The Right Dose of Exercise for a Longer Life

Saturday, April 18th, 2015

The right dose of exercise for a longer life is about an hour of walking per day:

They found that, unsurprisingly, the people who did not exercise at all were at the highest risk of early death.

But those who exercised a little, not meeting the recommendations but doing something, lowered their risk of premature death by 20 percent.

Those who met the guidelines precisely, completing 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, enjoyed greater longevity benefits and 31 percent less risk of dying during the 14-year period compared with those who never exercised.

The sweet spot for exercise benefits, however, came among those who tripled the recommended level of exercise, working out moderately, mostly by walking, for 450 minutes per week, or a little more than an hour per day. Those people were 39 percent less likely to die prematurely than people who never exercised.

At that point, the benefits plateaued, the researchers found, but they never significantly declined.

Poor kids have smaller brains

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

A recent Nature Neuroscience paper demonstrated that poor children have smaller brains than affluent children:

Neuroscientists who studied the brain scans of nearly 1,100 children and young adults nationwide from ages 3 to 20 found that the surface area of the cerebral cortex was linked to family income. They discovered that the brains of children in families that earned less than $25,000 a year had surface areas 6 percent smaller than those whose families earned $150,000 or more. The poor children also scored lower on average on a battery of cognitive tests.

The region of the brain in question handles language, memory, spatial skills and reasoning, all important to success in school and beyond.

So, what did the study’s authors conclude?

“We’ve known for so long that poverty and lack of access to resources to enrich the developmental environment are related to poor school performance, poor test scores and fewer educational opportunities,” Sowell said. “But now we can really tie it to a physical thing in the brain. We realized that this is a big deal.”

Really? Yes, these are their two hypotheses for why:

One is that poor families lack access to material goods that aid healthy development, such as good nutrition and higher-quality health care. The other is that poor families tend to live more chaotic lives, and that stress could inhibit healthy brain development.

Amazingly, journalist Lyndsey Layton interviewed James Thompson and accurately shared his thoughts — and Charles Murray’s:

“People who have less ability and marry people with less ability have children who, on balance, on average, have less ability,” he said. Thompson noted that there is a genetic component to intelligence that Noble and Sowell failed to consider.

“It makes my jaw drop that we’ve known for years intelligence is inheritable and scientists are beginning to track down exactly how it happens,” Thompson said. “The well-known genetic hypothesis has not even had a chance to enter the door in this discussion.”

[...]

“It is confidently known that brain size is correlated with IQ, IQ measured in childhood is correlated with income as an adult, and parental IQ is correlated with children’s IQ,” Murray wrote in an e-mail. “I would be astonished if children’s brain size were NOT correlated with parental income. How could it be otherwise?”

Focusing the Brain on Better Vision

Saturday, April 11th, 2015

As we age, our vision deteriorates, including our contrast sensitivity, our ability to distinguish gradations of light to dark and thus to discern where one object ends and another begins:

But new research suggests that contrast sensitivity can be improved with brain-training exercises. In a study published last month in Psychological Science, researchers at the University of California, Riverside, and Brown University showed that after just five sessions of behavioral exercises, the vision of 16 people in their 60s and 70s significantly improved.

After the training, the adults could make out edges far better. And when given a standard eye chart, a task that differed from the one they were trained on, they could correctly identify more letters.

[...]

During each session, the subjects watched 750 striped images that were rapidly presented on a computer screen with subtle changes in the visual “noise” surrounding them — like snow on a television. The viewer indicated whether the images were rotating clockwise or counterclockwise. The subject would hear a beep for every correct response.

Each session took an hour and a half. The exercises were taxing, although the subjects took frequent breaks. But after five sessions, the subjects had learned to home in more precisely on the images and to filter out the distracting visual noise. After the training, the older adults performed as well as those 40 years younger, before their own training.

The older participants were also better able to make out letters on an eye chart at reading distance, although not one 10 feet away. The younger students were better able to see the distant eye chart, but not the closer one.

[...]

Dr. Andersen and his colleagues, including Denton DeLoss, a graduate student and the paper’s lead author, say they do not know how long the effects of this modest intervention will last. But an earlier study in which older adults received training to sharpen their ability to discern texture showed that the improvement was sustained for at least three months.

The Mind of Those Who Kill, and Kill Themselves

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

Erica Goode looks into the mind of those who kill, and kill themselves, and writes — without irony, in the New York Times — that such killers seek fame, glory, or attention:

Before Adam Lanza, 20, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter, killed 20 children, six adults and himself in 2012, he wrote in an online forum, “Just look at how many fans you can find for all different types of mass murderers.”

Robert Hawkins, 19, who committed suicide after killing eight people at a shopping mall in Omaha in 2007, left a note saying “I’m gonna be famous,” punctuating the sentence with an expletive.

And Dylan Klebold, 17, of Columbine High School fame, bragged that the goal was to cause “the most deaths in U.S. history…we’re hoping. We’re hoping.”

“Directors will be fighting over this story,” Mr. Klebold said in a video made before the massacre.

Yes, let’s repeat their stories in the most important newspaper in the country, maybe the world.

The standard comic-book supervillain motivation — “a towering narcissism, a strong sense of grievance and a desire for infamy” — seems to describe these killers surprisingly well:

Serious mental illness, studies of mass killers suggest, is a prime driver in a minority of cases — about 20 percent, according to estimates by several experts. Far more common are distortions of personality — excesses of rage, paranoia, grandiosity, thirst for vengeance or pathological narcissism and callousness.

“The typical personality attribute in mass murderers is one of paranoid traits plus massive disgruntlement,” said Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist in New York who recently completed a study of 228 mass killers, many of whom also killed themselves.

“They want to die, but to bring many others down with them, whether co-workers, bosses, family members or just plain folk who are in the vicinity.”

Murder-suicides are rare — maybe 1,000 to 1,500 deaths per year — and murder-suicides involving strangers are rarer still — and different in character:

In domestic cases, depression does appear to play a significant role. A recent psychological autopsy study of murder-suicides in Dallas, most of which involved domestic violence, found that 17 of the 18 perpetrators met the diagnostic criteria for major depression or some other form of the illness.

The study, conducted by Dr. Knoll and Dr. Susan Hatters Friedman, a forensic psychiatrist at Case Western, found that a majority of the killers also abused alcohol or drugs. Four had a family history of suicide. The study has been submitted to a scientific journal.

Domestic murder-suicides are almost always impulsive — committed in fits of rage or jealousy, often enabled by the presence of a firearm. In contrast, killers who take groups of strangers as targets plan their crimes carefully, waiting for an opportunity to act.

Continue reading the main story
And while domestic murder-suicides are frequently fueled by alcohol, people who plan ahead to kill themselves and others seem concerned about keeping a clear mind for the task ahead.

How Europeans Evolved

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

By comparing ancient European genomes with recent ones from the 1000 Genomes Project, researchers have discovered how Europeans evolved from multiple disparate populations:

First, the scientists confirmed an earlier report that the hunter-gatherers in Europe could not digest the sugars in milk 8000 years ago, according to a poster. They also noted an interesting twist: The first farmers also couldn’t digest milk. The farmers who came from the Near East about 7800 years ago and the Yamnaya pastoralists who came from the steppes 4800 years ago lacked the version of the LCT gene that allows adults to digest sugars in milk. It wasn’t until about 4300 years ago that lactose tolerance swept through Europe.

When it comes to skin color, the team found a patchwork of evolution in different places, and three separate genes that produce light skin, telling a complex story for how European’s skin evolved to be much lighter during the past 8000 years. The modern humans who came out of Africa to originally settle Europe about 40,000 years are presumed to have had dark skin, which is advantageous in sunny latitudes. And the new data confirm that about 8500 years ago, early hunter-gatherers in Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary also had darker skin: They lacked versions of two genes — SLC24A5 and SLC45A2 — that lead to depigmentation and, therefore, pale skin in Europeans today.

But in the far north — where low light levels would favor pale skin — the team found a different picture in hunter-gatherers: Seven people from the 7700-year-old Motala archaeological site in southern Sweden had both light skin gene variants, SLC24A5 and SLC45A2. They also had a third gene, HERC2/OCA2, which causes blue eyes and may also contribute to light skin and blond hair. Thus ancient hunter-gatherers of the far north were already pale and blue-eyed, but those of central and southern Europe had darker skin.

Then, the first farmers from the Near East arrived in Europe; they carried both genes for light skin. As they interbred with the indigenous hunter-gatherers, one of their light-skin genes swept through Europe, so that central and southern Europeans also began to have lighter skin. The other gene variant, SLC45A2, was at low levels until about 5800 years ago when it swept up to high frequency.

The team also tracked complex traits, such as height, which are the result of the interaction of many genes. They found that selection strongly favored several gene variants for tallness in northern and central Europeans, starting 8000 years ago, with a boost coming from the Yamnaya migration, starting 4800 years ago. The Yamnaya have the greatest genetic potential for being tall of any of the populations, which is consistent with measurements of their ancient skeletons. In contrast, selection favored shorter people in Italy and Spain starting 8000 years ago, according to the paper now posted on the bioRxiv preprint server. Spaniards, in particular, shrank in stature 6000 years ago, perhaps as a result of adapting to colder temperatures and a poor diet.

Surprisingly, the team found no immune genes under intense selection, which is counter to hypotheses that diseases would have increased after the development of agriculture.

The paper doesn’t specify why these genes might have been under such strong selection. But the likely explanation for the pigmentation genes is to maximize vitamin D synthesis, said paleoanthropologist Nina Jablonski of Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), University Park, as she looked at the poster’s results at the meeting. People living in northern latitudes often don’t get enough UV to synthesize vitamin D in their skin so natural selection has favored two genetic solutions to that problem — evolving pale skin that absorbs UV more efficiently or favoring lactose tolerance to be able to digest the sugars and vitamin D naturally found in milk. “What we thought was a fairly simple picture of the emergence of depigmented skin in Europe is an exciting patchwork of selection as populations disperse into northern latitudes,” Jablonski says. “This data is fun because it shows how much recent evolution has taken place.”

Enhanced Recovery Protocols

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

Hospitals are replacing traditional surgery preparation and recovery practices — fasting, heavy IV fluids, powerful post-op narcotics and bed rest — with enhanced recovery protocols:

Hunger and thirst from presurgical fasting can add to patients’ stress and anxiety, and cause weakness as well as postoperative nausea. Side effects of fluid retention, narcotics and immobility can interfere with getting bodily functions back to normal, resulting in longer, harder recoveries overall. With traditional regimens, patients can remain in the hospital for 10 days or more with complication rates of up to 48% and an average $10,000 in additional costs, according to researchers at Duke University School of Medicine.

With enhanced recovery protocols, patients still can’t eat after midnight before an early morning surgery, but two or three hours before surgery they do get a carbohydrate-loaded drink fortified with electrolytes, minerals and vitamins. They are pretreated for pain with nonnarcotic painkillers and epidurals that are kept in place postoperatively. With careful monitoring, patients receive only necessary levels of IV fluid during surgery. Soon afterward they get out of bed to walk and may ingest solid food, and they are discharged earlier with careful instructions for home care.

[...]

Surgeons adopted the practice of infusing fluid, for example, after wartime studies showed it improved survival in trauma patients, but it isn’t necessary in the average patient, Dr. Thacker says. “Giving extra IV fluids to overcome the starvation we’ve imposed on patients leads to worse outcomes,” such as preventing bowel function from returning to normal, she says.

Rules on fasting before surgery are based on assumptions that anesthesia reactions might cause patients to throw up during a procedure and hamper breathing, but research has shown clear liquids within two hours actually decreases that risk, according to John Abenstein, president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists and a Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist. OR teams are sometimes reluctant to adopt the less-restrictive policies out of concern patients won’t follow directions and come in for surgery having had a glass of milk or cola, and then surgery has to be delayed, Dr. Abenstein says. But when patients consume clear liquids correctly, they feel much better after surgery, he says.

Hereditary Flu

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Flu is a hereditary illness:

The case Dr Casanova reports is of a then-two-year-old girl admitted to the Necker [Hospital for Sick Children, in Paris] in 2011 with severe flu. He was one of the girl’s doctors, and her symptoms were so extreme (technically, they constituted what is known as acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS), that he suspected there might be something unusual about her. He therefore sequenced her genome and, in so doing, discovered she had two broken copies (one from each parent) of the gene encoding a protein called interferon regulatory factor 7.

This protein, as its name suggests, stimulates production of interferon, an antiviral molecule. Absence of interferon made the cells lining the girl’s respiratory tract more vulnerable to flu infection. It also meant that when such infection happened, her immune system, lacking its first line of defence, unleashed an inflammatory reaction so big that it was itself damaging. This inflammation caused the ARDS.

All very unfortunate for the girl concerned, then—though she survived and remains healthy (regular vaccination keeps her influenza-free). But Dr Casanova thinks her case is of wider significance, for he has now identified 30 other people with genetic faults similar to those of his first patient. He estimates, on this basis, that about one person in 10,000 has impaired interferon production caused by genetic errors.

That may not sound like much but it would, he calculates, be enough to account for the incidence rate of the most severe cases of seasonal influenza (as opposed to the epidemic sort which emerges from time to time). It could also explain accumulating evidence that some entire families seem particularly vulnerable to flu.

Traditional Anglo-Saxon Medicine

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

A thousand-year-old medieval remedy for eye infections, from Bald’s Leechbook, a leatherbound Old English manuscript kept in the British Library, really works:

Anglo-Saxon expert Dr Christina Lee, from the School of English, at Nottingham University, recreated the 10th century potion to see if it really worked as an antibacterial remedy.

The ‘eyesalve’ recipe calls for two species of Allium (garlic and onion or leek), wine and oxgall (bile from a cow’s stomach).

It describes a very specific method of making the topical solution including the use of a brass vessel to brew it, a strainer to purify it and an instruction to leave the mixture for nine days before use.

None of the experts really expected the concoction to work. But when it was tested, microbiologists were amazed to find that not only did the salve clear up styes, but it also tackled the deadly superbug MRSA, which is resistant to many antibiotics.

Mainstream medicine needs to take Traditional Anglo-Saxon Medicine seriously, ‘twould seem.

Night Enhancement Eyedrops

Saturday, March 28th, 2015

Chlorin e6 is a chlorophyll analog used as a photosensitizer in laser-assisted cancer remediation, but, when mixed with DMSO and applied to the eyes, the photosensitizer can enhance night vision, too:

The Ce6 (Frontier Scientific, CAS: 19660-77-6 ), was found to be a fine black powder which clung to all surfaces. To make manipulating the chemical easier, a large batch of the total solution was made and then aliquoted into separate containers for storage.

200mg of Ce6 was mixed with 400 units (4ml) of insulin (70/30 Lantus). To this was added 5.38ml of sterile saline solution (0.9% sodium chloride). The mixture was sonicated briefly (30 seconds) to allow for proper dispersal of the powder into saturated solution and then 625?l of DMSO (Amresco) was added. The solution was sealed with parafilm and sonicated for 150 seconds. The resulting liquid was thin and black in color. Solution was kept in glass aliquots wrapped in foil at 20°C.

For the application, the subject rested supine and his eyes were flushed with saline to remove any micro-debris or contaminants that might be present. Eyes were pinned open with a small speculum to remove the potential for blinking, which may force excess liquid out before it had a chance to absorb. Ce6 solution was added to the conjunctival sac via micropipette at 3 doses of 50?l into each eye. After each application, pressure was applied to the canthus to stop liquid from moving from the eye to the nasal region. Each dose was allowed to absorb between reloading the pipette, with the black color disappearing after only a few seconds.

After application was complete, the speculum was removed and black sclera lenses were placed into each eye to reduce the potential light entering the eye. Black sunglasses were then worn during all but testing, to ensure increased low light conditions and reduce the potential for bright light exposure.

Chlorin e6 Eye Drops

The Ce6 solution has been shown to work in as little as one hour, with the effects lasting for “many hours” afterwards3. After 2 hours of adjustment, the subject and 4 controls were taken to a darkened area and subjected to testing. Three forms of subjective testing were performed. These consisted of symbol recognition by distance, symbol recognition on varying background colors at a static distance, and the ability to identify moving subjects in a varied background at varied distances. Symbol recognition consisted of placing a collection of objects with markings on them (numbers, letters, shapes). Subjects were then asked to identify the markings, each viewing the objects from the same location at a distance of 10 meters. The markings were not made prior to the moment of testing.

For subject recognition, individuals went moved in a small grove of trees. They were allowed to chose their own location independently. Distances ranged from 25 to 50 meters from observation point and trees and brush were used for “blending”. Locations were chosen without being observed by the test subjects. The Ce6 subject and controls were handed a laser pointer and asked to identify the location of the people in the grove. After testing the Ce6 subject replaced the sunglasses which were not removed until sleep. Eyesight in the morning seemed to have returned to normal and as of 20 days, there have been no noticeable effects.

The Ce6 subject consistently recognized symbols that did not seem to be visible to the controls. The Ce6 subject identified the distant figures 100% of the time, with the controls showing a 33% identification rate.

Myopia

Friday, March 27th, 2015

East Asia is growing increasingly myopic — literally:

Sixty years ago, 10–20% of the Chinese population was short-sighted. Today, up to 90% of teenagers and young adults are. In Seoul, a whopping 96.5% of 19-year-old men are short-sighted.

Other parts of the world have also seen a dramatic increase in the condition, which now affects around half of young adults in the United States and Europe — double the prevalence of half a century ago. By some estimates, one-third of the world’s population — 2.5 billion people — could be affected by short-sightedness by the end of this decade.

[...]

For many years, the scientific consensus held that myopia was largely down to genes. Studies in the 1960s showed that the condition was more common among genetically identical twins than non-identical ones, suggesting that susceptibility is strongly influenced by DNA. Gene-finding efforts have now linked more than 100 regions of the genome to short-sightedness.

But it was obvious that genes could not be the whole story. One of the clearest signs came from a 1969 study of Inuit people on the northern tip of Alaska whose lifestyle was changing2. Of adults who had grown up in isolated communities, only 2 of 131 had myopic eyes. But more than half of their children and grandchildren had the condition. Genetic changes happen too slowly to explain this rapid change — or the soaring rates in myopia that have since been documented all over the world (see ‘The march of myopia’). “There must be an environmental effect that has caused the generational difference,” says Seang Mei Saw, who studies the epidemiology and genetics of myopia at the National University of Singapore.

There was one obvious culprit: book work. That idea had arisen more than 400 years ago, when the German astronomer and optics expert Johannes Kepler blamed his own short-sightedness on all his study. The idea took root; by the nineteenth century, some leading ophthalmologists were recommending that pupils use headrests to prevent them from poring too closely over their books.

The modern rise in myopia mirrored a trend for children in many countries to spend more time engaged in reading, studying or — more recently — glued to computer and smartphone screens. This is particularly the case in East Asian countries, where the high value placed on educational performance is driving children to spend longer in school and on their studies. A report last year3 from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that the average 15-year-old in Shanghai now spends 14 hours per week on homework, compared with 5 hours in the United Kingdom and 6 hours in the United States.

Researchers have consistently documented a strong association between measures of education and the prevalence of myopia. In the 1990s, for example, they found that teenage boys in Israel who attended schools known as Yeshivas (where they spent their days studying religious texts) had much higher rates of myopia than did students who spent less time at their books4. On a biological level, it seemed plausible that sustained close work could alter growth of the eyeball as it tries to accommodate the incoming light and focus close-up images squarely on the retina.

Attractive though the idea was, it did not hold up. In the early 2000s, when researchers started to look at specific behaviours, such as books read per week or hours spent reading or using a computer, none seemed to be a major contributor to myopia risk5. But another factor did. In 2007, Donald Mutti and his colleagues at the Ohio State University College of Optometry in Columbus reported the results of a study that tracked more than 500 eight- and nine-year-olds in California who started out with healthy vision6. The team examined how the children spent their days, and “sort of as an afterthought at the time, we asked about sports and outdoorsy stuff”, says Mutti.

It was a good thing they did. After five years, one in five of the children had developed myopia, and the only environmental factor that was strongly associated with risk was time spent outdoors6. “We thought it was an odd finding,” recalls Mutti, “but it just kept coming up as we did the analyses.” A year later, Rose and her colleagues arrived at much the same conclusion in Australia7. After studying more than 4,000 children at Sydney primary and secondary schools for three years, they found that children who spent less time outside were at greater risk of developing myopia.

Rose’s team tried to eliminate any other explanations for this link — for example, that children outdoors were engaged in more physical activity and that this was having the beneficial effect. But time engaged in indoor sports had no such protective association; and time outdoors did, whether children had played sports, attended picnics or simply read on the beach. And children who spent more time outside were not necessarily spending less time with books, screens and close work. “We had these children who were doing both activities at very high levels and they didn’t become myopic,” says Rose. Close work might still have some effect, but what seemed to matter most was the eye’s exposure to bright light.

March of Myopia

Based on epidemiological studies, Ian Morgan, a myopia researcher at the Australian National University in Canberra, estimates that children need to spend around three hours per day under light levels of at least 10,000 lux to be protected against myopia. This is about the level experienced by someone under a shady tree, wearing sunglasses, on a bright summer day. (An overcast day can provide less than 10,000 lux and a well-lit office or classroom is usually no more than 500 lux.) Three or more hours of daily outdoor time is already the norm for children in Morgan’s native Australia, where only around 30% of 17-year-olds are myopic. But in many parts of the world — including the United States, Europe and East Asia — children are often outside for only one or two hours.

Antibiotics found to have unexpected effects on mitochondria

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

Mitochondria are bacteria that evolved to live within our cells, so we shouldn’t be too surprised when researchers find that antibiotics affect them:

“After several days of treatment with high doses of doxycycline, mitochondrial respiration was visibly altered,” explains Moullan. More surprising still, the consequences were observed all the way down the food chain, from mammals to flies to nematode worms to plants. “The worms’ development was hindered. On the other hand, signs of aging appeared more slowly, something we had observed in earlier studies.”

The scientists also carried out growth tests on Arabidopsis thaliana, a common plant that’s frequently used in laboratory research. After growing for a week on a normal substrate, it was transplanted into soil with varying concentrations of doxycycline. “Delays in growth, some quite severe, were observed after a few days, even in soils in which the concentration of antibiotics was no stronger than is found in some agricultural soils today,” says Moullan.

This pollution whose consequences are just beginning to be appreciated is caused by the widespread administration of antibiotics to livestock. “Because they are give orally in feed, they are only partially digested and end up in manure, which is then spread on the fields,” explains Mouchiroud.

The quantities involved are huge, and the economic stakes equally sobering. In 2011, 5.6 million kg of tetracycline was administered to US livestock. A study showed that nearly half of the 210 kg of antibiotics produced in China in 2007 were tetracyclines for veterinary use. “The effects on growth of plants other than A. thaliana have not yet been studied, but our work indicates a need for caution,” says Moullan.

The researchers also call on their scientific colleagues to be more careful when using antibiotics in experiments for modulating gene expression. “You observe the effect you’re looking for, but you lose sight of the fact that these substances have serious consequences for overall metabolic function,” says Mouchiroud.

Why We Reject Facts & Embrace Conflict

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

Musa al-Gharbi explains why we reject facts & embrace conflict:

There is a growing body of research suggesting that when beliefs become tied to one’s sense of identity, they are not easily revised. Instead, when these axioms are threatened, people look for ways to outright dismiss inconvenient data. If this cannot be achieved by highlighting logical, methodological or factual errors, the typical response is to leave the empirical sphere altogether and elevate the discussion into the moral and ideological domain, whose tenets are much more difficult to outright falsify (generally evoking whatever moral framework best suits one’s rhetorical needs).

While often described in pejorative terms, these phenomena may be more akin to “features,” than “bugs,” of our psychology.

For instance, the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis holds that the primary function of rationality is social, rather than epistemic. Specifically, our rational faculties were designed to mitigate social conflicts (or conflicting interests). But on this account, rationality is not a neutral mediator. Instead, it is deployed in the service of one’s own interests and desires — which are themselves heavily informed by our sense of identity.

This is because our identities are, among other things, prisms through which we interpret the world. These trends hold just as true for secular agents as religious ones, for liberal ideologues as conservatives (as for so-called “independents,” they are generally partisans in disguise) — the phenomenon is known in academic circles as “cultural cognition.”

Importantly, this identity-based reasoning does not reflect a lack of cognitive sophistication. Quite the reverse: the better an agent is at justifying their beliefs and dismantling undesirable arguments or evidence from others — these tend to be more prone to, and less aware of, their biases; their beliefs are much more difficult to successfully challenge or revise.

As a result of these trends, identity-based disagreements often seem intractable: rather than leading to consensus, these clashes typically generate fundamentalism and polarization — often causing significant social dysfunction and instability, and not just in the ideological or political spheres. Identity-based armed conflicts, for instance, tend to be much more violent, and much more difficult to resolve, than other forms of war. And what’s worse, mediators, especially when they present themselves as objective or neutral, tend to exacerbate and prolong these struggles.

There is an analog in the socio-political sphere, namely the tendency to try and neutralize conflicts by framing issues in secular terms, appealing to “universal” truths or values. But of course, these interpretations tend to be highly-controversial–relying on a host of implicit, and often problematic, assumptions about everything from how others think to what serves their interests.

[...]

But unless the dominant party (or the systems and institutions it has established) is beyond meaningful challenge, the typical effect of this approach is increased polarization; and the higher the perceived stakes, the stronger the “us v. them” effect will be (even to the point of radicalization). This is because fostering parochial altruism is essential for intergroup competition. And so when there is an opportunity for a meaningful shift in power (such as in the lead-up to an election or in the aftermath of a crisis), this cultural partisanship will be especially pronounced.

Accordingly, the best way to reduce polarization is not by obscuring critical differences under the pretense of universalism. Instead, societies should aspire to lower the perceived stakes of these identity conflicts.

For example, rigidity, polarization and groupthink are much less common, and more easily addressed, in deliberations within an identity group; closed-mindedness is largely a response to a perceived threat from outside. In heterogeneous contexts, many of the benefits of this enclave deliberation can be achieved by engaging interlocutors in terms of their own framing and narratives, mindful of their expressed concerns and grievances. That is, identity differences should not be suppressed, avoided or merely tolerated, but instead emphasized, encouraged and substantively respected — emphasizing pluralism over sectarianism. This can create a foundation where good-faith exchange and intergroup cooperation are feasible. Or put another way, the problem isn’t cultural cognition, it’s the lack of cross-cultural competence.

Are Psychedelics The Wonder Drug We’ve Been Waiting For?

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

Two new studies have found no link between using psychedelic drugs and going crazy — developing schizophrenia, psychosis, depression, or anxiety disorders — and they may in fact be wonder drugs:

People who had tried LSD or psilocybin had lower lifetime rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts.

Of course, this isn’t the first positive mental health outcome to be attributed to these drugs. The research into psychedelics as a treatment for end-of-life anxiety (brought on by terminal illness) shows that these substances are effective in treating severe anxiety and — equally important — that these benefits persist over time.

Meanwhile, researchers at the Imperial College in London have also begun peeling back the veil on the so-called ‘mind-expanding’ nature of psychedelics, finding some serious scientific evidence for reasons why these drugs help users release longstanding narrow-minded, negative outlooks.

And, finally, there’s also a bevy of research dating back to the 1950s that shows strong correlations between psychedelics and enhanced creativity. This research helps explain why Steve Jobs said taking LSD was one of the most important things he’s done in his lifetime, why Francis Crick was high on low-dose acid when he discovered the double-helix and why Tim Ferriss, in a recent interview with CNN, said: “”The billionaires I know, almost without exception, use hallucinogens on a regular basis. [They're] trying to be very disruptive and look at the problems in the world… and ask completely new questions.”

But the larger point is that one in five adult Americans takes some kind of mental health drug — meaning anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, anti-psychotic, etc. What’s more, success rates are suspect. Only 15 percent of people treated for depression with drugs, for example, show long term remission.

But psychedelics — a class of long-vilified substances — are not only much safer than we believed (i.e. they don’t appear to make you crazy) and also shows significant long term mental health benefits across multiple categories: anti-depressant, anti-anxiety and performance-enhancement (for creativity). What’s more, to receive these benefits, you only need to take these substances a few times (not every day like other mental health medications).

And, really, you’re only messing with your brain. What could go wrong?

Why children differ in motivation to learn

Sunday, March 22nd, 2015

A recent study of 13,000 twins from 6 countries examined why children differ in motivation to learn:

Contrary to common belief, enjoyment of learning and children’s perceptions of their competence were no less heritable than cognitive ability. Genetic factors explained approximately 40% of the variance and all of the observed twins’ similarity in academic motivation. Shared environmental factors, such as home or classroom, did not contribute to the twin’s similarity in academic motivation. Environmental influences stemmed entirely from individual specific experiences.

Chemical trick speeds up 3D printing

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

UNC chemists have harnessed a chemical trick to speed up 3D printing:

A team led by Joseph DeSimone, a chemist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has now refined the liquid-resin process to make it go continuously rather than in fits and starts. They made the bottom of the container that holds the resin bath from a material that is permeable to oxygen. Because oxygen inhibits the solidification of resin, it creates a ‘dead zone’ — a layer just tens of microns thick at the bottom of the container — where the resin stays liquid even when ultraviolet rays are shining on it. The solidification reaction happens instead just above the dead zone. Because liquid is always present below the slowly forming object, the researchers can pull it up in a continuous manner, rather than waiting for new liquid resin to flow in.