August 20, 2013
It’s the time of year when learning seems remarkably possible. Students are excited, teachers are motivated–let the learnfest begin.
But by next month, it will become clear once again that the teaching/learning routine is a tricky dance, that all kinds of things, both in our heads and in our lives, can knock it off balance.
Fortunately, scientists have kept busy analyzing how and why people learn. Here are 10 examples of recent research into what works and what doesn’t.
1) Flippin’ it old school: The latest thinking has it that the most effective way to get students to learn these days is to flip the old model and instead have students first watch videos or read books, then do projects in the classroom. Au contraire, say researchers at Stanford University. They contend that you need to flip the flip after finding that students are much more likely to understand those videos and books if they first do hands-on exercises in class that tap into their prior knowledge of a subject, say to solve a problem. Only then, the researchers said, are students able to fully grasp more abstract concepts.
2) Such as “three idiot drivers”: Meanwhile, scientists at the University of Missouri found that preschoolers who have a hard time estimating the number of objects in a group were more than twice as likely to struggle with math later in life. Those researchers concluded that it has to do with a child’s inability to learn the concept of how numerals symbolize quantities. They suggest that parents should take advantage of opportunities to show how things in the world can be expressed in numbers.
3) Give that machine a timeout: Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario say that laptops in classrooms distract not only the students using them, but also those sitting nearby. They gave laptops to some students and asked them to perform certain tasks during class. They also asked classmates using only #2 pencils to complete the same tasks. Guess who performed worst: the kids with laptops, plus the people sitting next to them.
4) Like clockwork: Young girls need to stick to a regular bedtime if they want to help their brains develop. So says a study from University College, London, which found that girls under seven years old who had erratic bedtimes scored lower on IQ tests than girls who went to sleep around the same time every night. Inconsistent bedtimes also affected young boys, but the effect seemed to be temporary. The researchers also determined that when girls went to bed didn’t seem to matter nearly as much as whether they did so at the same time every night.
5) Let’s give them a big mazel tov shout out: One of the keys to learning a second language is the ability to pick up patterns, according to a recent study at Hebrew University. The scientists determined that American students who were better at learning Hebrew also scored particularly high on tests in which they needed to distinguish regularities in the sequence in which they were shown a series of shapes. Being able to spot patterns proved to be a very good predictor of who would have the best grasp of Hebrew after a year of study.
6) Not to mention, they can now sing in Hungarian at parties: It apparently also helps to sing the words of another language. In a study published last month in the journal Memory & Cognition, scientists said that people who sang back phrases they heard in a foreign language were considerably better at learning it than people who simply repeated the phrases in spoken words. In fact, research participants who learned through singing performed twice as well as those who learned by speaking the phrases. The study required English speakers to learn Hungarian, which is a particularly difficult language to master.
7) Brains are just so smart: Another recent study, this one by German scientists, determined that even under stress, humans are able to learn because certain receptors in the brain help us move from conscious and to unconscious learning. People in a study who were given drugs to block those receptors had more trouble learning in a stressful situation because their brains couldn’t make the switch.
8) Reading minds: Thanks to researchers at M.I.T., it may soon be possible to diagnose dyslexia in young children before they start trying to read. Using a type of MRI brain scan, the scientists discovered a correlation between the size and organization of a certain region of the brain and a child’s ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of language. By having a biomarker for dyslexia before they try to read, kids may be able to avoid some of the psychological stress they suffer when they struggle to understand written words.
9) Kids who can hand jive are off the charts: Turns out that it may a good thing for small children to talk with their hands. A study published in the journal Developmental Psychology, concluded that preschoolers and kindergartners who naturally gestured to indicate what they were trying to do showed more self control. The gestures seemed to help the kids think things through, according to the researchers, who said the hand movements had a stronger correlation to successful performance than age.
10) Strangely, however, they are unable to hear parents: If you have kids in middle school or older, they’ve no doubt told you countless times how good they are at multitasking, that they can watch a video, text their friends and study for a test without breaking a sweat. But, according to a study published in a recent issue of Computers in Human Behavior, they’re probably not learning much. Not only were researchers surprised at how often kids in the study multitasked–even when they knew someone was watching– but they also found that their learning was spottier and shallower than those who gave studying their full attention.
Video bonus: Math was always a lot more fun when Abbott and Costello did it.
Video bonus bonus: Forgive me if you’ve seen or heard Kenneth Robinson’s lecture on changes in education, but his insights, along with the clever animation illustrating them, make it worth an encore.
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August 12, 2013
Not many people want to live to be 120.
That’s one of the findings of a Pew Research Center report that came out last week. In fact, almost 70 percent of those surveyed said an ideal lifespan would be somewhere between 79 and 100 years.
Yes, one reason they’re wary of that much longevity is the fear of how their bodies and minds would hold up–despite the promise of medical advances that will keep both healthy much longer. But more than half also think treatments that prolong life for at least four more decades could be a bad thing for society. More specifically, two out of three people agreed with the statement that “longer life expectancies would strain our natural resources.” And while almost 80 percent of those surveyed said they believe life-extending medicine should be available anyone who wants it, two-thirds of them thought it would be accessible only to the wealthy.
Naturally, this raises some hefty ethical issues, which Pew addresses in an accompanying report.
Would so many more healthy old people make it that much harder for young ones to get jobs? Will everyone just assume they’ll have multiple marriages since one won’t have much chance of lasting a lifetime? With mortality put off for decades, would people feel less motivated to have children? And the big one: By delaying death so long, would daily life have less meaning?
Live long and prosper
Which brings me to one more question: How realistic is the notion that science can one day make 100 the new 60?
For starters, we’re not only living longer–life expectancy in the U.S. is now close to 79–but the period of truly dismal health before death is getting shorter. That’s one of the main findings of a Harvard University study published last month–that most people no longer are very sick for six or seven years before they die. Instead, that stretch of poor health has shrunken to about a year or so. Thanks to medical science, we are becoming more like light bulbs–we work well, then go out fast. “People are living to older ages,” said lead researcher David Cutler, “and we are adding healthy years, not debilitated ones.”
As far as adding more years to our lives, there’s been some serious progress there, too. In May, scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York concluded that by suppressing the release of a single protein produced in the hypothalamus region of the brain, they were able to extend the lives of mice and reduce the onset of age-related illnesses. Plus, the mice performed better on learning tests.
A little earlier in the year, researchers at the Harvard Medical School found more evidence that resveratrol, a chemical compound found in berries, grapes and particularly red wine, can help cells in the body live longer. And that could lead to the development of drugs that stifle the conditions that can make old age a slice of hell–heart disease, diabetes, and that old demon, mental decline.
And a week or so ago, scientists at the National Institute of Aging said their research found that men who take metformin, a drug often prescribed for type 2 diabetes, may be helping themselves live longer. At least that’s what happened with mice. The researchers gave middle-aged mice small doses of metformin and they not only lived 6 percent longer than the control group of mice, but they also weighed less, even though they ate more.
None of the above means we’re on the cusp of having a pill that will let us dance at our 100th birthday party. But each means we’re getting closer to finding ways to not just fight the diseases of old age, but take on age itself.
Out with the old
Here’s other recent research on the battle against aging:
- Now find out something good about marshmallows: Hot cocoa doesn’t just hit the spot on a winter morning; It also may be keeping your brain sharp. A new study from Harvard University says that two cups of cocoa a day was enough to increase the blood flow in the brains of older people. It also apparently helped their memories work faster.
- Didn’t see that coming: Living through a traumatic experience may actually help men live longer. Research just published in PLOS One says that male survivors of the Holocaust tend to live longer than men who didn’t experience it. That may seem counter-intuitive, but the researchers say it could reflect a phenomenon known as “post-traumatic growth,” where high levels of psychological stress serve as stimuli for developing personal skills and strength and a deeper meaning to life. The same longevity effect was not seen in women Holocaust survivors.
- In with the bad air: A study by M.I.T. professor Michael Greenstone has quantified the impact of the heavy air pollution from coal-burning power plants in China. By comparing statistics from a more urbanized region where power was supplied mainly by coal plants with a more rural one without any power plants, Greenstone concluded that regular exposure to coal pollution can take more than five years off a person’s life.
- Now will you get your beauty sleep?: If you don’t get enough sleep, you aren’t doing your skin any favors. That’s the conclusion of a study that found that the skin of poor sleepers ages quickly and also takes longer to recover from sunburn and dirty air.
- This explains many things: And finally, researchers in Japan found that aging animals like sweets less and are more willing to put up with bitter tastes.
Video bonus: As chief science officer of the Methuselah Foundation, Aubrey de Grey has plenty to say about longevity. Here’s an interview he did for Big Think, broken up into snippets.
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August 7, 2013
A few days ago, scientists in London unveiled the first lab-grown burger created from stem cells taken from the muscle tissue of cow. The small strips of synthetic meat were collected into pellets and ultimately shaped into the hamburger patty rolled out before the cameras.
Although food critics on hand agreed that the burger felt like real meat in their mouths and tasted okay, most of the coverage of the event came with a heavy dose of snark, usually accompanied with shots of people chomping on big, thick, juicy burgers straight from the cow.
But there was science behind it all–with the research funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was motivated to help find more imaginative and planet-friendly ways to produce food. As he put it, “If what you’re doing is not seen by some people as science fiction, it’s probably not transformative enough.”
This summer has been full of stories like that, where on the surface the science may seem strange, but it’s spurred by innovative thinking that finds out something new about the world or may make a difference in the way we live some day. Here are 10 more of them:
1) So much for minty breath: Last week, Chinese scientists shared the latest example of why science often isn’t pretty. They reported that they’ve been able to grow rudimentary teeth from human urine. Technically, they transplanted stem cells from urine into mice and those cells were able to grow into knobby things resembling teeth–they had pulp, dentin and enamel-forming cells. While they were only about a third as hard as the real thing, one day, as the researchers wrote in the journal Cell Regeneration, dentists may be able to plant little buds in your jaw that started out in urine.
2) I love the sound of slot machines in the morning. It sounds like…winning: And scientists from the University of Waterloo in Canada say that based on their analysis, the cacophony emanating from slot machines not only makes gambling more exciting, but it also can cause gamblers to think they’ve won more times than they actually have. All that noise, the scientists suggested, can make losses feel like wins.
3) How else would we show how big was the one that got away?: One of the highlights of the annual meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology in Spain last month was the presentation of Cornell University Andrew Bass, who contends that talking with our hands may have its roots in fish. That’s right, fish. Bass, aptly named, said his research indicates that the evolutionary origins of the link between speech and gesturing can be traced to a compartment in a fish’s brain. And that part of its brain, notes Bass, allows a fish to vocalize and gesture with its pectoral fins simultaneously.
4) When rocks scream: Who knew that volcanoes “scream” before they erupt? Okay, it’s not a blood-curdling wail–more like a harmonic vibration–but in some cases, such as Alaska’s Redoubt Volcano, the mountain makes a sound so loud it can actually be heard by humans. A study published in July says that in Redoubt’s case, the sound–high-pitched and increasing in volume–is produced by a succession of small earthquakes caused by quick movements of magma pushed by building pressure before an eruption.
5) I’m too sexy for this cave: While we’re on the subject of nature noise, give props to the male bat. It apparently is quite the romantic singer, according to research by Texas A&M biology professor Mike Smotherman, at least when it comes to enticing a mate. In short, a male bat needs to cut to the chase–he has less than a second to grab a female’s attention as she flies by at 30 feet per second. If he gets her to stop by, he then mixes up his songs to keep her entertained long enough to get to the matter at hand.
6) They need to listen to some slot machines: A Duke University study of chimps and bonobos not only found that apes are quick to throw tantrums when things don’t go as expected, but that they can become particularly agitated when they gamble and lose. In one part of the research, the apes could choose to accept a very small portion of food or wait longer for a larger serving of a meal they weren’t able to see. If the gamble paid off, the apes were able to chow down on a large helping of their favorite fruit. But if it didn’t work and they ended with a big heaping of something like cucumbers, they flipped out, or tried to switch their choice at the last minute. The researchers also found that chimps were both more willing to wait for food and much bigger gamblers than the bonobos.
7) But wait until they get a load of their first kangaroo: Okay, go with me on this: If Martians did exist and if they wanted to take a getaway vacation, but to a place that still felt a little like home, they would head to the Australian outback. So says University of Sydney geologist Patrice Rey, who believes that the red dirt in the central part of the continent might be very much like what’s found on Mars. He has researched why precious opal can be found all over the place there, but hardly anywhere else on Earth, and believes that it started forming when a giant sea that covered much of Australia began drying out about 100 million years ago–conditions similar to those seen on the surface of Mars.
8) The first nano smile: Scientists at Georgia Tech have recreated the world’s most famous painting–the Mona Lisa–on the world’s smallest canvas–a surface about one-third the width of a human hair. The nano-art, titled “Mini Lisa,” is meant to demonstrate a technique in which an atomic force microscope is used to vary the surface concentration of molecules. Da Vinci the scientist would be thrilled, da Vinci the artist, not so much.
9) Show me you care: Humans have much more positive feelings about a robot that cares for them than one they have to take care of. According to a study by an international team of scientists, people think a robot that seems to look out for them is smarter and more human than one that appears to need help. The researchers say this helps them better understand how to get humans to trust robots.
10) When there aren’t enough brains to go around: And finally, researchers using a zombie-themed game found that people under pressure tend to make dumb decisions when evacuating a building. In fact, the more pressure players were under, the more likely they were stick to evacuation routes they knew, even if they meant it took longer for them to escape. The study, reported last month, was part of real science incorporated into a ZombieLab event held at London’s Science Museum earlier this year.
Video bonus: Here’s a clip of the taste test of the first in vitro burger. And an animation that explains how a cow’s muscle tissue grows into a burger, although it sure doesn’t make it very appetizing.
Video bonus bonus: And here’s a look at how science and zombies mix.
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July 11, 2013
“There is no doubt that over time, people are going to rely less and less on passwords. People use the same password on different systems, they write them down and they really don’t meet the challenge for anything you want to secure.”
None other than Bill Gates said this. Back in 2004.
People in the business of keeping data secure will tell you that passwords should have gone the way of dial-up Internet by now. Sure, back in the day, when we only needed them for two or three websites and hackers weren’t nearly so diabolical, we could get away with using the same “123456″ password for everything, without worrying that someone on the other side of the world was a click away from emptying our bank accounts.
Ah, sweet innocence. Now, we have an average of 24 different online accounts, for which we use at least six different passwords. And we need them for tablets and smartphones, too. If we’ve heeded the security gods—although most of us haven’t—we’ve abandoned the memorably quaint for strange, long combos of numbers, letters—capital and lower case—and symbols that dare to be remembered. (Then again, most of us don’t seem to have a knack for this passwords thing, considering that year after year, the world’s most popular password is still the word “password.”)
Not that conjuring up the perfect password guarantees immunity from code crackers. Just last week the giant game company Ubisoft admitted that its database had been breached and advised those with Ubisoft accounts to change their passwords immediately. Last summer’s big cybersecurity caper was a hack of LinkedIn, in which more than 6 million encrypted passwords were exposed.
It’s time, it would seem, for a better idea.
So, who figures to make the first big splash in the post-password world? Right now, a lot of the betting is on Apple, with speculation that the killer feature of the iPhone 5S coming out later this year will be a fingerprint scanner, perhaps embedded under the home button. Some Apple watchers think the iWatch, also expected on the market by the end of 2013, will likewise come with scanner capabilities that would allow the device to verify the user’s identity. Apple tipped its hand last year when it paid $356 million for AuthenTec, a company that develops fingerprint scanners.
Other big names pushing for the password’s demise are Google and PayPal, two of the key players in an industry group known as FIDO, which stands for Fast IDentity Online Alliance. FIDO isn’t boosting any particular approach to identity recognition; mainly it plans to set industry standards. But it is promoting what’s known as two-step verification as a move in the right direction.
This is when you’d be identified by a combination of “something you know”—such as a password—with “something you have”—such as a token that plugs into your device’s USB port—or “something you are”—such as your fingerprint. This combo of a password and a device you carry around with you—Google security experts have suggested a log-in finger ring—would be a lot safer than a simple password, and would let you use an easy-to-remember password, since the account can’t be hacked without your ring or your fingerprint.
And once fingerprint sensors or face and voice recognition software become more common, it will be that much easier for passwords to simply fade away.
That feels inevitable to Michael Barrett, chief information-security officer of PayPal and president of FIDO. “Consumers want something that’s easy to use and secure,” he says. “Passwords are neither.”
A fingerprint scanner on your phone is only the beginning. There are a number of other inventive, and yes, even bizarre ideas for replacing passwords. Among them:
- Coming soon to a stomach near you: Let’s start strange. At a conference in late May, Regina Dugan, head of advanced research at Motorola, suggested that one day you’ll be able to take a pill every day that would verify your identity to all of your devices. The pill would have a tiny chip inside and when you swallow it, the acids in your stomach would power it up. That creates a signal in your body, which, in essence becomes the password. You could touch your phone or your laptop and be “authenticated in.” No, it’s not happening any day now, but the FDA has already approved its precursor—a pill that can send information to your doctor from inside your body. In other words, it’s a lot more plausible than it sounds.
- So, how about a tattoo that spells “password:” But that’s not all Dugan projected for the future. She also showed off an electronic tattoo. Motorola, now owned by Google, is working with a company named MC10, which has developed this “stretchable” tattoo with its own antenna and sensors embedded in it. It’s so thin, it can flex with your skin. And it would serve as your password, communicating with your devices and verifying that you are who you say you are.
- Now, what are all these keys for?: Back to the present. A Canadian company called PasswordBox is now offering a free app that remembers and automatically enters all your passwords across all your platforms. It signs you into websites, logs into apps, and enables you to securely share your digital keys with friends and loved ones—all through an app for your smartphone and a Chrome browser extension for your desktop. Its pitch is one-click login everywhere.
- Would my heart lie?: Another Canadian company called Bionym is building its business around the fact that heartbeats, like fingerprints, are unique. Its approach is to turn your heartbeat into a biometric pass code that’s embedded in a wrist band which, in turn, uses Bluetooth to let your machines know you’re the real deal.
Video bonus: Let’s go back to the future with John Chuang, a researcher at the UC Berkeley School of Information. He’s working on the idea of allowing people to verify their identities through their brain waves. Okay, at least hear him out.
Video bonus bonus: The Internet Password Minder is a stroke of…something. Even Ellen DeGeneres was impressed, in a funny way.
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July 2, 2013
Not that any holiday is a testament to healthy eating, but none quite compares to the Fourth of July when it comes to embracing our inner pig.
Exhibit A: The National Meat Institute says that on Thursday, Americans will consume about 150 million hot dogs. That means every other person will eat one dog, although more likely a lot of people will chomp down two or three. And those of us who don’t will be eating burgers or sausages or ribs, after warming up with a pile of chips.
In truth, though, it really doesn’t take a special occasion for us to fall to the siren song of naughty chow. As Stephanie Clifford noted last weekend in a New York Times piece titled “Why Healthy Eaters Fall for Fries,” the dilemma for many Americans when they enter a fast food restaurant is that while their head says “salad,” their heart is screaming “BACON!” She listed some of the more recent hits on fast food menus–the bacon habanero Quarter Pounder at McDonald’s, the bacon-filled tater tots at Burger King, the six-slices-bacon-and-cheeseburger at Carl’s and Hardee’s and the piece de resistance, Dunkin’ Donuts’ egg and bacon sandwich between two halves of a glazed doughnut.
The story also quoted McDonald’s CEO Donald Thompson, who pointed out although the chain spends about 16 percent of its advertising budget promoting salads, they account for only two to three percent of its sales.
Clifford cited a study done a few years ago at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, which concluded that the mere presence of healthy items on a menu actually encourages diners to tumble for the unhealthy ones. Lead researcher Gavan Fitzsimons calls this “vicarious goal fulfillment.” Simply seeing healthy items are available, he says, allows people to feel they’ve made the effort. And then they order meals they know aren’t good for them.
Enough with all the counting
We have ourselves a quandary.
Almost a third of Americans now qualify as obese and yet, to believe Fitzsimons, putting healthy meals on fast food menus only makes it more likely that we’ll gravitate to the bad stuff. There are those who believe that providing calorie counts for meals will start to make a difference. In fact, the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a Obamacare, requires that starting next year, any restaurant chain with more than 20 outlets must tell customers how many calories its meals contain.
Sadly, this doesn’t seem to help much, at least according to several studies that already have been done. Research at the University of Pennsylvania, published in 2011, found that even though most of the study’s participants said they noticed the calorie counts, and almost a third said they were “influenced” by them, they didn’t lower their calorie intake all that much. That’s pretty much what a 2011 study of Taco Time restaurants in Seattle also concluded–that people consumed as many calories in the outlets with listed calorie counts as in those without them.
So what gives? Does that mean that no amount of calorie-guilting will make a difference?
Now it’s personal
Maybe not. Maybe it’s all in the presentation. Some experts believe that calorie totals aren’t all that effective because they make people add up a bunch of numbers, and if they do make the effort, many still don’t realize when a meal has gone over the top.
Recent research suggests that what may work are basic visual cues. A study published earlier this year showed that menus using symbols of green, yellow and red lights seemed to make a difference. A green light was printed next to foods with fewer than 400 calories, yellow lights next to foods with between 401 and 800 calories and red lights next to foods with more than 800 calories. And it turned out that diners ordering from menus without calorie info or symbols ate meals averaging 817 calories, while those exposed to the streetlight icons consumed meals averaging 696 calories. Not a huge difference, but it can add up over time.
Another approach is to make calorie consumption personal. Two recent studies, one at Texas Christian University and another at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine found that telling people how much they would need to walk to burn off the meal they were about to order got their attention.
When you read that it could take two hours of “brisk walking” to get rid of the calories in a quarter-pound double cheeseburger, well, that’s hard to ignore. People using menus providing that information ordered meals with an average of 100 to 200 fewer calories than those without it.
Said Ashlei James, who worked on the TCU study: “Brisk walking is something nearly everyone can relate to.”
Here’s more recent research on our eating habits:
- You mean you’re supposed to get a low score?: Even when they go to restaurants where calorie counts are posted, people–particularly teenagers–grossly underestimate the number of calories their meals contain. In a study published in the British Journal of Medicinelast month, diners’ estimates of the calories on their trays were, on average, 200 calories too low. For adolescents, the number was closer to 300. Oddly enough, the estimates were farther off the mark in Subway restaurants, apparently because people associate them with healthier meals.
- But it’s nice to have all that time to get to know the bread: For all the beatings that fast food restaurants take, a study by University of Toronto researchers found that the average number of calories in meals of sit-down chain restaurants were considerably higher. The average meal contained 1,128 calories, compared to 881 at fast-food places. Plus, meals at the sit-down places, on average, contained contained 151 percent of the recommended daily salt intake, 89 percent of daily fat, and 60 percent of daily cholesterol.
- Dreaming of Doritos is way less fattening: New research published last weekend in the journal Sleep confirms the bad news for night owls: the later you stay up, the more you eat.
- But how will they know what tastes good?: According to a study by Canadian researchers, young children who eat a lot of their meals in front of the TV tend to have higher cholesterol levels than kids with better eating habits.
- I’ll see your tofu and raise you a carrot: And if all of the above has motivated you to look for a new way to lose weight, there’s now an app called DietBet. Based on the principle of “social dieting,” it gets a group of people to pony up a little money–about $25–and everyone who loses four percent of their body weight in four weeks splits the pot.
Video bonus: Casey Neistat turns calorie detective to see how accurate calorie counts on labels really are. Not very, it turns out.
Video bonus bonus: And from BuzzFeed, here’s what 2,000 calories looks like.
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