights to different subjects, I’m gonna tell you about their conclusions.

Paper retractions from the PubMed library due to misconduct, on the other hand, have a frequency of 0.02%, which led to speculation that between 0.02 and 0.2% of papers in the literature are fraudulent. Eight out of 800 papers submitted to The Journal of Cell Biology had digital images that had been improperly manipulated, suggesting a 1% frequency. Finally, routine data audits conducted by the US Food and Drug Administration between 1977 and 1990 found deficiencies and flaws in 10–20% of studies, and led to 2% of clinical investigators being judged guilty of serious scientific misconduct.

Now this, this is extremely interesting; it’s a (not so) well known fact that peer reviewal is not flawless, partially because some peer reviewers just pass the paper along to a doc or postdoc for reviewal and then just sign it. Of course the student sometimes isn’t extremely interested, and just browses it. Another mind blowing conclusion:

Among research trainees in biomedical sciences at the University of California San Diego, 4.9% said they had modified research results in the past, but 81% were “willing to select, omit or fabricate data to win a grant or publish a paper”

If four out of every five students are willing to modify data to win a grant or publish a paper, then we have a definite problem ! Also, if 2% of every researchers falsifies research data (as the study concludes), then that means that 2% of all papers aren’t trustworthy. But that’s just the ones who admitted doing this, the number is probably significantly higher than that. Kind of makes you wonder.

Girls aren’t good at math: the stereotype

Girls like pink, boys like blue. Girls have long hair, boys have short hair. And so on, so on – my mom says this is all common sense, I say this is social programming that propagates stereotypes, and the latest research relating to this is a study called Math–Gender Stereotypes in Elementary-School Children recently published in Child Development that refers to the common stereotype that boys are good at math, whilst girls aren’t. The research introduces the reader with some facts, like the common conception in the US that girl can’t do math found both in grade school children and grown-ups (the study is targeted for the US, but this is a stereotype common all over the world). It is believed that simply because of this there exists an immense gender gap in mathematical related fields and science.

To scientifically test this “assumption”, researchers used “implicit stereotype” theory, that is to say they tried children with simple tests to assess their conceptions unconsciously, as opposed to “explicit stereotypes” if they would have just asked children whether they believed girls can’t do math. What they used to test their theory was the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which measures how much we associate concepts without knowing, or without being explicitly aware that we do, such as associating “math” with “boys”.

More explicitly, this is in short how the experiment was conducted: children were put in front of a computer screen where two columns were displayed – boys | girls. In the first part of the test the children were presented with names, which they had to align to each column appropriately, this was the warm-up. Then they were presented with two different columns – MATH | READING – in which children were asked to sort the terms appropriately (addition, number, math, read, book, letters). Then for the last last test, children had to complete it in two condition. In the first condition, they were asked to sort on the BOYS column all the math and boy names related terms, while on the GIRLS column all the reading and girl names related terms. Then in the second instance they had to do it vice-versa.

Results were compared, and researchers found that in the first instance children completed the test a lot faster than in the second instance. The idea behind the IAT test is exactly this – because of the implicit stereotype boys could easily sort math to boys, but at the same time they had a tougher time sorting them the other way around, because confusion arose. Here’s a graph below detailing the results.

What’s important to note that both boys and girls performed more or less the same, proving that it was easier for both gender to identify “math” to “boys” as opposed to “math” and “girls”. What’s maybe even more important to note is that researchers have concluded that this effect was noticeable starting from an early age as the 1st or 2nd grade, but it’s probably far more earlier. This suggests that the stereotype is not simply a reflection of actual performance but comes from socialization process that starts very early.

Researchers look at hibertnating bears for the first time

Bears are some of the most amazing and loved animals out there, and to find out that up until a few months ago nobody made a thorough study about their hibernating was really sad for me. Until this, almost everything we knew about hibernating was that… well, bears do it’; they go into their dens and come out a few months after that looking a whole lot skinnier, and of course, hungrier.

But researchers from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and Stanford University weren’t satisfied with just that, so they set on a quest to find out the details of this long winter sleep that bears do; in order to understand it, they studied five bears that had been caught by local authorities wandering too close to civiliziation. It was really important and hard to find such specimens, because when in captivity, their natural cycles get all mixed up, so studying them shows little scientific information, and as for wild ones… you never should wake a sleeping bear – even if you work at Stanford.

These five bears were kept in specially designed dens that had infrared cameras, and they “showed” researchers that during hibernation, the bears’ metabolic level drops to 25%, even though their body temperature goes down way less. During the theoretical 5 months of hibernating, they do not eat, drink or defecate – all they need is air. What good could this do for humans ?

‘If you could reduce the metabolic demand of people, it’ll be favourable either during surgery or as a quick response during heart attack or stroke or trauma,’ Barnes said. ‘What that would do is give you more time. We like to say it would potentially expand the ‘golden hour’ – during which, if you reach advanced medical care, outcomes are better – to a golden day or a golden week.’

It does show great promise indeed, but researchers have yet to figure out how do bears lower their metabolism to such drastic rates. Another more interesting, but even more speculative use for this research would be long distance space travel, because with our current means and what we have in sight, even traveling to Mars will take a really long time.

Antimatter captured at CERN

For physicists, antimatter is probably the most valuable substance ever; the slightest bit of it could provide extremely valuable information that can help clear out some of the most stressing issues in modern physics. However, the thing is these little gifts are pretty hard to wrap. However, the ALPHA project at CERN achieved this remarkable feat and took a huge leap towards understanding one of the questions about the Universe: what’s the actual difference between matter and antimatter.

The team had 38 successful attempts to capture single antihydrogen atoms in a magnetic field for about 170 miliseconds.

“We’re ecstatic. This is five years of hard work,” says Jeffrey Hangst, spokesman for the ALPHA collaboration at CERN.

And they should be ! Since it restarted working, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN had quite a few good moments, but this is the best one so far. Antimatter (or the lakc of it) still poses one of the biggest mysteries ever; according to the theories up to date, at the Big Bang, matter and antimatter were produced in equal amounts, but somehow all the antimatter dissappeared, so now researchers are forced to turn to more and more advanced and delicate methods in order to find it and study it.

Artist depiction of hydrogen and anithydrogen

As you can guess by its name, antimatter is just like matter, only in reverse. So the antiprotons are just like normal protons, but they are negatively charged, while electrons have a positive charge. The main objective of this stage of the ALPHA project was to compare the relative energy of hydrogen and antihydrogen in order to confirm that antimatter and matter have the same electromagnetic properties, which is a key feature of the standard model.

This is not the first time antimatter was captured, the first time it was in 2002, with the ATHENA project; however, it lasted just several miliseconds, which made it impossible to analyze. What happens is that when you combine matter with antimatter, they vanish with a big boom, releasing high energy photons (gamma rays). In the ATHENA project, antihydrogen combined with hydrogen from the walls of the contained and annihilated each other.

To prevent this from happening, the ALPHA team used a totally different technique, which was way more difficult: capturing the antimatter in a magnetic trap. To capture the 38 atoms, they had to repeat the experiment no less than 335 times.

“This was ten thousand times more difficult” than creating untrapped antihydrogen atoms, says Hangst — ATHENA made an estimated 50,000 of them in one go in 2002. To do spectroscopic measurements, Surko estimates that up to 100 antihydrogen atoms may need to be trapped at once.

“The goal is to study antihydrogen and you can’t do it without trapping it,” says Cliff Surko, an antimatter researcher at the University of California, San Diego. “This is really a big deal.”

Of course, achieving these atoms was very costly, but the effort was definitely worth it. However, physicists are looking into other methods that could prove to be more effective in times to come.

“Rather than trying to demonstrate that we can confine 38 antihydrogen atoms for a small fraction of a second, we are working on new methods to produce and trap much larger numbers of colder atoms,” says Gerald Gabrielse, ATRAP’s spokesman. “We shall see which approach is more fruitful.”

via CERN