Category Archives: Science/Medicine
Best story in today’s paper:
The mystery of Swiss cheese and its disappearing holes has been solved: The milk is too clean. A Swiss agricultural institute discovered that tiny specks of hay are responsible for the famous holes in traditional Swiss cheeses like Emmentaler and Appenzeller. As milk matures into cheese, these microscopically small hay particles help create the holes in the cheese. The government-funded Agroscope Institute said in a statement on Thursday that the transition from age-old milking methods in barns to fully automated, industrial milking systems had caused the holes to decline during the past 15 years. In a series of tests, scientists added different amounts of hay dust to the milk and discovered that it allowed them to regulate the number of holes.
[A] new study that forced people into the dilemma of choosing between pain and profit finds that participants cared more about other people’s well-being than their own. It is hailed as the first hard evidence of altruism for the young field of behavioral economics.
Here’s a thought for this election week: If you are more disgusted by mucus and maggots, you’re a conservative. So says Nonpolitical Images Evoke Neural Predictors of Political Ideology, a recent article in Current Biology:
We carried out a passive picture-viewing experiment to test the hypothesis that nonpolitical but affectively evocative images elicit brain responses that predict political ideology as assessed by a standard political ideology measure. …
Accumulating evidence suggests that cognition and emotion are deeply intertwined, and a view of segregating cognition and emotion is becoming obsolete. People tend to think that their political views are purely cognitive (i.e., rational). However, our results further support the notion that emotional processes are tightly coupled to complex and high-dimensional human belief systems, and such emotional processes might play a much larger role than we currently believe, possibly outside our awareness of its influence. …
We proposed that conservatives, compared to liberals, have greater negativity bias, which includes both disgusting and threatening conditions in our study. Our finding that only disgusting pictures, especially in the animal-reminder category, differentiate conservatives from liberals might be indicative of a primacy for disgust in the pantheon of human aversions, but it is also possible that this result is due to the fact that, compared to threat, disgust is much easier to evoke with visual images on a computer screen.
Lastly, this study raises several important but unaddressed questions. First, while political ideology has effects on many forms of behavior (including, but not limited to, voting behavior), it is unknown whether it does so thanks to the neural differences in affective processing that we measured. Second, and relatedly, it is important also to know how individual differences in the capacity to regulate emotion, and the neural bases of that capacity, are related to political ideology. A third set of questions concerns the bearing of the present study on the development of biological measures of political ideology. While it is of use in a variety of settings to measure political ideology (political polls, for instance, typically include some measurement of it), it remains an open question whether biological measures could become more accurate, or more useful, than the tools (such as self-report measures) currently employed.
… The more we learn about the sensitivity of political ideology to subtle differences in affective response and their neural bases, the more we will know about the feasibility of useful and portable tools for ideology’s biological measurement. This would then raise a further and difficult ethical question about the circumstances, if any, in which it is appropriate to use such tools. And, finally, the present study raises important questions about the possibility of, and obstacles to, understanding and cooperation across divides in political ideology. Would the recognition that those with different political beliefs from our own also exhibit different disgust responses from our own help us or hinder us in our ability to embrace them as coequals in democratic governance? Future work will be necessary to answer these important questions.
(Via Slashdot, where the comments were even more inane than usual.)
Personally, I’m disgusted by people who want to block healthcare for the poor. Apparently that makes me a liberal. I’m unwilling to suggest that makes them maggots, but science?
The right gut bacteria can make you more or less stressful, and perhaps more or less clever too:
And now evidence is emerging that these tiny organisms may also have a profound impact on the brain too. They are a living augmentation of your body – and like any enhancement, this means they could, in principle, be upgraded.
His team tested the effects of two strains of bacteria, finding that one improved cognition in mice. His team is now embarking on human trials, to see if healthy volunteers can have their cognitive abilities enhanced or modulated by tweaking the gut microbiome.
— BBC, Body bacteria: Can your gut bugs make you smarter?, via Slashdot, Gut Bacteria Affect the Brain.
Apparently a very monotonous diet reduces the variety of gut bacteria. I’m just waiting to hear that processed food was a long-term Communist plot to make us dumber.
In what appears to be the first example of tool use among reptiles, researchers have discovered that both animals use twigs and sticks to attract nest-building birds. In 2007, behavioral ecologist Vladimir Dinets noticed that mugger crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris) at a zoo in India would balance small sticks on their snouts near a rookery where egrets compete for sticks to build their nests. Once, one of the crocs lunged at an egret that approached. Intrigued, Dinets studied alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) at four sites in Louisiana. The alligators put sticks on their snouts … much more frequently near egret rookeries and during the nest-building season, he and colleagues report online in Ethology Ecology & Evolution.
Arguably this shows gators and crocs have better sense when it comes to hunting than the NSA, which apparently spent millions of dollars spying on online gamers for fear terrorists might use World of Warcraft or Second Life as meeting sites. It was, for some reason, a very popular assignment all over the TLA world:
Meanwhile, the FBI, CIA, and the Defense Humint Service were all running human intelligence operations – undercover agents – within Second Life. In fact, so crowded were the virtual worlds with staff from the different agencies, that there was a need to try to “deconflict” their efforts – or, in other words, to make sure each agency wasn’t just duplicating what the others were doing.
Sticks would have been cheaper, and about as useful.