February 13, 2013
It should probably tell us something that the most frequently asked question on Google last year was “What is love?” Clearly, most of us are clueless on the matter; otherwise we wouldn’t be turning to algorithms for an explanation.
Which explains why scientific research on love continues unabated. We want answers.
So, on the eve of Valentine’s Day, here are 10 recent studies or surveys trying to make sense of matters of the heart.
1) You light up my brain: Researchers at Brown University in Rhode Island say that based on brain scans, they may be able to predict if a relationship will last. The scientists did MRIs on 12 people who said they were passionately in love, then repeated the process three years later. In the six people whose relationships lasted, the scans showed that the part of the brain that produces emotional responses to visual beauty was particularly active when they were shown a picture of their partners. But those same six had lower levels of activity in the pleasure center of the brain tied to addiction when they looked at the photo.
2) Yeah, but what did it do for their sinuses?: Scientists continue to ponder the effect of oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone” produced by the pituitary gland. One of more recent studies, at the University of Zurich, found that while men generally withdraw during conflict with their mates, those who inhaled an oxytocin nasal spray smiled more, made eye contact and generally communicated better during disagreements.
3) What you see is what you don’t get: A new study by sociologist Elizabeth McClintock at the University of Notre Dame concluded that highly attractive women are more likely to seek exclusive relationships than purely sexual ones, and also that, for women, the number of sexual partners decreases as their physical attractiveness increases.
4) Okay, now let’s try a salsa beat: Meanwhile, at the University of California, Davis, scientists studying the physical behavior of couples in relationships found that when they were sitting near each other–but without speaking or touching–their breathing patterns and heartbeats often matched up. The researchers also discovered that the women tended to adjust their behavior to their partners more often.
5) So yes, putting the toilet seat down is an act of love: A professor at the University of Rochester who’s been studying newlywed couples for the past several years says members of married couples who do small acts of compassion and thoughtfulness for each other usually have happier relationships. Researchers Harry Reis also found that men more often said that they had put their partner’s wishes ahead of their own.
6) As they say in the relationships biz, it’s complicated: According to a study soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science, people like to believe that their way of life–whether they’re single or in a couple–is the best choice for everyone. The researchers also found that when it came to Valentine’s Day, people believed that their friends would be happier if they were in the same situation as they were–in other words, people in a couple thought their single friends would enjoy themselves more on Valentine’s Day if they were in a relationship, while singles thought their coupled friends would have a better time if they were single.
7) Thanks for not sharing: And apparently it’s not such a good idea to make big displays of affection on Facebook. So say researchers at the University of Kansas who discovered that people don’t like their partners sharing their feelings about their relationships with the Facebook universe. Participants in the study said they felt less intimacy with their partners if they went public with how they felt about their loved one.
8) Another reason not to do windows: Here’s one to stir up debate. According to a research team of American and Spanish scientists, men who share in the housework have sex with their wives less often than men in “traditional” marriages where the women handle all of the household chores. This runs counter to previous studies which concluded that married men had more sex in exchange for helping around the house. In the recent study, married couples reported having more sex if the women did the cooking, cleaning and shopping and the men did the gardening, electrics and plumbing, took car of the car and paid the bills.
9) Road trip!: A survey of more than 1,000 American adults found that couples that travel together have better sexual relationships than those that don’t. Almost two-thirds of those surveyed recently by the U.S. Travel Association said that a weekend vacation was more likely to spark up their relationship than a gift. And almost 30 percent said their sex life actually improved after traveling together.
10) Which is why you don’t take dogs on vacations: On the other hand, dogs may not be so good for your sex life. About 73 percent of dog owners who answered another survey said their pets get jealous when they show physical affection toward their partners. And it probably doesn’t help that almost as many of those surveyed said their dog sleeps with them in bed.
Video bonus: It’s really not that hard to write a bad love song. The Axis of Awesome lays it all out for you.
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December 18, 2012
Within the next week or so, the year-end reviews will start rolling out like strips of prize tickets in a games arcade.
Most will revisit events that we’ll all remember, albeit some we’d rather forget. My own list is a little different. I want to look back at ideas that haven’t received a lot of attention, but struck me as being particularly clever and ripe with potential. Chances are you haven’t heard of many of them. But chances also are you will.
Here’s Part 1 of my list of a dozen ideas whose time is about to come:
1) Sadly, it does not say, “You’re getting warmer.”: Are you flummoxed by how often you lose things–your keys, your TV remote, your glasses. Have I got an invention for you. It’s called Stick-N-Find and it works like this.
You attach one of the Bluetooth-powered stickers to whatever object you’re tired of losing, then download the Stick-N-Find smartphone app. The app will tell you how far away you are from the missing item–it has a range of 100 feet–and you can set off a buzzer in the sticker. If you’re in the dark, you can trigger a blinking red light. Where has this been all my life?
2) Will it do nails? It may be a while before we see it in action, but Dyson, the British company that makes those high-powered Airblade hand dryers, has filed a patent for a tap that would wash your hands with water, then dry them without you having to move an inch. Put your hands under the tap and sensors release water. Move them slightly so that they’re under two connected tubes and warm, dry air shoots out. You’re wet, you’re dry, you’re outta there.
3) All hail plastic: Using nanotechnology, a team of researchers at Wake Forest University has developed a plastic material that glows like a soft white light when an electric current is run through it. Its inventors say it’s as efficient as an LED light and twice as efficient as a fluorescent bulb. But what makes it so innovative is that because it’s plastic, it can be made into any shape. Imagine a soft glowing ceiling panel replacing those hideous fluorescent lights above your head.
4) And all hail fewer jerks on planes: Gemma Jensen used to be a flight attendant for Virgin Atlantic so she has seen more than her share of airline passengers doing the jerk. I’m talking about that moment during long flights when just as you’re starting to nod off, your head tips forward. End of snooze.
So Jensen has invented the J-Pillow. It’s a step up from the familiar U-shaped pillow that keeps your head from falling from side to side, but can’t stop it from dropping forward. Her pillow comes with a “J-hook” that goes around the neck and under a person’s chin. Doctors seem to like it because it keeps your spine aligned while you’re sleeping on a plane. Which explains why a panel just chose it Great Britain’s Best Consumer Invention of 2012.
5) Cause that’s how they roll: Two former MIT students have designed a camera that bounces and rolls. Who needs a bouncing camera, you ask? How about firefighters who have to see inside a building or a swat team looking for hostages? That’s what Francisco Aguilar and Dave Young had in mind when they invented their ball-shaped device outfitted with six wide-angle cameras packed inside a rubber casing.
The idea is that first responders could toss it into a space they need to survey. Its cameras could snap pictures every second as it rolls, then send them wirelessly to a smartphone where they would be stitched together to provide a 360-degree view.
6) Can I make Kit Kat bars in that thing?: There’s nothing new about 3D printers, but Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering has come up with a novel way to give its students access to the nifty replicating devices. It has set up something it calls DreamVendor, which it has described as a “vending machine with infinite inventory.” What it is is a station of four 3D printers where engineering students can load in their designs and wait for the printers to do their magic. It’s free for the students, but it’s not hard to imagine some entrepreneur refining the idea of vending machines that print stuff.
Video bonus: And under the category of an idea whose time is still coming, there’s the LuminAR lamp system invented in MIT’s Media Lab a few years ago. Still being refined, it allows you to screw a LuminAR device–it’s combo projector/camera/wireless computer–into a standard light socket and turn your desk into an interactive surface. See for yourself.
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October 22, 2012
As we come to the end of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’ve learned that sometimes you can have too much awareness. A friend died of breast cancer last week and the truth is I didn’t want to hear much more about it.
On second thought, though, maybe it helps to look cancer in the eyes and show that it’s not the monster it can seem to be, that slowly progress continues to be made in moving toward a cure. My friend Trish used to say, “Take that, cancer!” in those times when it seemed that she was winning the battle.
So here’s a “Take that, cancer!” list, 10 ways in which scientists have come one step closer to taming the beast.
1) It’s important to stop cancer cells from talking to each other: That’s what a recent paper written by researchers from Johns Hopkins, Tel Aviv University and Rice University argues. They contend that we need to recognize that tumor cells are a lot smarter and more collaborative than long thought and the key to fighting them is to learn how to interrupt their conversations.
2) And it helps to be able to see inside them: A new MRI technology, being developed at the University of California at San Francisco, could give physicians a better idea of whether or not a particular treatment for tumors is working.
3) Green tea could help fight cancer: A study of breast cancer patients found that those who received a regular treatment of green tea extract had significantly lower tumor growth than those women who didn’t. Scientists said chemicals in green tea called polyphenols appear to inhibit two proteins that promote tumor cell growth and migration. The extract may help prostate cancer patients.
4) So might multivitamins: A clinical trial that followed nearly 15,000 male doctors for more than a decade determined that those who took a multivitamin every day were 8 percent less likely to develop cancer than those who received a placebo. Cancer experts point out, however, that it’s a less effective strategy than a healthy diet, exercise and not smoking.
5) And fasting could make chemo more effective: A study published earlier this year from the University of Southern California at Davis reported that mice that were given only water for two days before chemotherapy treatments experienced more shrinkage of tumors than mice that stayed on their usual diets. The researchers suggested that fasting appears to protect normal cells from chemo’s toxic effects by causing them to focus on internal maintenance instead of growing and reproduction.
6) Could a smart bra replace mammograms?: That’s what testing by a Nevada company named First Warning Systems suggests. It has designed a bra with sensors that measure tiny temperature changes that occur as blood vessels grow and feed tumors. The company says that in three clinical trials involving 650 women, the bra was able to detect the beginnings of tumors as many as six years before imaging would have. The bra could be available in Europe next year and in the U.S. in 2014, pending FDA approval.
7) And could a simple blood test predict breast cancer risk?: According to a team of Boston researchers who analyzed the results of a long-running study, women with high levels of three hormones were more likely to develop breast cancer. If the research is confirmed, it could mean that women could be tested for the hormones every 10 to 20 years to assess their cancer risk.
8) There’s an explanation for the obesity-cancer link: Scientists have long known that obese patients with cancer often have a poorer chance of survival than those at a healthier weight. New research may explain why. A report in the journal Cancer Research suggests that fatty tissue, known as white adipose tissue, contains cells that, once in a tumor, can become part of blood vessels that foster tumor growth.
9) There may be a way to counter “chemo brain”: A clinical study published in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment concluded that women who suffer from “chemo brain,” –cognitive problems that occur during and after cancer treatment–can improve their memory and their mental health through computerized brain training.
10) Finally, could magnets be an answer?: The research is still preliminary, but South Korean scientists are reporting success in using tiny magnets to cause tumor cells to self-destruct. The magnetic therapy, used so far on living fish and bowel cancer cells, involves creating tiny iron nanoparticles attached to anti-bodies produced by the body’s immune system, When they bind to tumor cells and a magnetic field is applied, the molecules can trigger a ”destroy” signal.
Video bonus: Yes, it’s possible to be funny about breast cancer. All it takes is to have a few bare-chested hunks give women a little advice.
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October 9, 2012
It’s the time of year when trees refuse to be ignored. Behold our fabulous hues, ponder our falling leaves, they goad us. And many of us do pay attention for a bit, only to lose interest when the show is over.
We know the cycle will begin again next spring and peak again in the fall, trees being one of the truer things in modern life. I mean, what’s more reliable than an oak?
But scientists will tell you that, like the oceans, the world’s trees are going through some serious changes, and not in a good way.
A dry run
Consider the impact of the drought that’s been desiccating America’s Southwest. Two weeks ago, the Texas A&M Forest Service issued a damage report: More than 300 million trees died in Texas forests alone as a result of the 2011 drought. It killed another 5.6 million trees in Texas cities.
Then last week a study published in Nature Climate Change concluded that if current climate trends continue, forests in the Southwest will die out at an accelerating rate. And not just from rising temperatures and lack of rain, but also from invasions of tree-eating pests and more destructive forest fires, also tied to climate change.
For instance, by analyzing forest fire data from satellites for the past 30 years in parallel with data on tree ring growth over the same period, the researchers were able to see a “strong and exponential” relationship between droughts and the number of acres of forests wiped out by wildfires.
Notes A. Park Williams, a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and lead author of the study: “This suggests that if drought intensifies, we can expect forests not only to grow more slowly, but also to die more quickly.”
Computer models suggest that for 80 percent of the years in the second half of the 21st century, America’s Southwest will suffer through what the study describes as “mega-drought.”
In the spirit of giving trees more than a seasonal glance, here are 10 other things scientists have learned about them this year.
1) Forest fires have become more intense and harder to control. One big factor is the rising frequency of what are known as “blowdowns.” With violent storms with strong winds occurring more often, whole sections of forests are toppling over, creating, in essence, giant campfires awaiting a spark.
2) And the death of forests could double the number of big floods. A study at the University of British Columbia concluded that faster snow melts due to fewer trees creating shade will not only increase the size of floods, but could also make the really big ones happen more often.
3) Sick trees could be boosting greenhouse gas levels. Scientists at Yale University found that diseased trees can carry very high levels of methane, one of the more potent greenhouse gases. Although they appear healthy, many old trees–between 80 and 100 years old–are being hollowed out by a fungal infection that slowly eats through the trunk, creating a nice home for methane-producing microorganisms.
4) On a brighter note, palm trees once grew in Antarctica. Okay, it was 53 million years ago, back when Antarctica was still connected to Australia, but researchers drilling deep beneath the sea floor off the eastern coast of the now-frozen continent, found pollen grains from palm and macadamia trees. Scientists estimate that back then, high summer temperatures there could reach the upper 70s.
5) A handful of trees can tell the rainfall history of the Amazon. Based on measurements of oxygen isotopes trapped within the rings of only eight cedar trees in Bolivia, scientists at the University of Leeds in Great Britain say they can tell how much it has rained over the entire Amazon basin during the past century.
6) NASA technology could help save trees that look risky. The space agency is using high-tech cameras to create 3-D images of trees, a process that will help experts get a better idea of where a tree is likely to crack and how it might come down. Ideally, this could help save trees that arborists now would probably cut down.
7) Will it be smarter to grow smaller trees? Scientists at Oregon State University think so. They believe it will make sense to grow genetically-modified “semi-dwarf” trees in the future to make them better suited for drier climates and as a source of bioenergy.
8) Slow down on the maple syrup. The U.S. Forest Service says that climate change is likely to diminish production of maple syrup later this century. The reason? Habitats suitable for maple trees are expected to shrink.
9) Fossilized forests could come back to life. Forests in the Canadian Arctic that last were alive more than 2.5 million years ago could be revitalized by climate change, according to a University of Montreal scientist. Alexandre Guertin-Pasquier says that, according to climate change forecasts, temperatures could rise to levels similar to when willow, pine and spruce trees thrived in now snow-covered places such as Bylot Island.
10) Good trees make good neighbors? Studies in three American cities–Baltimore, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore.–concluded that urban neighborhoods with more trees tend to have lower crime rates. While no researcher would go so far as to say that trees reduce crime, they did find a “very strong association” between more tree canopy and less crime.
Video bonus: In case you think I’ve spent way too much time talking about trees, sit back and watch a year in the life of forest go by in two minutes.
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October 1, 2012
With the first presidential debate scheduled for Wednesday night, we’re about to hit the whitewater of the campaign, the time when any slip, any rock beneath the surface, can turn the boat over.
And though it doesn’t seem possible, the political advertising will shift into an even higher gear. Last week alone Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and outside political groups spent an estimated $55 million to drum their messages into the minds of voters.
But whose minds might they be? Must be the undecideds–that 2 to 8 percent of American voters who remain uncommitted and, it turns out, are largely uninformed.
It couldn’t be the rest of us, right? We’ve made up our minds, we know what we believe, right?
Change is good?
Well, maybe so. But perhaps not as much as you think. A new study of moral attitudes by a team of Swedish researchers would seem to suggest that our minds are considerably more changeable than we imagine.
Here’s how the study worked: Subjects were asked to take a survey on a number of issues for which people are likely to have strong moral positions–such as whether government surveillance of e-mail and the Internet should be allowed, to protect against terrorism. Or if helping illegal aliens avoid being sent back to their home countries was commendable or deplorable.
Once they assigned a number to each statement reflecting their level of agreement or disagreement, the participants turned to a second page of the survey attached to a clipboard. And in doing so, they unwittingly mimicked an old magic trick. The section of the first page containing the original statements lifted off the page, thanks to glue on the back of the clipboard. In its place was a collection of statements that seemed identical to the ones on the first list, but now each espoused the direct opposite position of the original. For instance, a stance deemed commendable in the first list was now described as deplorable.
On the other hand
The numerical values selected by those surveyed remained the same, but now they were in response to the other side of a moral issue. When the participants were asked to explain their responses, almost 70 percent of them didn’t realize they had performed one fine flip-flop.
Okay, let’s cut them some slack. It’s easy to miss the change in one word, even if a statement said the exact opposite of what they had responded to. But here’s where it gets interesting. More than half, about 53 percent, actually offered arguments in favor of positions that just minutes before they had indicated they opposed.
I know what you’re thinking–you’d never do that. Maybe you wouldn’t. But the best conclusion the researchers could draw was that many of us just might not be as locked into our beliefs as we like to think.
Me, my bias, and I
If you want to see how flexible your political principles can be, consider downloading a plug-in developed at the University of Michigan called The Balancer. It’s designed to track your online reading habits and then calculate your political bias.
Researcher Sean Munson created The Balancer because, as he told NBC News’ Alan Boyle, he wanted to see if “having real-time feedback about your online news reading habits affects the balance of the news that you read.”
By matching your Web activity to a list of 10,000 news sources and blogs–each with a ranking on the political spectrum–The Balancer, through a button on your browser bar, lets you know how unbalanced your choices are. Depending on where you get your info, a stick figure will be shown overloaded with either conservative-red blocks or liberal-blue ones.
The plug-in, which works only on the Google Chrome browser, also suggests websites to visit if you don’t want your stick figure to tilt too much to one side.
Says Munson, who was surprised at the degree of his own bias: “Even self-discovery is a valuable outcome, just being aware of your own behavior. If you do agree that you should be reading the other side, or at least aware of the dialogue in each camp, you can use it as a goal: Can I be more balanced this week than I was last week?”
Stalking the vote
Here’s more recent research on what shapes and sometimes changes our political beliefs:
- That does not compute A study published last month in Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that people are reluctant to correct misinformation in their memories if it fits in with their political beliefs.
- You like who?: According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, almost 40 percent of people on social networking sites say they’ve been surprised by the political leanings of some of their friends. Two-thirds say they don’t bother to respond to political posts from friends with whom they don’t agree.
- Facebook made me do it: A message on Facebook on the day of the 2010 congressional elections may have been responsible for an additional 340,000 Americans voting, concludes a study published in the journal Nature. They were most influenced, say researchers, by messages that their closest friends had clicked an “I voted” button.
- No, my parents made me do it: Research published recently in Trends in Genetics, based on the political beliefs of twins, suggests that your genetic makeup can influence your stance on issues such as abortion, unemployment and the death penalty, though children tend not to express those opinions until they leave home.
- It’s my party and I’ll lie if I want to: A study at Washington State University posits that a “belief gap” has replaced the “education gap” in American politics. Positions on many issues–and how much someone knows about an issue–no longer are largely determined by how much education someone has, but rather with what party they identify.
- Funny how that happens: Late-night comedy shows, such as “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” can actually spur political discussions among friends, according to a new study at the University of Michigan.
Video bonus: In case you missed it, check out out the “Saturday Night Live” take on undecided voters.
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