Tuesday, November 5, 2013

To Bee Or Not To Bee: How Bees Avoid Difficult Choices

Humans who are faced with difficult choices are often tempted to simply opt out of making a choice, especially when they realize that they cannot easily resolve their uncertainty as to which choice is the better choice. Some researchers consider this ability to opt out as an indicator of “meta-cognition”, a term used to describe “thinking about thinking”. Instead of plowing ahead with a random choice, humans can recognize that they lack adequate information and choose not to make a decision. Humans are not the only animals who engage in meta-cognition. Recent studies have shown that dolphins or non-human primates also have the capacity for meta-cognition and when faced with difficult decisions may also choose to opt out of the decision-making process.

The new study “Honey bees selectively avoid difficult choices” published on November 4, 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that honey bees can exhibit complex decision making skills and opt out of making difficult choices. The researchers Clint Berry and Andrew Barron studied the behavior of honey bees in containers who were given two choices: flying towards targets containing either a reward (sweet sucrose solution) or a punishment (bitter quinine solution), as well as an opt-out choice in which they could exit the container. In the first stage of the experiment, the bees were trained to recognize the targets by using horizontally drawn reference lines and placing the reward and punishment targets clearly above or below the reference lines. The bees gradually learned to distinguish between reward and punishment by using the reference lines. In subsequent experiments, the researchers challenged the trained bees by making it more difficult for them to distinguish between reward targets and punishment targets. They placed the targets closer and closer to the reference line, to the point where it even became impossible for the bee to "guess" which target would contain the sweet sucrose solution and which one was the bitter quinine solution. As this distinction became more difficult, an increasing number of bees simply chose to not make a decision at all and instead opted out of the test by flying into another container via an "exit hole".

This study shows that bees have some degree of adaptive or complex decision making capacity. Bees can learn and remember different stimuli, and that the difficulty of the decision influences their behavior. It also has some strengths such as the straightforward experimental design and the inclusion of control experiments, such as the fact that the researchers alternated the positions of rewards and punishments to make sure this was not a confounding factor.

 However, it would be premature to call this study evidence of meta-cognitive thinking, as suggested in the press release by the universityThere are important limitations to this research, such as the fact that the study conclusions regarding the decision-making of bees is based on merely ten individual bees, some of whom responded very differently from each other. This is rather surprising since the experimental set-up appears fairly simple and a higher sample size could have bolstered the marginally significant results.  Furthermore, it is not possible to interrogate bees to ascertain their motivations or rationale. Merely opting out of a difficult choice by flying into a different container is not really sufficient to invoke “meta-cognition”, a complex process that should only be used when one can investigate the cognitive process itself and understand how decisions are made. The discussion section of the paper even goes into speculations about neuronal pathways that bees may use, but at no point were neuronal pathways even assessed in the study.  

In summary, this is an interesting study that informs us about the complex learning capacity of bees and reminds us that non-mammals may have learning, memory and decision making skills that need to be investigated. Its major limitations make it difficult to draw definitive conclusions about “meta-cognition” in bees, but hopefully, this study will inspire future research that investigates non-mammalian decision-making in more depth.
ResearchBlogging.org Clint J. Perry, & Andrew B. Barron (2013). Honey bees selectively avoid difficult choices Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1314571110

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Monkeys Reject Food From People Who Are Mean To Fellow Humans

When we observe an interaction between two other human beings (Person A and Person B), we sometimes draw conclusions about the personality traits or character of these two individuals. For example, if we see that Person A is being rude to Person B, we may be less likely to trust Person A, even though we are merely "third-party" evaluators. i.e. not directly involved in the interaction. Multiple studies with humans have already documented such third-party social evaluation, which can even occur among children. A study published in 2010 showed that 3-year old children were less likely to help adults who had previously acted in a harmful manner in front of the kids, i.e. torn up a picture drawn by another adult in a staged experiment.

Do animals who observe humans also conduct such third-party social evaluations of humans? The recent study "Third-party social evaluation of humans by monkeys" published in Nature Communications by James Anderson and colleagues staged interactions with human actors in front of tufted capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella). The researchers found that the monkeys indeed evaluate humans after witnessing third-party interactions involving either helpful interventions or a failure to help fellow humans.
In front of each monkey, two actors performed either "helper" sessions or "non-helper" sessions. In the "helper" sessions, Actor A tried to get a toy out of a container and requested help from Actor B, who complied and helped out Actor A. In the "non-helper" sessions, Actor B refused to help. After the sessions, both actors offered a piece of food to the monkey. In the helper sessions, monkeys readily accepted food from both actors. On the other hand, monkeys in the non-helper sessions accepted food more frequently from actor A (the requester of help) than Actor B (the non-helper).
The researchers also added an interesting twist to the experiment by creating a situation in which both actors had their own containers. The researchers then created an "occupied non-helper" condition in which Actor B did not even acknowledge Actor A's request because Actor B was pre-occupied by their own container. In this "occupied non-helper" situation, the monkeys accepted food from both actors equally. In an "explicit non-helper" condition, Actor B acknowledged the request for help from Actor A but explicitly rejected the request. In this latter situation, the monkeys were less likely to accept food from Actor B.
This study is not the first study to evaluate third party social evaluations of humans by non-human primates, but its strength lies in its meticulous design. Both actors offered the same type and amount of food to the monkeys, so that the most likely explanation for the monkeys' choices was indeed the interactions of the humans with each other.
The research presented in this study gives us a fascinating insight into how third party social evaluations by non-human primates. The fact that the monkeys discriminated between occupied non-helpers (i.e people who were too busy to notice the request for help) and explicit non-helpers (i.e. people who were just plain mean - they noticed the call for help but rejected it) shows a very fine-tuned analysis of human interactions. It is a good reminder of how human interactions can leave lasting impressions on fellow beings - humans and non-humans.

Image credit: Adult Tufted Capuchin by Charles J Sharp, via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons License).

ResearchBlogging.org Anderson, J., Kuroshima, H., Takimoto, A., & Fujita, K. (2013). Third-party social evaluation of humans by monkeys Nature Communications, 4 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms2495

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Neurotransmitter Dopamine May Be A Key Mediator Of The “Superiority Illusion”

The concept “superiority illusion” refers to the fact that people tend to judge themselves as being superior to the average person when it comes to positive traits such as intelligence, desirability or other personality traits. This is mathematically not possible, because in a normally distributed population, most people cannot be above average. The “superiority illusion” belongs to a family of positive illusions, such as the “optimism bias”, which is characterized by an unrealistic positive outlook regarding our future. It is thought that such positive illusions may help ward off depressive symptoms and promote mental health.

The neural mechanisms responsible for the “superiority illusion” are poorly understood. The recent study “Superiority illusion arises from resting-state brain networks modulated by dopamine” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Yamada and colleagues used resting functional MRI (fMRI) and PET imaging of the brain in 24 male subjects without known psychiatric or neurologic disease to investigate the neural mechanisms involved in the generation of the superiority illusion. Their findings suggest that the degree of superiority illusion correlates negatively with functional connectivity between two parts of the brain (the anterior cingulate cortex and the striatum) and that the proposed mediator is the neurotransmitter dopamine. This would mean that increasing dopamine levels in the striatum could promote a person’s superiority illusion.
One limitation of the study was that the findings were purely associative and did not prove an actual causal link between dopamine levels and the superiority illusion. Another limitation of the study was that the researchers only performed imaging at one time point and did not track whether changes in the self-perception of superiority in the subjects (over time or in response to certain interventions) also correlated with changes in the brain imaging.
Despite these limitations, the study is quite novel in that it attempts to define the neural mechanism for the “superiority illusion”. The fact that it points to dopamine as a mediator could have important implications. The authors of the paper believe that the “superiority illusion” promotes self-esteem and is an innate counterbalance to depressive symptoms. If further studies confirm a causal role for dopamine in promoting the “superiority illusion”, one could conceivably design novel pharmacologic therapies that target the dopaminergic system and help patients with severe depression who suffer from low-self-esteem.
However, a lot more mechanistic research needs to be conducted before pharmacologic dopaminergic stimulation can be pursued as a treatment for depression. We also need to be aware of the fact that psychiatric medications are often over-prescribed. If newer medications become available which are able to raise self-esteem and foster “superiority illusions”, they might be unnecessarily prescribed to many people who do not suffer from true major depression. The last thing we need is a world in which everyone becomes even more convinced how superior and wonderful they are.

Image credit: Striatum from Anatomography maintained by Life Science Databases(LSDB) via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons License).

ResearchBlogging.org Yamada, M., Uddin, L., Takahashi, H., Kimura, Y., Takahata, K., Kousa, R., Ikoma, Y., Eguchi, Y., Takano, H., Ito, H., Higuchi, M., & Suhara, T. (2013). Superiority illusion arises from resting-state brain networks modulated by dopamine Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1221681110

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

New Survey Shows That Plagiarism Creates Job Opportunities

WASHINGTON, D.C.- Plagiarism is back in the headlines. The German Education Minister Annette Schavan recently resigned because of allegations of plagiarism in her doctoral dissertation. There was also significant outrage when it became public that the now discredited science journalist Jonah Lehrer was paid $20,000 to speak at the Knight Foundation about plagiarism and other forms of journalistic misconduct that he has engaged in.

Christopher Robin of the Winnie Foundation feels that plagiarists are unfairly maligned. His foundation conducted a survey, which proved that plagiarism scandals usually result in weeks of extensive reporting and investigations, thus providing new job opportunities for investigative journalists and academic committees. "Plagiarists create jobs for others. They should be seen as heroes and not as villains, especially during a recession when there aren't too many jobs out there."

Robin also said that plagiarism may soon become a highly attractive career for US college graduates. "Lehrer is becoming an excellent role model. He shows that you can earn good money while you are engaging in plagiarism. Even if you are caught, you still receive large honoraria to speak about your misconduct. Plagiarists have excellent job security."

Meanwhile, the Cocaine Retailer Association of Chicago (CRAC) says that at least three of its members are applying to the Knight Foundation for an opportunity to give a lecture. "They would like to speak about how wrong it is to sell drugs and some of them would be willing to do it for only half of the Lehrer honorarium."

Image Credit: Bengt Ruda's chair and a plagiarized version via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Teju Cole on W.G. Sebald

Teju Cole writes in the New Yorker about the German author W.G. Sebald:

Throughout his career, W. G. Sebald wrote poems that were strikingly similar to his prose. His tone, in both genres, was always understated but possessed of a mournful grandeur. To this he added a willful blurring of literary boundaries and, in fact, almost all his writing, and not just the poetry and prose, comprised history, memoir, biography, autobiography, art criticism, scholarly arcana, and invention. This expert mixing of forms owed a great deal to his reading of the seventeenth-century melancholics Robert Burton and Thomas Browne, and Sebald’s looping sentences were an intentional homage to nineteenth-century German-language writers like Adalbert Stifter and Gottfried Keller. But so strongly has the style come to be associated with Sebald’s own work that even books that preceded his, such as those by Robert Walser and Thomas Bernhard, can seem, from our perspective as readers of English translations, simply “Sebaldian.”Sebald’s reputation rests on four novels—“Vertigo,” “The Emigrants,” “The Rings of Saturn,” and “Austerlitz”—all of them reflections on the history of violence in general, and on the legacy of the Holocaust in particular. Our sense of this achievement has been enriched by his other works: the ones published in his lifetime (the lectures “On the Natural History of Destruction” and the long poem “After Nature”), and those that were released posthumously (including the essay collection “Campo Santo,” and the volumes of short poems “Unrecounted” and “For Years Now”). Sebald’s shade, like Roberto Bolaño’s, gives the illusion of being extraordinarily productive, and the publication now of “Across the Land and the Water,” billed as his “Selected Poems 1964-2001,” does not feel surprising. Ten years on, we are not quite prepared for him to put down his pen.

Read more here

Abdul Ghaffar Khan: Pioneer of Nonviolence

Nasim Saber writes in Qantara:

He was a contemporary of Indian pacifist Mahatma Gandhi and always preached an Islam of nonviolence: Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the man who was venerated by the Pashtuns as "King of Chiefs" died 20 years ago in Peshawar.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan was born in 1890 in Charsadda near Peshawar in the British-occupied northwest sector of the Indian subcontinent. He was a member of the Mohammadzai family, a respected Pashtun dynasty, to which Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, also belonged.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan grew up to become a pioneer of nonviolence in a region plagued by wars. The Pashtuns still revere him today as "Badshah Khan" (King of Chiefs).

In 1910, when he was only 20 years old, Abdul Ghaffar Khan already built a school near Utmanzai in the northwest region of what is today Pakistan. He went on to found the "Anjuman-e islah ul Afghana" (Afghan Reform Association) and to publish the magazine "Pashtoon" in order to reach the masses under British domination.

Read more here

Image Credit: Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Gandhi in 1940, Public Domain image via Wikimedia

Monday, February 11, 2013

Seven Myths About Obesity And Weight Loss?

Whether we cruise the internet, turn on the TV or simply open up our email Inbox, we are bound to encounter advice regarding obesity and weight loss. The problem is that a lot of the circulated opinions about obesity and weight gain are only poorly supported by medical and scientific evidence. The recent paper “Myths, Presumptions, and Facts about Obesity” published in the New England Journal of Medicine on January 31, 2013 by Krista Casazza and colleagues investigates popular notions about obesity and tests whether they are actually backed up by peer-reviewed, evidence-based studies. Their findings are quite surprising and unravel many of the “myths” that relate to obesity and weight problems. The authors refer to these notions as “myths”, because they were unable to find adequate evidence to back them up and even find some evidence that actually refutes the notions. Unfortunately, the data presented by the authors does not always provide definitive evidence, so it may be rather premature to dismiss these widely held beliefs as “myths”.

Here are the seven “myths” about obesity and weight gain that the authors discuss:

Myth number 1: Small sustained changes in energy intake or expenditure will produce large, long-term weight changes.

The authors claim that this is a myth, because it is based on the assumption that small dietary or activity changes yield benefits that continue to accumulate and result in large changes. They think that these calculations overestimate the achieved weight loss, because they do not adequately take into account that the metabolism adapts to the ongoing weight loss. A very obese person with a high caloric intake may respond strongly to a minor increase in daily exercise levels, but the degree of weight loss will decrease over time.
I have to disagree with Casazza and colleagues on this point, because I think that their analysis does not refute the idea of small sustained changes having long-term benefits. One can disagree about the magnitude of the long-term benefit, but there is still a long-term benefit.

Myth number 2: Setting realistic goals for weight loss is important, because otherwise patients will become frustrated and lose less weight.

Casazza and colleagues cite multiple studies which show that ambitious weight loss goals may be associated with better outcomes.

Myth number 3: Large, rapid weight loss is associated with poorer long-term weight-loss outcomes, as compared with slow, gradual weight loss.

The authors point to a meta-analysis (summary analysis of multiple published studies) which showed that very low energy diets (rapid weight loss) and low energy diets are similarly successful in terms of achieving weight loss.

Myth number 4: It is important to assess the stage of change or diet readiness in order to help patients who request weight-loss treatment.

The evidence does not support the need to wait for people being “ready” for weight loss. It may be best to start right away.

Myth number 5: Physical-education classes, in their current form, play an important role in reducing or preventing childhood obesity.

The authors of the paper summarize the results of multiple studies which did not show any statistically significant and consistent benefit of increasing physical education time in school on childhood obesity. They state that there is probably a level of activity that will be beneficial, but that this level may not be achieved in the limited amount of time that children have in school for physical education.
The problem with the analysis of the Casazza and colleagues is that they dismiss the findings as “inconsistent”, but this inconsistency may reflect that some children do benefit from the intervention while others do not. One study, for example, showed a benefit in girls that were overweight, but not in boys. This “inconsistency” does not necessarily invalidate the notion, it merely means that we need to identify the group of children that are most likely to benefit and to perhaps modify the type and duration of physical education in schools to help even more groups of children.

Myth number 6: Breast-feeding is protective against obesity.

Casazza and colleagues reviewed all the major studies in this area and found no significant evidence that breast-feeding children protects them against obesity, but they concede that breast-feeding may be associated with other benefits for the child, unrelated to obesity.

Myth number 7: A bout of sexual activity burns 100 to 300 kcal for each participant.

The authors calculate the amount of calories burned during sexual activity and estimate that the actual amount is probably closer to 20 to 30 kcal (calories) and not 100 to 300

These are the seven “myths” that the authors claim to have debunked. I also think that it is important to note the disclosures at the end of the article, which shows that the authors have very strong ties to food manufacturers. Here are the financial disclosures for just one of the authors:

“Dr. Astrup reports receiving payment for board membership from the Global Dairy Platform, Kraft Foods, Knowledge Institute for Beer, McDonald’s Global Advisory Council, Arena Pharmaceuticals, Basic Research, Novo Nordisk, Pathway Genomics, Jenny Craig, and Vivus; receiving lecture fees from the Global Dairy Platform, Novo Nordisk, Danish Brewers Association, GlaxoSmithKline, Danish Dairy Association, International Dairy Foundation, European Dairy Foundation, and AstraZeneca; owning stock in Mobile Fitness”

These financial ties do not invalidate the analysis, but they should be considered when interpreting the results.

Overall, I think this is an important paper, because it shows us that we often operate under certain assumptions about obesity and weight loss without there being adequate evidence to back it up. This highlights the need for more unbiased research in this area. However, I am disappointed by some of the analyses made by the authors, when they summarily dismiss a belief as a “myth”, just because there are some inconsistencies or differences in estimated benefits. Instead of using the somewhat sensationalist term “myth”, it would have been better if the authors had just focused on pointing out weaknesses in the current evidence and need for more studies.

Image credit: Painting “Schlaraffenland” (“The Land of Cockaigne”, 1567) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder – via Wikimedia
ResearchBlogging.org Casazza K, Fontaine KR, Astrup A, Birch LL, Brown AW, Bohan Brown MM, Durant N, Dutton G, Foster EM, Heymsfield SB, McIver K, Mehta T, Menachemi N, Newby PK, Pate R, Rolls BJ, Sen B, Smith DL Jr, Thomas DM, & Allison DB (2013). Myths, presumptions, and facts about obesity. The New England journal of medicine, 368 (5), 446-54 PMID: 23363498

Council Of Muslim-Americans (COMA) Says Next Pope Should Be An American Muslim Woman

WASHINGTON, D.C.- Pope Benedict XVI surprised everyone by announcing that he is going to retire. He will be the first pope in nearly 700 years to resign, because most popes retain their office until they die.

The Council Of Muslim-Americans (COMA) responded to this announcement by pointing out a long tradition of anti-Muslim discrimination among Catholic clergy. At a press conference, the COMA spokesperson Abdullah Abdullah said that this was an opportunity for the Catholic Church to prove that it has moved beyond Islamophobia.

"We have reviewed the religious affiliations of all the previous popes and we noted that none of them have been Muslim. This is clearly a sign of anti-Muslim discrimination and Islamophobia. There has also never been an American pope and none of the popes have been women. As proud Americans and advocates for the rights of women, we believe that the Vatican should engage in papal equality and choose an American Muslim woman as the next pope."

Image Credit: Pope Innocent, Fresco at the cloister Sacro Speco via Wikimedia Commons

Teju Cole on literary empathy, humanity and drones

Teju Cole writes in The New Yorker about literary empathy, humanity and drones:

I know language is unreliable, that it is not a vending machine of the desires, but the law seems to be getting us nowhere. And so I take helpless refuge in literature again, rewriting the opening lines of seven well-known books:
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist’s.
Call me Ishmael. I was a young man of military age. I was immolated at my wedding. My parents are inconsolable.
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead bearing a bowl of lather. A bomb whistled in. Blood on the walls. Fire from heaven.
I am an invisible man. My name is unknown. My loves are a mystery. But an unmanned aerial vehicle from a secret location has come for me.
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was killed by a Predator drone.
 Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His torso was found, not his head.
Mother died today. The program saves American lives.

You can read more here.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Professor Hands Out "Erase Undesirable Data Points" Coupons To PhD Students

TIJUANA- Obtaining a PhD in the life sciences now routinely takes six or seven years, whereas 30 or 40 years ago, students could graduate from a PhD program in just 3 or 4 years. The University of California, Tijuana (UCT) hired a consultancy firm to help them identify the reasons for the prolonged PhD duration. The consultants found the culprit: Data outliers.

Richard ("Dick") Tator is a Professor for Complementary and Alternative Science (CAS) at UCT and explains the findings.

“If a PhD student conducts an experiment with eight mice and five respond one way, but three mice the opposite way, most students then have to conduct additional experiments with many more mice to obtain a definitive, statistically significant result. This can prolong the duration of a PhD by months or even years.”

Professor Tator has now come up with a very innovative program to address this problem. He hands out “coupons” to his students which allow them to simply erase any data points which are interfering with the statistical significance of the results or which do not conform with the anticipated findings.

Lay Zee is a student in Professor Tator’s laboratory and is a big fan of the new system. “Dick is just a wonderful mentor. He basically allows every graduate student to earn up to three coupons a year, and each coupon is good for up to two years. So you do not have to use them all up at once and you can keep them in stock for a future data point that does not support your hypothesis.”

Lay says that Professor Tator gives out one “erase undesirable data coupon” for performing three chores, such as walking his dog, picking up Professor Tator’s laundry and baby-sitting his children. Lay feels that implementing “erase undesirable data coupons” is a win-win situation for everyone.

“I get to graduate sooner and we get to publish our results faster. Some of my friends in other programs are going to be stuck in their PhD program for another two or three years, performing mundane experiments, just to ensure that they will have statistically valid results, whereas I am already receiving job offers.”

Tator’s colleagues are also impressed with his innovative approach. Knott Eggsist is a professor of philosophy and UCT and admits that he is a bit envious.

“Professors in the humanities also have dogs that need to be walked and our students are also stuck in a PhD program for a very long time, sometimes as long as 8 or 9 years. We would love to have something similar to Dick’s coupons, but our problem is that we do not really have any actual data in the humanities.”

“How do you erase a data point that never even existed?”, Eggsist asks. After a brief pause, his eyes light up and he then nods vigorously, “Now that would be a great dissertation topic!”

Eggsist then talks about an equally innovative program that his department might implement.

“We are considering an entirely different approach in the philosophy department. We have determined that PhD in philosophy is prolonged unnecessarily because one has to deal with all the complex and long-winded thoughts of German philosophers. We will therefore start using an ‘Erase a German philosopher coupon’. With each coupon, our students will be able to write their dissertation and pretend that for example Hegel, Kant or Nietzsche or any other German philosopher of their choosing never existed and simply ignore all their writings.”

Monday, January 28, 2013

Beautiful Description of Munich in "Gladius Dei" by Thomas Mann

Here is a beautiful description of Munich in the short story 'Gladius Dei' by Thomas Mann, translated by Joachim Neugroschel. Thomas Mann wrote it in 1902, but whenever I read this story, it reminds me of present-day Munich and the Odeonsplatz:


MUNICH WAS LUMINOUS. A radiant, blue-silk sky stretched out over the festive squares and white-columned temples, the neoclassical monuments and Baroque churches, the spurting fountains, the palaces and gardens of the residence, and the latter’s broad and shining perspectives, carefully calculated and surrounded by green, basked in the sunny haze of a first and lovely June day. 
The chattering of birds and furtive rejoicing throughout the streets ... and the unhurried and amusing bustle of the beautiful and leisurely city rolled, surged, and hummed across plazas and rows of houses. Tourists of all nations climbed up the steps to museums or rode around in the small, slow droshkies, peering right and left and up the building walls in promiscuous curiosity. 
Numerous windows were open, and from many of them music poured out into the streets, people practicing on pianos, violins, or cellos, sincere and well-meaning dilettantish efforts. But at the Odeon, as could be heard, people were earnestly studying at several grand pianos. 
Young men, whistling the Nothung motif and crowding the back of the modern theater every evening, wandered in and out of the university or the National Library, with literary journals in the side pockets of their jackets. A royal coach stopped outside the Academy of Fine Arts, which spread its white wings between Turk Street and the Victory Gate. And at the top of the Academy’s ramp, the models stood, sat, and lounged in colorful groups— picturesque oldsters, youngsters, and women in the costumes of the Alban Hills. 
Casualness and unhurried ambling through all the long avenues in northern Munich ... People were not exactly driven or devoured by the greedy craving to earn their livelihood; instead their aim was to lead a pleasant life. Young artists, with small round hats on the backs of their heads, with loose ties and no canes, carefree fellows, who paid their rent with color sketches, were strolling about to let this light-blue morning affect their moods, and they looked at the young girls, that short pretty type with brunet hair in a band, somewhat oversize feet, and heedless morals.... Every fifth house had studio windows blinking in the sun. At times an artistic structure stood out in the series of bourgeois buildings, the work of an imaginative young architect, a wide house with flat arches and bizarre ornamentation, full of wit and style. And suddenly, somewhere, the door in an all-too-boring facade was framed by a bold improvisation, by flowing lines and sunny colors, bacchantes, nixes, and rosy nudes............

This excerpt is taken from "Death in Venice and Other Tales" by Thomas Mann, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, Penguin Group 1999.

Here is the original in German from Project Gutenberg:


München leuchtete. Über den festlichen Plätzen und weißen Säulentempeln, den antikisierenden Monumenten und Barockkirchen, den springenden Brunnen, Palästen und Gartenanlagen der Residenz spannte sich strahlend ein Himmel von blauer Seide, und ihre breiten und lichten, umgrünten und wohlberechneten Perspektiven lagen in dem Sonnendunst eines ersten, schönen Junitages.  
Vogelgeschwätz und heimlicher Jubel über allen Gassen. …Und auf Plätzen und Zeilen rollt, wallt und summt das unüberstürzte und amüsante Treiben der schönen und gemächlichen Stadt. Reisende aller Nationen kutschieren in den kleinen, langsamen Droschken umher, indem sie rechts und links in wahlloser Neugier an den Wänden der Häuser hinaufschauen, und steigen die Freitreppen der Museen hinan… 
 Viele Fenster stehen geöffnet, und aus vielen klingt Musik auf die Straßen hinaus, Übungen auf dem Klavier, der Geige oder dem Violoncell, redliche und wohlgemeinte dilettantische Bemühungen. Im 'Odeon' aber wird, wie man vernimmt, an mehreren Flügeln ernstlich studiert.  
Junge Leute, die das Nothung-Motiv pfeifen und abends die Hintergründe des modernen Schauspielhauses füllen, wandern, literarische Zeitschriften in den Seitentaschen ihrer Jacketts, in der Universität und der Staatsbibliothek aus und ein. Vor der Akademie der bildenden Künste, die ihre weißen Arme zwischen der Türkenstraße und dem Siegestor ausbreitet, hält eine Hofkarosse. Und auf der Höhe der Rampe stehen, sitzen und lagern in farbigen Gruppen die Modelle, pittoreske Greise, Kinder und Frauen in der Tracht der Albaner Berge.  
Lässigkeit und hastloses Schlendern in all den langen Straßenzügen des Nordens… Man ist von Erwerbsgier nicht gerade gehetzt und verzehrt dortselbst, sondern lebt angenehmen Zwecken. Junge Künstler, runde Hütchen auf den Hinterköpfen, mit lockeren Krawatten und ohne Stock, unbesorgte Gesellen, die ihren Mietzins mit Farbenskizzen bezahlen, gehen spazieren, um diesen hellblauen Vormittag auf ihre Stimmung wirken zu lassen, und sehen den kleinen Mädchen nach, diesem hübschen, untersetzten Typus mit den brünetten Haarbandeaux, den etwas zu großen Füßen und den unbedenklichen Sitten. …Jedes fünfte Haus läßt Atelierfensterscheiben in der Sonne blinken. Manchmal tritt ein Kunstbau aus der Reihe der bürgerlichen hervor, das Werk eines phantasievollen jungen Architekten, breit und flachbogig, mit bizarrer Ornamentik, voll Witz und Stil. Und plötzlich ist irgendwo die Tür an einer allzu langweiligen Fassade von einer kecken Improvisation umrahmt, von fließenden Linien und sonnigen Farben, Bacchanten, Nixen, rosigen Nacktheiten….

Image Credit: Color photo lithograph of the Odeonsplatz in Munich around 1900, via Wikimedia

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Happier Children Earn Higher Wages When They Become Adults

There is quite a bit of debate about the scientific validity of the proverb “money can’t buy happiness”, because studies on this topic have yielded discordant results. Some studies support the idea that richer people are happier on average than poor people, but there are also reports that while the median income in the US has grown in recent decades, average happiness among Americans has hardly changed.

The researchers Jan-Emmanuel De Neve and Andrew Oswald decided to study the link between happiness and income from a very different angle. Instead of asking whether more money leads to more happiness, they reversed the question and asked whether more happiness leads to more money. In the paper “Estimating the influence of life satisfaction and positive affect on later income using sibling fixed effects” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, De Neve and Oswald use in-home surveys and interviews of about 15,000 adolescents and young adults in the US, assessing their “positive affect” (a technical term to indicate “happiness” or “well-being”) at ages 16, 18 and 22. The researchers then analyzed the annual earnings of these adolescents or young adults once they reached the age 29. They found that the degree of happiness at the young age had a major role in predicting their future income. For example, 16-year-olds who scored in the lowest happiness category went on to earn about $28,000 per year at age 29, while those who scored in the highest happiness category earned roughly $38,000!

Since happiness at a young age could merely reflect the family environment or family income, the researchers also corrected for this by directly comparing the happiness of siblings growing up in the same family. It turned out that the same relationship between happiness at a young age and higher future income held true. Happier siblings who grew up in the same family were far more likely to earn more money as adults than their less happy siblings. The researchers also tried to uncover possible reasons for why happier adolescents go on to earn more money as adults. Their statistical analysis found that a higher likelihood of obtaining a college degree, getting hired and promoted, having an optimistic outlook and being an extrovert were all possible mediating factors that led to the higher income of happier children. How the happiness of the younger child impacted these factors could not be determined and the study also did not provide data on whether happiness at younger ages was associated with better academic performance. 
            This was an observational study which evaluated statistical associations, but could not assess direct cause-effect relationships nor did it test whether an intervention at a young age can actually make a difference. If we found ways to help children become happier at age 16 (as a parent, I know that this can be quite challenging!), would that necessarily mean that they would earn more money when they grow up? We need more research to definitively answer this question and then identify the potential interventions that would be effective. One has to also bear in mind that this study was conducted in US adolescents and may not apply to other societies or cultures. The fact that extraversion and optimism were associated with a higher income is a reminder that introverts often face challenges at work and may lose out in terms of promotions and earnings to colleagues who exude a lot of optimism and cheerfulness. If this study had been conducted in other societies where there isn't such peer pressure to be cheerful and optimistic, the results may have been very different.   
As a society, we should try to maximize the happiness of children, purely for ethical and altruistic reasons and not because it makes them better earners. However, we live in an environment where terms such as “fiscal responsibility” are thrown around as an excuse to cut budgets for schools and for important educational and community programs. This study provides some data to show that investing in the happiness of children may indeed be “fiscally responsible” and yield returns that can be measured in actual dollars. 

Image credit: Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life) by Henri Matisse, 1905. The painting is in the public domain in the US.

ResearchBlogging.org De Neve JE, & Oswald AJ (2012). Estimating the influence of life satisfaction and positive affect on later income using sibling fixed effects. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 (49), 19953-8 PMID: 23169627

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Degree Of Kinship Determines How Far We Are Willing To Travel To See Our Relatives

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Robert Frost - Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Maintaining regular face-to-face contact with family members can be rather challenging because nowadays families are often geographically dispersed. It takes time, money and effort to travel and visit family members. The famous British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar at Oxford University and his colleagues investigated how far people were willing to travel to see their relatives. Their results were published in the open access journal PLOS One “Going That Extra Mile: Individuals Travel Further to Maintain Face-to-Face Contact with Highly Related Kin than with Less Related Kin” by Thomas Pollet et al. (online publication January 25, 2013). They asked 355 German and Dutch participants about the amount of travel time they invested to see their relatives that were not living with them in the same house. They classified the relatives by the degree of genetic relatedness. Siblings, parents and children of the participants were all combined in the first category (i.e. the ones that were most genetically related to the participants), half-siblings, aunts, uncles and grand-parents were in the second category and even more distant relatives such as cousins and half-cousins were in the third and fourth categories of genetic relatedness. The participants were also asked to comment about the degree of emotional closeness that they felt with the relatives that they visited. Travel time was used instead of distance, because we generally have an easier time making accurate estimates of how long it takes to make a trip than to estimate the actual number of traveled distances.
As expected, the researchers found that individuals were willing to travel for longer to see more closely related relatives than distantly related relatives. The second finding was that for all relatives in categories 2, 3 and 4 (i.e. aunts, uncles, grand-parents, cousins, nieces, half-siblings, second cousins, etc), emotional closeness determined how much travel time the participants were willing to invest. This means that participants were more likely to make a bigger effort to visit an emotionally close second cousin than a grandparent with whom they did not feel that strong of an emotional bond, even though grandparents were genetically closer. One of the most interesting findings of the study was that genetic relatedness to kin in the first category (parents, siblings and children) still trumped emotional closeness. Individuals were still willing to travel significantly further to see their closest relatives as compared to any other relatives, independent of the emotional closeness that they felt.
The study has some key limitations, such as the fact that it only included Dutch and German participants and these results may not apply to other societies or cultures. The sample size was also rather small and the researchers excluded adopted kin, because less than 2.5% of relatives were listed in this category. This did not allow the researchers to investigate whether the increased willingness to invest in travel time was truly due to genetic closeness, or whether perhaps participants would have put in just as much effort to see an adopted child who was not at all genetically related to them. Nevertheless, this study has interesting implications for understanding how we make decisions about investing time and effort into maintaining family relationships. It suggests that emotional closeness and friendship may be far more important determinants of our behavior for distant relatives than for close relatives.

Image credit: Wikimedia -17th century painting of a ship in the Brooklyn Museum Asian Art Collection, unknown artist

ResearchBlogging.org Pollet, T., Roberts, S., & Dunbar, R. (2013). Going That Extra Mile: Individuals Travel Further to Maintain Face-to-Face Contact with Highly Related Kin than with Less Related Kin PLoS ONE, 8 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0053929

Monday, January 21, 2013

"We used to sprint to pick and store blackberries, now we run to the Sprint store to pick Blackberries"

Marshall Soulful Jones, part of Team Nuyorican 2011, 2nd place finishers at the National Poetry Slam in Boston, performs "Touchscreen". The Bowery Poetry Club NY.

(h/t Peter Toth)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

"What I really want to produce is that little sob in the spine of the artist-reader”

Vladimir Nabokov on Lolita (Part 1):

“I don’t wish to touch hearts, I don’t even want to affect minds very much. What I really want to produce is that little sob in the spine of the artist-reader.”

Vladimir Nabokov on Lolita (Part 2):

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Academic Publisher Unveils New Journal Which Prevents All Access To Its Content

AMSTERDAM - Academic publishers are currently under attack by scientists, governments and the general public for hiding the majority of published research articles behind paywalls. Readers have to pay either a one-time access fee of up to $50 to read one article or obtain an annual subscription to the journal in order to access the research findings. The access fees for research articles generate multi-billion dollar profits for academic publishers, but this lucrative industry is having a hard time justifying the fees. Since the bulk of research is funded through government grants, most people feel that the research articles which summarize and document the public-funded research should be freely available to the public. Some academic publishers are gradually giving in to these demands and are now offering "open access" publishing. In this model, researchers pay a fee to cover the publication costs, but the publications are then available without any fees to all readers.

Not all academic publishers agree with this approach. Else Beer, the CEO of the prominent academic publisher Elsebeer, has condemned the open access approach and is instead betting on a new line of closed-access journals. Beer unveiled the new closed-access journal "Facts of Life" at a press conference.

"We realize that there is a big push towards open access publishing in science, but few people think about the problems that come with open access. If everyone is able to access a scientific paper, it is far more likely that they will read the paper and perhaps even try to replicate the results. This is a huge problem for scientists who routinely publish irreproducible results, as well as for scientists who want to keep their tools and scientific methods secret."

Unlike previous closed access journals in which articles are hidden behind a paywall and can be accessed after paying a fee, "Facts of Life" guarantees that nobody other than the author can access the published article. This allows scientists to include the article as a published paper on their CV and cite their work, without ever having to worry that someone else might read the article. Beer expects that this new concept will be embraced by many researchers

The physician-scientist and poet Yuri Zhivago is among the first researchers to submit manuscripts to the new journal. "It is a blessing to have this journal", Zhivago commented, "I have at least three manuscripts that contain experiments that cannot be replicated.  Now I can publish them without having to worry about my tenure committee criticizing me for having too few publications. If I published them in an open access journal, I would eventually have to retract the papers and this would could damage my reputation as a researcher. By publishing in "Facts of Life", I can be sure that nobody will ever be able to accuse me of publishing fraudulent data."

Beer is confident that there are many other Zhivagos out there who need a completely closed-access journal. "We are taking closed access publishing to a new level and we think that we provide a much-needed forum for all the researchers want to publish but have no sound data." She is convinced that other publishers will follow suit when they see the success of the "completely closed access" model.    

The Writer's Secret Is Not Inspiration

An excerpt from Orhan Pamuk's 2006 Nobel lecture:

"The writer's secret is not inspiration – for it is never clear where it comes from – it is his stubbornness, his patience. That lovely Turkish saying – to dig a well with a needle – seems to me to have been said with writers in mind. In the old stories, I love the patience of Ferhat, who digs through mountains for his love – and I understand it, too. In my novel, My Name is Red, when I wrote about the old Persian miniaturists who had drawn the same horse with the same passion for so many years, memorising each stroke, that they could recreate that beautiful horse even with their eyes closed, I knew I was talking about the writing profession, and my own life.

If a writer is to tell his own story – tell it slowly, and as if it were a story about other people – if he is to feel the power of the story rise up inside him, if he is to sit down at a table and patiently give himself over to this art – this craft – he must first have been given some hope. The angel of inspiration (who pays regular visits to some and rarely calls on others) favours the hopeful and the confident, and it is when a writer feels most lonely, when he feels most doubtful about his efforts, his dreams, and the value of his writing – when he thinks his story is only his story – it is at such moments that the angel chooses to reveal to him stories, images and dreams that will draw out the world he wishes to build.

If I think back on the books to which I have devoted my entire life, I am most surprised by those moments when I have felt as if the sentences, dreams, and pages that have made me so ecstatically happy have not come from my own imagination – that another power has found them and generously presented them to me."

The complete Nobel lecture can be found here.

Image Credit: Orhan Pamuk by David Shankbone 2009, Via Wikimedia - Creative Commons license

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Accuracy of Medical Information on the Internet

We can just Google it!” is becoming our standard response to unanswered questions in life. Whether we are looking for the title of an irritating 80s song, a restaurant serving authentic Icelandic food or the quickest bus route to the Star Trek convention, the Internet usually offers the long-sought answers. However, when we enter key words in a search engine such as Google, we end up with thousands of websites – many of which are barely relevant to what we are looking for or are rife with inaccuracies.
Portrait of Dr. Gachet, by Vincent van Gogh, 
public domain

Identifying the websites with the most accurate and relevant information are critical skills that are necessary for navigating our way in the digital information jungle, but unfortunately, these skills are rarely taught. In most cases, inaccurate or irrelevant information on the internet merely delays us for a few minutes until we do find the answer to what we are looking for. However, when it comes to medical information, inaccurate or irrelevant information could potentially have a major detrimental impact on our well-being. Patients and their family members are increasingly using the internet as a major source of advice regarding their illnesses, treatment options, dietary advice and disease prevention. 

However, little is known about the accuracy of medical advice obtained via the internet. A study entitled “Safe Infant Sleep Recommendations on the Internet: Let’s Google It” by Dr. Rachel Moon and colleagues (published online in the Journal of Pediatrics on August 2, 2012) addresses this question by focusing on the question of sleep safety in infants. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has published guidelines for reducing the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), suffocation or other accidental sleep-related infant deaths. Since such guidelines are written for clinical professionals, they often contain medical jargon that cannot be easily understood by concerned parents that want practical advice regarding how to ensure the sleep safety of their infants. Thus, instead of reading the AAP guidelines, most parents probably enter key phrases related to infant sleep safety into an internet search engine and may follow the advice displayed on the sites identified by the search engine.
Google Girls, by Defluiter at Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Moon and colleagues tested the accuracy of such websites by entering thirteen search phrases such as ” Infant sleep position”, ” Infant co-sleeping” or ” Pacifier sleeping” into the Google search engine, and then cross-checked the medical information offered in the search results with the AAP recommendations, which was used as the standard for medical accuracy.

Since most parents would probably read the first few pages of the Google search results, the researchers only analyzed the first 100 websites identified by each of the thirteen Google searches (total of 1300 websites). Only 43.5% of these 1300 websites contained recommendations that were in line with the AAP recommendations, while 28.1% contained inaccurate information and 28.4% of the websites were not medically relevant. The accuracy was highly dependent on the type of question asked. The search phrase “infant cigarette smoking”, for example, yielded 82% accurate results, while the search phrase “infant home monitors” resulted in only 18% accuracy.

Of note, the researchers also categorized the results by the organization or group that had generated the website. Out of the 1300 websites identified by the searches, 246 (19%) were retail product review site websites and 250 (19%) were websites associated with specific companies or interest groups. Product review retail websites were also the ones which had the lowest level of medical accuracy (8.5%). On the other hand, government websites and websites of national organizations (as identified by URL ending in .org) had the highest level of accuracy (80.9% and 72.5%, respectively).

Surprisingly, educational websites (universities or other websites with URL’s ending in .edu, ebooks, peer-reviewed articles) only had 50.2% accurate medical information, possibly due to the fact that either some of the information was not updated or that a number of the linked articles required a subscription and thus could not be accessed. The majority of the books found by the search engine either provided outdated or irrelevant information, which may have also contributed to the low accuracy rate of educational websites. Blogs and websites of individuals also had very low rates of medical accuracy (25.7% and 30.3%).

This study highlights the opportunities and pitfalls of using the internet to communicate medical information. The internet is providing an opportunity for patients and family members to obtain additional medical information that they did not receive from their physicians, as well as to address questions that may arise and do not warrant a visit to a physician. On the other hand, the study also demonstrates that the quality of medical information on the internet varies widely. Searches for certain key phrases can unwittingly lead a user to websites that promote certain products or treatments without taking the medical evidence and professional guidelines into account.

One key factor to help address this pitfall is for physicians and other healthcare professionals to actively guide patients or family members to website that are likely to have information with high levels of medical accuracy. Instead of placing the burden of discriminating between accurate and inaccurate information on patients, healthcare professionals could advise patients or parents as to what websites should be used to address medical questions that they might have.

Furthermore, government institutions, organizations and educational websites need to realize the importance of maintaining up-to-date and accessible medical information on their websites. Concerted efforts between government or educational institutions, professional organizations and healthcare professionals are necessary so that patients can maximally benefit from the information opportunities afforded by the internet.

ResearchBlogging.org Chung M, Oden RP, Joyner BL, Sims A, & Moon RY (2012). Safe infant sleep recommendations on the Internet: let's Google it. The Journal of pediatrics, 161 (6), 1080-4 PMID: 22863258

Saturday, January 12, 2013

"I think it may be taken as the rule among primitive men, that they both fear and hate whatever is unfamiliar."

An excerpt from Bertrand Russell's 1950 Nobel lecture:

"Interwoven with many other political motives are two closely related passions to which human beings are regrettably prone: I mean fear and hate. It is normal to hate what we fear, and it happens frequently, though not always, that we fear what we hate. I think it may be taken as the rule among primitive men, that they both fear and hate whatever is unfamiliar. They have their own herd, originally a very small one. And within one herd, all are friends, unless there is some special ground of enmity. Other herds are potential or actual enemies; a single member of one of them who strays by accident will be killed. An alien herd as a whole will be avoided or fought according to circumstances. It is this primitive mechanism which still controls our instinctive reaction to foreign nations. The completely untravelled person will view all foreigners as the savage regards a member of another herd. But the man who has travelled, or who has studied international politics, will have discovered that, if his herd is to prosper, it must, to some degree, become amalgamated with other herds. If you are English and someone says to you, «The French are your brothers», your first instinctive feeling will be, «Nonsense. They shrug their shoulders, and talk French. And I am even told that they eat frogs.» If he explains to you that we may have to fight the Russians, that, if so, it will be desirable to defend the line of the Rhine, and that, if the line of the Rhine is to be defended, the help of the French is essential, you will begin to see what he means when he says that the French are your brothers. But if some fellow-traveller were to go on to say that the Russians also are your brothers, he would be unable to persuade you, unless he could show that we are in danger from the Martians. We love those who hate our enemies, and if we had no enemies there would be very few people whom we should love."

The complete 1950 Nobel lecture of Bertrand Russell can be found here.

Image: Photo of Bertrand Russell/Wikimedia