More Groovy Science 5

More interesting science! Let's see what's going on in the science world recently. My thoughts on a couple of the studies are in italics.

  • People Reject Popular Opinions If They Already Hold Opposing Views

  • To Make One Happy, Make One Busy

  • What You Say About Others Says a Lot About You

  • Breeding Is Changing Dog Brains

  • Synthetic Bone Graft Recruits Stem Cells for Faster Bone Healing

  • Latest 'Green' Packing Material? Mushrooms; Packing Foam Engineered from Mushrooms and Agricultural Waste

  • Mining Bacterial Genomes Reveals Valuable 'Hidden' Drugs

  • One High-Fat Diet, Two Different Outcomes: The Path to Obesity Becomes Clearer

  • Obesity Prevention Begins Before Birth: Excess Maternal Weight Gain Increases Birth Weight After Controlling for Genetic Factors

  • Gum Inflammation Linked to Alzheimer's Disease

  • Brain Study Shows That Thinking About God Reduces Distress, But Only for Believers

People Reject Popular Opinions If They Already Hold Opposing Views: A new study suggests people often grow more confident in some beliefs when they find out later that a majority of people disagree with them. "It may be that you feel proud because you were able to disprove, in your own mind, an opinion that most people have accepted. You actually become doubly sure you were right."
Previous research has shown that majority opinion has the greatest influence on people when they consider issues that aren't that important to them or issues they don't want to spend much effort thinking about. Minority opinion does have influence sometimes, but mostly on issues which people are motivated to consider carefully. However, previous work had focused on situations in which people found out the majority opinion before they had given the issue much thought. "People may be thinking that 'if I can find the flaws in a position that the majority of people believe, then my thoughts must really be good ones.'"
One key to this finding is that people have to think about the issue first, and develop their own ideas. Learning later that a majority of people hold a certain view, after you have already made up your mind, functions to help you validate what you already think about that issue.

To Make One Happy, Make One Busy: A new study found that people who have something to do, even something pointless, are happier than people who sit idly. ...people like being busy, and they like being able to justify being busy -- to benefit society.

~If you read the write-up, I'd love your opinion on how this conclusion was made. I basically agree with the conclusion that keeping busy leads to feeling happier than just being idle, but I question how the conclusion was made, at least from the write-up.

What You Say About Others Says a Lot About You: How positively you see others is linked to how happy, kind-hearted and emotionally stable you are. The researchers found a person's tendency to describe others in positive terms is an important indicator of the positivity of the person's own personality traits. They discovered particularly strong associations between positively judging others and how enthusiastic, happy, kind-hearted, courteous, emotionally stable and capable the person describes oneself and is described by others. The study also found that how positively you see other people shows how satisfied you are with your own life, and how much you are liked by others.
In contrast, negative perceptions of others are linked to higher levels of narcissism and antisocial behavior. "The simple tendency to see people negatively indicates a greater likelihood of depression and various personality disorders. Given that negative perceptions of others may underlie several personality disorders, finding techniques to get people to see others more positively could promote the cessation of behavior patterns associated with several different personality disorders simultaneously." This research suggests that when you ask someone to rate the personality of a particular coworker or acquaintance, you may learn as much about the rater providing the personality description as the person they are describing. The level of negativity the rater uses in describing the other person may indeed indicate that the other person has negative characteristics, but may also be a tip off that the rater is unhappy, disagreeable, neurotic -- or has other negative personality traits. ...By evaluating the raters and how they evaluated their peers again one year later, Wood found compelling evidence that how positively we tend to perceive others in our social environment is a highly stable trait that does not change substantially over time.

Breeding Is Changing Dog Brains: Scientists have shown that selective breeding of domestic dogs is not only dramatically changing the way animals look but is also driving major changes in the canine brain. The brains of many short-snouted dog breeds have rotated forward as much as 15 degrees, while the brain region controlling smell has fundamentally relocated. No other animal has enjoyed the level of human affection and companionship like the dog, nor undergone such a systemic and deliberate intervention in its biology through breeding, the authors note. The diversity suggests a unique level of plasticity in the canine genome. "Canines seem to be incredibly responsive to human intervention through breeding. It's amazing that a dog's brain can accommodate such large differences in skull shape through these kinds of changes -- it's something that hasn't been documented in other species." ..."The next obvious step is to try to find out if these changes in brain organisation are also linked to systematic differences in dogs' brain function."

Synthetic Bone Graft Recruits Stem Cells for Faster Bone Healing: A new study shows how particles of a ceramic called calcium phosphate have the ability to stimulate promising bone regrowth by attracting stem cells and 'growth factors' to promote healing and the integration of the grafted tissue. "The rate of bone repair we see with these materials rivals that of traditional grafts using a patients' own bone. And what sets it apart from other synthetic graft substitutes is its ability to attract stem cells and the body's natural growth factors, which coincide to form new, strong, natural bone around an artificial graft." ...The study suggests that biomaterials-based bone grafts can manipulate cell behaviour in order to repair injury, and one day may be used to repair bone injuries in humans.

Latest 'Green' Packing Material? Mushrooms; Packing Foam Engineered from Mushrooms and Agricultural Waste: A new packing material that grows itself is now appearing in shipped products across the country. The composite of inedible agricultural waste and mushroom roots is called Mycobond™, and its manufacture requires just one eighth the energy and one tenth the carbon dioxide of traditional foam packing material. And unlike most foam substitutes, when no longer useful, it makes great compost in the garden.

Mining Bacterial Genomes Reveals Valuable 'Hidden' Drugs: Scientists successfully used a 'genome mining' approach to find and activate a group of genes in the bacterium Streptomyces coelicolor. This resulted in the production of a new antibacterial compound that was effective against several bacterial strains, including Escherichia coli. Streptomyces is a common soil bacterium that is well-known for its antibiotic-producing capabilities. In 2002, genomic sequencing of one Streptomyces species, S. coelicolor, revealed several groups of genes whose function was unknown. By digging deeper and removing a molecule that specifically inactivates one of the mystery gene groups, known as cpk, the researchers in this study were able to 'awaken' the genes, to find that they produced the new antibiotic, in addition to a bright yellow pigment. This is the first time a genome mining approach to drug discovery has been successfully used in Streptomyces. The same approach for 'awakening' new antibiotic production pathways could also be used to tap other micro-organisms, such as filamentous fungi, for sources of biologically active compounds. Aside from antibiotics, these compounds may include other antimicrobials or antitumour agents. "There are several thousand other uncharacterized groups of genes that have been found recently in microbial genome sequences. This opens up a rich treasure trove of new potential drugs for clinical use."

One High-Fat Diet, Two Different Outcomes: The Path to Obesity Becomes Clearer: Why is it that two people can consume the same high fat, high-calorie Western diet and one becomes obese and prone to diabetes while the other maintains a slim frame? A study provides a simple explanation: weight is set before birth in the developing brain. The research team analyzed the question in specific groups of rats. ...animals that become obese already had a significant difference in the feeding center of the brain. Neurons that are supposed to signal when you've eaten enough and when to burn calories, are much more sluggish in these animals because they are inhibited by other cells. In animals resistant to obesity, these satiety signaling neurons are much more active and ready to signal to the rest of the brain and peripheral tissues when enough food has been consumed. "These observations add to the argument that it is less about personal will that makes a difference in becoming obese, and, it is more related to the connections that emerge in our brain during development."

Obesity Prevention Begins Before Birth: Excess Maternal Weight Gain Increases Birth Weight After Controlling for Genetic Factors: Expectant mothers who gain large amounts of weight tend to give birth to heavier infants who are at higher risk for obesity later in life. But it's never been proven that this tendency results from the weight gain itself, rather than genetic or other factors that mother and baby share. "Since high birth weight, in turn, increases risk for obesity and diseases such as cancer and asthma later in life, these findings have important implications to general public health."
...Animal studies suggest that excess maternal weight or excess weight gain during pregnancy affects the uterine environment, producing changes in the hypothalamus, pancreatic islet cells, fat tissue and other systems that regulate body weight. "Hormones and metabolic pathways, and even the structure of tissues and organs that play a role in body weight maintenance are affected."

Gum Inflammation Linked to Alzheimer's Disease: The study offers fresh evidence that gum inflammation may contribute to brain inflammation, neurodegeneration, and Alzheimer's disease.

Brain Study Shows That Thinking About God Reduces Distress, But Only for Believers: Thinking about God may make you less upset about making errors, according to a new study. The researchers measured brain waves for a particular kind of distress-response while participants made mistakes on a test. Those who had been prepared with religious thoughts had a less prominent response to mistakes than those who hadn't. The researchers showed that when people think about religion and God, their brains respond differently, in a way that lets them take setbacks in stride and react with less distress to anxiety-provoking mistakes. The results showed that when people were primed to think about religion and God, either consciously or unconsciously, brain activity decreases in areas consistent with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), an area associated with a number of things, including regulating bodily states of arousal and serving an alerting function when things are going wrong, including when we make mistakes.
Interestingly, atheists reacted differently; when they were unconsciously primed with God-related ideas, their ACC increased its activity. The researchers suggest that for religious people, thinking about God may provide a way of ordering the world and explaining apparently random events and thus reduce their feelings of distress. In contrast, for atheists, thoughts of God may contradict the meaning systems they embrace and thus cause them more distress.
"Thinking about religion makes you calm under fire. It makes you less distressed when you've made an error. We think this can help us understand some of the really interesting findings about people who are religious. Although not unequivocal, there is some evidence that religious people live longer and they tend to be happier and healthier." Atheists shouldn't despair, though. "We think this can occur with any meaning system that provides structure and helps people understand their world." Maybe atheists would do better if they were primed to think about their own beliefs, he says.

~My initial thoughts on this: Of course atheists were more agitated after reading the god related ideas! What did they expect? That the atheists would suddenly find comfort in that insanity? I think the conclusions for atheists is offensively patronizing. Maybe I'm just irritated by how the study was conducted. It would suggest to me that religious people can easily make mistakes and their religious thoughts make them more accepting of their mistakes. This doesn't seem like a positive reaction. When you screw up you should have a reaction, in my opinion.

Also, is it true that religious people live longer and are happier? Is there evidence for that? Most atheists I know are quite happy, and more importantly, not delusional. Then again, in support of the study's conclusions, the atheists I know who are relatively happy all have very strong value systems that give their lives meaning. I can also speak for myself that this is the case. Atheism only starts with a lack of belief in god. It doesn't mean we don't have strong values in the real world that give our lives meaning in other areas away from anything supernatural.


  1. on '...thinking about god...' : i think that religious people are simply getting rid of some of the responsibility they might otherwise feel in situations.

  2. When I read that stuff about idleness I couldn't help but think it's all about the location. Arguably sitting around watching animals in a park or some such isn't truly being idle, nor is closing your eyes and listening to the birds or some such, but it's in an entirely different ballpark than waiting in some boring waiting room. If you know the place has good magazines (like my former doctor used to have National Geographic), I certainly don't mind waiting there. And then still I wonder if it's about being idle, or just about the feeling that you're wasting time while waiting for something that you have no control over, i.e. you're not idle by choice.

    Maybe the study took such factors into account, but the summary leaves a lot of questions!

  3. Believers aren't realizing when they make mistakes or do something wrong. Must be why they murder and not feel any guilt about it.

  4. That's pretty much a blanket statement, don't you think? I don't think that's true, certainly not of all believers. And you can say that some nonbelievers also murder and don't feel guilt about it. I can't name the logical fallacies, but I think there are several in your statement.

  5. Hmm, interesting. I wonder how that could be tested.

  6. Good point, Frans! What is idleness? What was tested?
    Watching birds in a park could be considered a form of meditation, which isn't idle, but could be called that, I guess.
    The summary does leave a lot of questions.
    I agree, it's the idea that you're wasting time, that you could be doing something else more fun or at least productive that is probably the problem.