What has military research done for us?

March 11, 2018

In a post eight years ago I looked at the relationship between war and technology and how war has always been an enormous driver of technological change. I am fascinated by this subject and recently read a couple of books which look at research carried out by the American military.

If you like oddball science then Mary Roach is the author for you. In previous books she has looked at cadavers, sex researchers and flatulence research. Her latest book is Grunt – The Curious Science of Humans at War. She is not looking at the latest high-tech weapons system. The book includes chapters on what to wear to war, the conundrum of military noise, genital transplants, maggot therapy, how combat medics cope and when things go wrong in submarines.

In one of the looser chapters she looks at the problem of diarrhoea. I have to say that I had never thought of the problem of soldier having the runs. Roach accompanied a researcher to the Horn of Africa to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Diarrhoea can really affect soldiers such as the Army Rangers and Navy SEALs, who operate from bases in remote, rural areas, where there isn’t a safe water supply, and where the food may have been contaminated by flies. Their solution is a medicine that you take for just one day.

She also examines stink bombs. During World War II, the OSS, the predecessor of the CIA, thought that stink bombs could really help win the war, especially against the Japanese. While investigating the OSS archives Roach found that they had devoted two years to manufacturing a liquid with “the revolting odour of a very loose bowel movement.” The project’s was named Why me?. The malodorous weapon would be squirted from a 2-inch tube. It had a powerful and lasting faecal odour.  It was never deployed as Japan surrendered after the second atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki.

There is an account of the chicken gun, a cannon with a 60ft barrel that fires at aircraft components and even fighter planes to test the potential that they will be damaged by flying birds. Both jet engines and aircraft windshields are known to be particularly vulnerable to damage from such strikes. Apparently, the whole, dead normal chicken that you stick in the oven is perfect for simulating a large, live bird hitting a flying plane

The Imagineers of War by Sharon Weinberger looks at DARPA (The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency), which was created in the wake of the Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1958. DARPA is, as Weinberger proclaims in the book’s subtitle, the Pentagon agency that changed the world. It’s not just the Internet and GPS. The story is so much more.

Before 1972 the agency was known as ARPA and Space was originally part of its remit. But when NASA, which had also been created in 1958, took over the Space Race, DARPA had to find a new role. Vietnam was slowly emerging as a theatre of conflict. President John F. Kennedy was said to be a big fan of counterinsurgency. This type of limited asymmetric warfare was designed for fighting communist insurgents in the jungles of Vietnam and the neighbouring countries. The government funded ARPA’s Combat Development and Test Center’s Project Agile. Its research ranged from everything from electronic surveillance to sociological research. The man in charge of this was William Godel, a former intelligence operative. Researchers experimented with manipulating village food supplies by destroying rice crops, engineering population resettlement and, most infamously, deploying chemical Agent Orange, a herbicide widely used as a defoliant. Then there were the more bizarre ideas such as sending a psychoanalyst to Saigon to administer Rorschach ink-blot tests to the Viet Cong or a plan to control Vietnamese villages through mass hypnosis.

The term out of-of-the box is overused but it can be applied to Godel. They may have been “completely screwball”, but they were given funding. DARPA sought  high risk, high payoff projects. Godel wasn’t the only oddball who worked for DARPA. We also have Herman Kahn, who is said to have been one of the three inspirations for Dr. Strangelove. His idea was to build a moat around Saigon to keep out the VC. And there was Nicholas Christofilos, who wanted to create a planetary force field to protect America from nuclear weapons. This was a non-starter, so he came up with Project Seesaw, which involved a particle beam that was going to blast incoming nuclear weapons out of space. Would it be expensive to drill all these holes? No problem – just nuke them. Christofilos liked to think of it like a suppository, going through the rock, creating a perfect tube. As an effective particle beam would also drain the entire U.S. electrical grid, he proposed nuking another vast hole next to the Great Lakes, which would be  drained in just 15 minutes to power vast generators. The Greek physicist’s presentation is said to have gone down well with his fellow scientists and the project was not finally dropped until the mid-’70s.

Weinberger is critical of a narrowing of focus by DARPA. She talks about Disneyfication”: an organisation pursuing expensive gadgets with limited potential to meet the national-security challenges that the USA faces. Of course had important failures, but they also had great successes. Apart from the abovementioned Internet and GPS, they have given us the stealth aircraft, driverless cars, virtual personal assistants and battlefield robots. Weinberger believes that the big challenge facing DARPA is to be relevant for the next sixty years.


The woman who can’t forget

February 18, 2018

Becky Sharrock

What’s your earliest memory? One thing I’m sure of is that it does not go back to when you were 12 days old. For Brisbane resident Becky Sharrock it is all too real. This young Australian can remember every one of her 28 birthdays. I have long been fascinated by how we male memories. In a post I wrote nine years ago, Memories are made of this, I referred to the case of HM, who after a botched lobotomy, was unable to make any new memories. I then looked at declarative memory for records names, faces, and new experiences, and motor memory for such things as riding a bike, driving a car or using a toothbrush. After this I explored I how memories can go wrong. Memory does not work like a videotape recorder. Every time we remember something we are prone to subtle biases. Finally I talked about how some people are able to train themselves to perform prodigious memory feats.

Becky Sharrock’s case is different. She suffers from an exceptionally rare condition which is known as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory or HSAM. I heard about her life on ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind podcast. HSAM, which is also known as hyperthymesia, was first diagnosed just 12 years ago, and there are said to be some 60 people in the world who have it. This is surely an underestimate, but it is vanishingly rare. It was in 2006 that the American neurobiologists from the University of California-Irvine made an important discovery. A team led by James McGaugh reported the first known first diagnosis of HSAM for Jill Price, a woman, from Southern California, who would inspire more research into the condition.

People with HSAM have a fantastic memory for dates. But this aspect should not be confused with the people  like Dominic O’Brien who was able to memorise a random sequence of 2808 playing cards (54 packs) after looking at each card only once. O’Brien employs mnemonic techniques, whereas Sharrock’s memories come naturally. They also have an incredible recall for mundane details. Curiously, they do not show exceptional memory in other domains apart from autobiographical memory. Thus they don’t tend to be good at rote learning.

Here is an example of the way Sharrock’s memory works:

4 September 2006 was a Monday, and on that particular day I was going to my therapist who I was seeing for my autism. I was on my way to see him when my stepdad called my mum and said, ‘Did you hear Steve Irwin died from a stingray?’ And I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘No, I didn’t hear of that,’ because Steve Irwin, I looked at him as invincible to any animal attack. He’d done so many daring things with crocodiles, I thought there’s no way on earth Steve Owen could have died. But then I saw the news afterwards and it was true, and it was sad, and especially since he had two young children and the time and it was sad for…it was sad for Terri, and it was sad that little Robert who was only two years old at the time, that he didn’t get a chance to spend a lot of time with his dad, yeah.

Her facility for remembering everything can be unnerving for Sharrock’s mother as her daughter has a word-for-word recollection of what her mother said. She can pick her mother up on what she said five years ago.

Her memories also trigger associated powerful emotions, which can be a real problem.  This is the real curse of HSAM. You end up reliving negative memories. Here is an example of how her emotions come to the fore:

I was walking down a path and I saw a leaf on the ground which was at a similar angle to how it was at a time when I was walking home from school, and when I re-lived that time, on that particular day after I walked home from school I had been bullied that day. So the emotions when that memory was formed, I was depressed because a bully said something to me. Then years later when I saw a leaf that was similar to one that I saw on the path walking home, I again re-lived just the depression and the feeling of hopelessness that I experienced back at that time.

Obviously, this makes life very hard. She gets a lot of headaches. Sleep is also a big challenge; she is often kept awake by her intense memories. She has to have her brain stimulated to help her to fall asleep.

Sharrock also re-feels physical pain and re-tastes food. This is great if the memory is associated with Black Forest gateaux, her favourite. She can actually re-taste the cream, the chocolate and the cherries. It’s worse when it comers to re–experiencing pain.  Sharrock has synaesthesia when she thinks about certain objects or things she gets unusual associations. She has a heightened perception of stimuli. She has been diagnosed with both OCD and autism. How these interact and what links there might be between them is a controversial area.

From reading about Becky Sharrock, I found that a lot of the science is rather tentative. After all, the condition was only diagnosed just over a decade ago. The physiological basis has not been clearly established. We do not really know how their memories work. Sharrock describes what she remembers of when she was twelve days old. I’m not sure how we can know if they are real. However, if they are genuine, HSAM could also shed light on how babies and children view the world. I suppose we also learn the value of forgetting. They may have superior memories, but they are also capable of forming false memories. Indeed, up until now, no group has been found that were immune to these flawed memories.

There is no doubt that Rebecca Sharrock has had a challenging life. Nevertheless, the fact that scientists are researching the condition and that she does not feel alone has helped her establish an identity and even a career path. Self-employed, she blogs for a company called SpecialKids.Company, which makes and sell purpose-made clothes for children with disabilities. Her contribution is to write posts giving her insights. She has a YouTube channel and gives public talks. What an uplifting story!

I’ll finish a video of Sharrock reciting Harry Potter from memory:


How illnesses are named?

February 11, 2018

Doctor to patient: The bad news is you have disease unknown to medical science – the good news is I’m going to name it after me.

_______

Where do the names of diseases, illnesses, conditions and syndromes come from? The history of the way we give names to diseases is colourful and controversial. It is a story of confusion, national rivalries, stigma and controversial scientists. The names we give to diseases reflect our current medical knowledge, but they are also a product of our societies. This is a fascinating historical journey.

Many of the names of illnesses have traditionally been eponymous. Medical eponyms are terms used in medicine that are named after people, and less frequently places or things. Although there are eponyms from patients such as Lou Gehrig disease (ALS), it is far more typical to take the name of the discovering doctor or scientist – Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease, Tourette syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome and Hodgkin’s lymphoma are well-known examples. One thing I did not know was that Salmonellosis is an eponym too. The epidemiologist Theobald Smith, who isolated the bacteria in 1885, named the bacteria salmonella in honour of his boss, Daniel Elmer Salmon, a veterinary pathologist in charge of a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Industry research program during the late 19th century.

Sometimes the name taken can be controversial. Reiter’s syndrome is “a medical condition typically affecting young men, characterized by arthritis, conjunctivitis, and urethritis, and caused by an unknown pathogen, possibly a Chlamydia.” The problem is that Hans Reiter was an infamous Nazi war criminal who carried out terrible experiments on inmates at Buchenwald. He had discovered the syndrome in 1916 when he treated a soldier during the First World War. Now it is often referred to as reactive arthritis.

I do think that it rather bizarre to have a condition disease or a deadly microbe named in your honour. I suppose it is a way of achieving immortality, but I wouldn’t think that it would make your future in-laws feel particularly well-disposed towards you. There has been a move away from such eponyms. There are a number of reasons for this. These names provide no information to medical professionals. And imagine having to memorise all these surnames. The condition Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser Syndrome, which involves congenital anomalies in or absence of the uterus and vagina, must be a nightmare to remember. This is why is also known as Müllerian agenesis or RKHS syndrome. What’s more science has become a much more collaborative enterprise, where it has become increasingly difficult to name just one person. I love the human stories behind eponyms, but I can see they may belong to another era.

What do Lyme Disease, Guinea Worm, German Measles, Ebola, and Lassa Fever have in common? They belong to another branch of eponymous name, ones which refer to the place where the disease allegedly originated. I use the word allegedly for good reason; many times the name does not reflect the medical reality. The classic case of this is the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918. There was nothing particularly Spanish about this catastrophic epidemic, which left more than fifty million people dead. Why did Spain get the blame for this? As Spain was neutral in WWI, the Spanish government did not censor newspapers, as happened in the countries which were fighting. They did not want to lower morale. The Spanish press did print information about some deaths in Madrid, which were thus believed to have been the first cases. In fact, there had already been an outbreak in the USA, but it was hushed up.

This human tendency to blame whatever country they hate the most other areas for an illness is best shown in this map I found online. The disease in question is syphilis. Click on ther image:

AIDS provides another example of our tendency to lay the blame on unpopular social groups. It was originally known as GRID (gay related immune deficiency). I also saw 4H disease (haemophiliacs, homosexuals, heroin users, and Haitians. The names can also be misleading. In the case of swine flu it was humans who infected pigs, not pigs infecting humans. Nevertheless, a 2009 pandemic in Egypt led the Egyptian government to order a comprehensive hog slaughter. The pigs belonged to the much set-upon Coptic Christians. There was no scientific justification for the cull.

All this has led to the WHO introducing guidelines.  You can find them online:

The best practices state that a disease name should consist of generic descriptive terms, based on the symptoms that the disease causes (e.g. respiratory disease, neurologic syndrome, watery diarrhoea) and more specific descriptive terms when robust information is available on how the disease manifests, who it affects, its severity or seasonality (e.g. progressive, juvenile, severe, winter). If the pathogen that causes the disease is known, it should be part of the disease name (e.g. coronavirus, influenza virus, and salmonella).

 Terms that should be avoided in disease names include geographic locations (e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu, Rift Valley fever), people’s names (e.g. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease), species of animal or food (e.g. swine flu, bird flu, monkey pox), cultural, population, industry or occupational references (e.g. legionnaires), and terms that incite undue fear (e.g. unknown, fatal, epidemic).

The reality is that it is really hard to find the right name. Let’s take Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. I have almost no idea about the work of Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt and Alfons Maria Jakob. They did seem to have interesting lives. Creutzfeldt, who was 54 years old when WWII broke out, was not a Nazi supporter. Indeed, he saved a number of people from certain death in concentration camps, and also managed to rescue almost all of his patients from being euthanized under the Nazi Aktion T4 program. Be that as it may, the name is not very informative. However, transmissible spongiform encephalitis means little to me. However, there are worse examples. If you look at the longest words in the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, they all seem to be medical in nature, but this is my intuition.

hepaticocholangiogastrostomy – 28 letters

spectrophotofluorometrically – 28 letters

pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism – 30 letters

These mash-ups of Latin and Greek roots are just incomprehensible to me.

The longest word in any of the major English language dictionaries is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a word that refers to a lung disease contracted from the inhalation of very fine silica particles, specifically from a volcano; medically, it is the same as silicosis. The word seems to have been deliberately coined to be the longest word in English. What some people will do to get attention! In the end when it comes to epidemics, you also need a word that is catchy, that alerts the public to the dangers. To do all of this does strike me as extremely complicated. It is very difficult to control language. we may well need to develop a dual system – one for the public and another for professionals.

_____

If you are interested in this topic, there are a couple of interesting podcasts:

Allusionist 45: Eponyms II – Name That Disease.

BBC Word of Mouth: Naming Diseases


Fantasyland in action: the rise of the Anti-Vaxxer movement

October 28, 2017

Doctors complain that quacks keep patients away from orthodox medicine. I cheer! Since all the treatments, both orthodox and alternative, for cancer, coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and arthritis, are equally unproven, why would a sane person choose treatment that can kill the patient? Dr. Robert S. Mendelsohn

The University of Google is where I got my degree from! Actress Jenny McCarthy the public face of the antivaccine movement in the 2000s on the Oprah show

When I was little, a thousand American children died from polio every year, and thousands more were permanently paralyzed. The year I turned three, a flu epidemic killed seventy thousand people in the United States, and I spent two weeks in the hospital with unstoppable diarrhoea caused by a retrovirus, and nearly died. Back then, as many as a thousand American kids died every year from diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough. Several hundred Americans were dying every year from measles, and the disease rendered many hundreds more deaf or, as we said then, retarded. But during the 1950s and early ’60s, vaccines appeared that prevented all those, and every kid got them. Many thousands of unnecessary deaths and cripplings were prevented. There was no antivaccine movement. Kurt Andersen in Fantasyland

 ____________

In 1955 the world’s first safe and effective polio vaccine came out. Discovered by the American virologist Jonas Salk, the vaccine was motive for huge celebration in the USA and the rest of the world. Having successfully inoculated thousands of monkeys, Salk took the risky step of testing the vaccine on humans in 1952. He must have had faith in his discovery – as well as administering the vaccine to 161 children from the Pittsburgh area, Salk injected himself, his wife and his three sons with the vaccine in his kitchen. Salk announced the success of the initial human tests to a national radio audience on March 26, 1953. But shortly after all this moment of triumph, a bad batch of polio vaccine came out sparking a polio epidemic which left 200 children with paralysis and killed ten. Nevertheless, such was the trust in science that parents quickly went back to vaccinating their kids. This was the Golden Age of Vaccines when the public accepted the value of the scientific breakthroughs. Now Salk’s laboratory would probably have been bombed by animal rights’ activists and it would have denounced as some kind of conspiracy to brainwash society. Indeed, the golden age didn’t last. And it all began in the 1960s

Robert Mendelsohn, M.D. was born in 1926. This self-proclaimed medical maverick became politicized in the late 60s. I am sure that the grandfatherly, white coated, paediatrician was a very pleasant and kind man. And I don’t doubt that his motives were sincere. He probably did want doctors to be the best they could be. And some of his criticisms of the medical establishment were justified. But talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater! He really did come out with some nonsense. Mendelsohn believed that parents were better qualified than doctors to assess their children’s health. If you were a woman the greatest danger to your health might actually be your doctor. And germane to this week’s topic he was one of the leading opponents of vaccination, claiming that there was no convincing scientific evidence that mass vaccination could be credited with eliminating any childhood disease. This is what I was talking about last week. Countercultural ideas gradually seeped out into the rest of society. Unfortunately there are still websites praising this doctor.

A more recent anti-vaxxer star is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. The son of Bobby has trashed the legacy of his uncle, who was a proponent of vaccines. Kennedy, Jr claimed that government scientists were “involved in a massive fraud.” There have even been rumours that he would chair a commission on vaccine safety to be set up by Donald Trump. All we need now is expert witnesses including Jim Carrey, Alicia Silverstone, Charlie Sheen and the University of Google’s Jenny McCarthy, all well-known anti-vaxxers. And it could be chaired by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the doctor responsible for a notorious 1998 study of EIGHT subjects which purported to show a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

This is where the scepticism has brought us. It is good to analyse the motivation of pharmaceutical companies, but to go from there to believing that vaccines had nothing to do with the eradication of so many diseases or that there is a connection between autism and the MMR vaccine, is highly irresponsible. There have already been really serious consequences. In December 2014 there was a serious outbreak of the measles at Disneyland, California. Over a period of just three days, some 40 people contracted the disease during their visit visiting the park. They then went on to infect over 80 more people, and there are currently said to be around 127 measles cases attributed to the Disneyland incident. The outbreak sparked a new law in California; as of June 2015, parents are longer able to opt out of inoculations due to their “personal beliefs”. Measles also swept through a Somali immigrant community in Minnesota that had been targeted by anti-vaxxer advocates, including the Organic Consumers Association and Andrew Wakefield. Consequently, during the next few years vaccination rates plummeted in the community making its members more vulnerable to measles and mumps too. There were 79 cases in the 2017 outbreak, of which 65, or 80% affected children of Somali descent. Science has become a victim of its own success. We have forgotten how terrible these diseases can be. Sadly, we may be about to become acquainted with them. Irrational thinking costs lives.

__________

As Ben Goldacre likes to say: the plural of anecdote is not data. Here are a couple of charts from the University of Oxford’s Vaccine Knowledge Project website:


A couple more songs

October 28, 2017

Here are a two more songs about vaccines:


Hell is other people under a dome

March 19, 2017

I am a big fan of the American writer T.C. Boyle. In fact, I talked about a previous novel of his, When the Killing’s Done in a previous post, A few rabbits can’t do any harm.  The 2011 novel looked at the battle between conservationist, Alma Takesue and animal rights activist Dave LaJoy. The former is on a mission to preserve endangered ecosystems from invasive species, whereas the former disagrees with the notion that humans have the right to choose which animals will live or die. This reflects a couple of common tropes in Boyle’s work. One is the environment and how we interact with it. He is also interested in fanaticism, the dynamics of cults and failed utopian projects. In previous works he has looked into the worlds of John Kellogg, Alfred Kinsey and Frank Lloyd Wright.

In his sixteenth novel, The Terranauts, Boyle transplants us into the ecosphere, an artificial ecosystem located in the Arizona desert. His inspiration for the story came from an experiment from the early 1990s known as Biosphere 2 (Biosphere I is Planet Earth.), in which four men and four women were sealed inside a three-acre glass structure in Oracle, Arizona for two years. The two men behind Space Biosphere Ventures were the wealthy Fort Worth Texas oil heir Edward P. Bass and eccentric ecology guru John Polk Allen. In turn, Allen was inspired by Buckminster Fuller and his geodesic dome. The biosphere was a mixture of high-minded science, New Age bullshit and American hucksterism. Curiously, one of the people involved at one point in the Biosphere 2 project was a certain Steve Brannon, Trump’s Campaign CEO and now White House Chief Strategist. The man behind Breitbart News had very different views on the environment back then:

A lot of the scientists who are studying global change and studying the effects of greenhouse gases, many of them feel that the Earth’s atmosphere in 100 years is what Biosphere 2’s atmosphere is today. We have extraordinarily high CO2, we have very high nitrous oxide, we have high methane. And we have lower oxygen content. So the power of this place is allowing those scientists who are really involved in the study of global change, and which, in the outside world or Biosphere 1, really have to work with just computer simulation, this actually allows them to study and monitor the impact of enhanced CO2 and other greenhouse gases on humans, plants, and animals.

Now owned by the University of Arizona, the Biosphere is still in existence. Here are some facts about it I found online:

 

The research facility

7,200,000 cubic feet under sealed glass; 6,500 windows

91 feet at highest point

sealed from the earth below by a 500-ton welded stainless steel liner

40-acre campus

300,000 sq. ft. of administrative offices, classrooms, labs, conference centre, housing

Elevation is 3,820 feet above sea level

Over 3,000,000 visitors since 199

Over 500,000 K-12 student visitors since 1991

Biomes under Glass

Ocean with coral reef

Mangrove wetlands

Tropical rainforest

Savannah grassland

Fog desert

Biosphere II was a kind of Noah’s Ark for plants, animals, and humans. The crew was accompanied by 3,800 species of plants and animals.  It was the first two-year closure of a projected fifty. Closure was meant to be absolute and the sphere was expected to be self-sustaining, with its own food crops (bananas, papayas, sweet potatoes, beets, peanuts, rice, and wheat etc.) and domestic animals pigs goats. Alas it would not turn out that way. The original crew had to break closure on several occasions and there was a complete collapse of the experiment six months into the second closure. This was when Bannon was on board. The place was overrun by ants and cockroaches. What’s more two of the members of the first team vandalised the project from outside.

This is the setup for Boyle’s exploration into the complexity of maintaining an environment and living in a fishbowl.  Boyle begins the book with two epigraphs. The first is from the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of committed, thoughtful people can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  The second is from Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit: “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” (Hell is other people.). I think the second one is more germane to what happens in the ecosphere,

The terranauts are constantly being watched both by Mission Control and the tourists who come to gawk at them as they go about their daily lives. I would have thought that this would make a great idea for a TV programme. It’s amazing that no one has ever thought of it.

The story is narrated by three first-person narrators, Dawn Chapman and Ramsay Roothoorp, who are both inside the dome and Linda Ryu, who is working on the support staff, with the promise of being included in Mission Three. What unites them is being unlikable I do use books which use the device o having different narrators and these ones are most definitely unreliable. In the novel the ecosphere remains unbreached. But there are plenty of other problems: power cuts, decreasing oxygen levels and poor crop yields to name but a few. But the real drama is interpersonal with all the conflicts you can imagine with eight people trapped in a confined area for two years. I won’t tell you what happens in the end, but it is safe to assume that there will be lots of friction. It may be a scientific project, but it is being carried out by humans with their egos, jealousies and foibles.


I was reading that Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, will be the producer of a TV version of The Terranauts. I am looking forward to it.


A couple of videos

March 19, 2017

Here are a couple of videos about the real Biosphere:

Inside Biosphere 2: The World’s Largest Earth Science Experiment

Jane Poynter: Life in Biosphere 2


Is Hypnosis real?

January 29, 2017

We all have an image of what a hypnotist does. He says, “look into my eyes” while holding a gold pocket watch, pushing his subject into a semi-sleep, almost zombie-like state. Now the subject will obey everything the hypnotist tells him to do, however evil this may be. This has little basis in reality, but the question of what is going on when we are being hypnotised is, nevertheless, a fascinating one.

The Merriam Webster defines hypnosis as “a trancelike state that resembles sleep but is induced by a person whose suggestions are readily accepted by the subject”. Hypnos is the Greek God of sleep and there are many words which have this suffix hypnobate (sleepwalker), hypnagogic (bringing on sleep) and hypnotherapy (treatment of disease by hypnosis).

Can everyone be hypnotised? What the scientific consensus seems to be is that everyone is on a spectrum. Roughly 15% of the population are said to be highly hypnotizable. On the other hand, around 25% are thought to be not hypnotizable at all. As well as entertainers there are many applications. New Age therapists, Past Life therapists and Repressed Memory therapists all make use of hypnosis for their dubious ends.

Hypnosis has been the subject of debate for more than 200 years. Here we have to mention Dr. Franz Mesmer, the father of modern hypnotism, who believed that hypnosis was a mystical force flowing from the hypnotist into the subject; he called it “animal magnetism”. Hypnosis was originally known as mesmerism, after Mesmer, and we still use its derivative, mesmerize, today. As Mesmer turned out to be a fraud, the term hypnotism became the one which was most used.

We see what a person does under hypnosis, but it isn’t clear why he or she does it. This uncertainty is a result of the fact that consciousness and how the human mind works is still in many ways a mystery.  And as I don’t see scientists arriving at a definitive explanation of the mind in the foreseeable future, hypnosis will probably not give all its secrets.

The person being hypnotised is generally very absorbed, relaxed, suggestible and in a state of expectation. The subconscious mind comes to the fore. Your inhibitions are reduced. Some studies say that changes do take place in the brain. However, that’s pretty unremarkable as brain functioning also changes when we relaxed, exhausted or highly attentive. Sceptics tend to argue that hypnotic subjects aren’t really in an altered state of consciousness. Social pressure and the influence of the hypnotist are often enough to convince people that they should act a certain way. When they find themselves obeying they erroneously conclude that they must be in a hypnotic trance. The power of belief is enough to cause remarkable changes in a person. If you think someone is compelling you to act a certain way, then that is how you will act. It may well be what is going in hypnotherapy.  By thinking that hypnosis will ease your pain your mind will bring about this feeling. , It is very much like the placebo effect. Hypnosis and the placebo effect have a lot in common; both rely on the effects of suggestion and belief. Consequently it is really difficult to have an effective placebo control in a study of the effects of hypnosis. I should point out that not everyone agrees with the fakery hypothesis. I just haven’t seen alternative evidence that convinces me yet. It may be forthcoming in the future

The popular stereotypes of what hypnosis is that I referred to in my introduction bear little resemblance to actual hypnotism. In fact, our modern understanding of hypnosis clearly debunks these ideas. Subjects in a hypnotic state are not slaves to their “masters” – they have absolute free will. And they’re not actually in a semi-sleep state -they’re hyperattentive. In no way can hypnotized people be described mindless automatons. People are more suggestible and some inhibitions are reduced. But our safety and morality do not fly out of the window. People won’t do things during or after hypnosis that are out of character. Only in Hollywood can hypnosis turn a mild-mannered person into a cold-blooded murderer.

 


The rise of food allergies

June 5, 2016

One in two people suffers from a hidden food allergy. Find out if you are one of them.” Patrick Holford, advocate of alternative nutrition and diet methods

I was travelling on Ryanair – I think it was three or four years ago – and we were told that nobody was allowed to eat peanuts aboard because one of the passengers suffered from peanut allergy. And indeed it may well be the case that studies have been unable to detect peanut particles in the air in sufficient amounts to cause a reaction. However, one of my students, whose son was also allergic to peanuts, explained that if I had been eating peanuts and I had then touched his face, he would have had a severe reaction. John O’Farrell wrote a satirical novel a few ago, called May Contain Nuts in which he satirised modern parental paranoia, but for anyone with this problem, it is all too real.

Our interest in allergies does seem like a modern phenomenon, but the remains of a woman who died 2,000 years ago in Cosa, on the Tuscan coast in Italy tell a fascinating story. This area, which was not especially prosperous, was important for wheat-growing. The 20-year-old woman, who would have stood at 1m 40cm centimetres, appeared to be quite wealthy – archaeologists discovered gold and bronze jewellery buried with her. DNA analysis demonstrated that the woman carried two copies of an immune system gene variant that is associated with coeliac disease. Her skeleton showed signs of malnutrition and osteoporosis both can be complications of untreated coeliac disease. By analysing her bones the researcher were able to conclude the woman had tried to change her diet to cope with her condition

What is going on today? I’m sure you will have had this discussion. When I was growing up I don’t remember so many food allergies. Now they are said to affect between 5% and 10% of the populations of developing countries. A food allergy is an immune system reaction that occurs soon after eating a certain food. This might be mild skin reactions and respiratory distress, through to life-threatening reactions. Food allergies should not be confused with food intolerance, a less serious condition that does not involve the immune system. Severe food allergies do exist, but it is also true that many more people, 30% of the population believe they have one, than actually do.

What are the causes of this trend? One school of thought is that we are just too clean. According to Wikipedia, the hygiene hypothesis states that “a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents, symbiotic microorganisms (such as the gut flora or probiotics), and parasites increases susceptibility to allergic diseases by suppressing the natural development of the immune system.” And because of fear we are delaying the introduction of allergenic foods such as egg, peanut or tree nuts. Moreover we now eat more processed foods than ever and this may be affecting our immune system. Finally skin exposure to unrefined nut oil based moisturisers has been blamed. But these theories have not yet been demonstrated

Whenever there is a problem there are solutions. The food industry has given us gluten & wheat-free, milk-free, egg-free nut-free and very soon I’m sure nutrient-free. Next week Rotterdam will be hosting Free-From Food Expo 2016. I am a bit sceptical about these products. You always need to see what they are replacing the harmful substance with. Sugar-free sweets, for example, contain a chemical called lycasin which has a laxative effect. Consumers may believe that free-from means total absence, which is not the case. There was a wonderful example on QI earlier this year. The principal ingredient of sugar-free Tic Tacs is … sugar. This is because, according to the FDA, if there is only half a gram of sugar in a serving it is sugar-free.

Then alternative medicine has got into the act. This is just the type of terrain in which it thrives. We don’t know exactly what is going on and what the solutions are. Alternative medicine becomes the medicine of the gaps. Unfortunately naturopaths and their ilk do not diagnose allergies in evidence-based ways. Their methods are either not proven to work or proven not to work. Blood tests cannot identify food sensitivities. Then there is applied kinesiology which involves holding a suspected allergen and then pressing down on that limb. Muscle weakness is said to signify an allergy. Dr. Jimmie Scott of Health Kinesiology has pioneered the Allergy Tap™ method. The practitioner “places the offending substance over a specific acupuncture point on the belly and taps eight pairs of specific acupuncture points.” You can even do the Allergy Tap™ for yourself after buying the materials and doing a course. Scott claims that it can “eliminate allergies, release physical toxicity, emotional traumas, overcome learning blocks, & perform at your best, among other things. The tennis player Novak Djokovic was diagnosed with gluten intolerance using this kind of technique. Another line is Vega Testing. Vega machines are a type of electroacupuncture device, which they say can diagnose allergies and other illnesses. Here is a video showing the device in action:

Once again there is no evidence that it can identify allergies at all. There are others such as cytotoxic testing, hair analysis and a pulse test (this involves measuring the pulse before and after eating a suspected allergen). They all have little basis. It would be great if a simple blood test could offer a reliable shortcut. In The Guardian Alex Renton describes a visit to London’s Hale Clinic, an alternative therapy centre near Harley Street:

“It is amazing. I have won the hypochondriac lottery. I’m the owner of 29 different allergies, sensitive to substances from MSG to strawberries and including such regulars in my life as milk, chicken, wheat dust, red and green peppers, cheese, peanuts, honey, lentils, brewer’s yeast, lactose, various grasses, cat hair, tobacco and “summer and fall pollens”. The fact that I believe I have no hay fever or allergy is not of importance. I am aghast. I don’t know where to start. Cheese? I love cheese. “But your body doesn’t,” says Linda, wagging a finger.”

And of course you have celebrities and no-one does it better than Gwyneth Paltrow. She has her own line of gluten-free ready meals and three years ago she published a cookbook, It’s All Good. What inspired her was being on death’s door after eating too many chips. Paltrow thought she was suffering a stroke, but was actually diagnosed with a migraine and a panic attack. After a battery of tests, her doctor certified that she was allergic to just about everything. This is Hollywood neuroticism and pseudoscience in its purest form. It was pointed out that to eat as Paltrow suggests would cost $300 a day.

There are no easy answers to this problem. If you are allergic to a food at the moment the only solution is to abstain. Hopefully, science will get a better understanding of what is going on. We need to be looking for food diversity in our diets from an early age to keep our gut microbes as healthy as possible. Fermented plant-based foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and soy sauce are good. Beans should play a big role in our diet too. And without going to his extremes Novak Djokovic’s diet sounds pretty good. The world No 1’s diet is based on vegetables, beans, white meat, fish, fruit, nuts, seeds, chickpeas, lentils and healthy oils.

 


Embodied cognition: how fart spray can affect your moral reasoning

March 13, 2016

Scientists have long been grappling with mind-body problem. And in recent years a new theory has emerged. A recent podcast on Radio National Australia looked at embodied cognition. One of the participants, Guy Claxton, gave a nice summary:

Your body is your brain. The brain isn’t just the lump of rather unimpressive-looking porridge that sits between your two ears. The intelligent organ is all the information that is streaming around your body, up to your brain and down from your brain and from your heart to your liver and from your muscles to your skin. When we look at the true way in which intelligence functions, we have to look at ourselves as being this vast conglomerate of almost like a maelstrom of information currents, all of which need to talk to each other and somehow or other have to be resolved in real time into a concerted course of action.

Last year I read a book about this subject, Sensation by Thalma Lobel. She describes how an experience on a holiday in Guatemala set her on a new research path. She awoke in a jungle cottage to absolute silence and pitch-black darkness. It was this disconcerting experience of sensory deprivation that made her want to look at the association between body and mind and the theory of embodied cognition. She summarises her perspective like this:

Our thoughts, our behaviours, our decisions and our emotions are influenced by our physical sensations, by the things we touch, the texture of the things we touch, the temperature of the things we touch, the colours, the smells. All these, without our awareness, influence our behaviours and thoughts and emotions.”

The book is in the style of many popular psychology books written today, such as Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely and Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, both of which have been featured in this blog. Lobel argues that the mind can’t work separately from the physical world; that the senses provide a link to both our unconscious and our conscious thought processes. She wants to show the influence that physical sensations exert over our mental states and behaviour. What I most enjoyed were the fascinating experiments. We learn that people prefer a job applicant when their CV is attached to a heavy clipboard; they seemed to perceive the candidate as having a more serious interest in the job. And sitting in a soft chair makes you a softer negotiator. Here are four of the experiments featured in the book:

  1. In 2008 Yale University students were asked to attend a fourth floor laboratory. The experiment really began in the lift, where a research assistant would ask subjects if they could hold her cup of coffee while she took their names. Half of them were handed a hot coffee, while the other half were given an iced coffee. Once she had written down their names, the research assistant took back the coffee and they all went on to the lab, where the participants were asked to judge an unknown person according to a description of their character. The expression a warm person is a typical metaphor we use. But is there something more to it? What we can say is that the subjects who had held the hot cup of coffee in the lift judged the unknown person as being kinder and friendlier. They would have denied this if they had been asked, but that is what the results show.
  2. Researchers prepared two nearly identical videos of football plays (gridiron, I presume) with the only difference being that in one version the players wore white strips and in the other, black. The videos were then played to two groups: students who were college football fans and professional football referees. Both groups were asked how likely they would be to penalise the teams and how aggressively each team was playing. Both the college students and the professional referees said that they would penalize the team in black more often than the one wearing white. The game sequences were more or less identical; the only thing that changed was the colours the teams were playing in. The black kit influenced the referees, leading them to perceive those teams as more aggressive.
  3. In a 2011 study experimenters gave subjects a bit of chocolate, a cracker, or no food. They were then asked to fill out an unrelated questionnaire, after which the participants were told that another professor from the psychology department had just popped in and was looking for volunteers for another, unrelated study Who was more likely to volunteer? The chocolate eaters.
  4. Disgust evoked by physical factors can influence the severity with which we judge moral transgressions, such as stealing library books, offering a bribe, and shoplifting, or moral dilemmas including marriage between first cousins or a scenario in which a man eats his own dead dog. In one study the experimenters sprayed a disgusting smell, a fart spray not far from the participants, while they were answering a questionnaire. In another study participants were given. The results clearly demonstrated that those who were physically disgusted were harsher in their moral judgments compared with those who hadn’t experienced the bad odours or who had drunk sweet or neutral drinks. In other words, the same behaviour was judged as more morally wrong if the person who made the judgment was subjected to unpleasant odours or a disgusting drink. Physical disgust influenced moral disgust. This ties in with studies that show that disgust, which began as a way of protecting us from evolutionary dangers, has become co-opted into other areas. If you are interested in this area check out my post, Ice cream cones, frozen chickens and the meaning of disgust.

I loved all these quirky studies, but I do want to add a word of caution. In a post in January of this year, Brian Nosek and his shades of grey, I looked at the problem of replicability in scientific studies. Indeed the experiments which Nosek studied were in the field of psychology. In his Reproducibility Project he and his colleagues repeated 100 published psychological experiments. Just 36% of the replications reached statistical significance. So you do have to wonder whether the experiments presented by Lobel have been replicated elsewhere. Nevertheless I think I will be following the research in embodied cognition. It has the potential to provide us with some fascinating insights into the relationship between mind and body. I am particularly interested in the area of language. Metaphors are not just figures of speech – they reflect physical realities. But that will have to be a subject for another day.