Life Science Quirky science 2020: There’s nearly always a point to it

Quirky science 2020: There’s nearly always a point to it

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A cure for cancer and other diseases, more efficient aerodynamics for the sake of saving fuel, a better mouse trap – there are so many practical problems that we rely on science to solve.

Then there are the discoveries or investigations that might be interesting or may seem to be a waste of time. And yet they can lead to answering some of the bigger questions, especially about how humans … are human.

In 2020, COVID-19 dominated research and reporting. There were great medical breakthroughs that had nothing to do with the plague, and many of those went unheralded.

Further down the ladder were the studies that had a lovely touch of the oddball or at least lateral thinking. They serve to remind us how fascinating is the world we share.

Number of walking shark species almost doubled 

There’s an old, half-true saying: A shark needs to keep moving or die. If he can’t swim? Then maybe he can walk. Some do.

A 12-year survey of waters off northern Australia and New Guinea turned up four species of walking shark that stroll about on their fins, along the reefs at low tide, nibbling up small fish and invertebrates.

Dr Christine Dudgeon, Research Fellow with the School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Queensland, said: “At less than one metre long on average, walking sharks present no threat to people but their ability to withstand low oxygen environments and walk on their fins gives them a remarkable edge over their prey of small crustaceans and molluscs.”

The four new species almost doubled the total number of known walking sharks to nine.

Dr Dudgeon said that data suggests the new species evolved “after the sharks moved away from their original population, became genetically isolated in new areas and developed into new species”.

They may have moved by swimming or walking on their fins, “but it’s also possible they ‘hitched’ a ride on reefs moving westward across the top of New Guinea, about two million years ago”.

The researchers believe there are more walking shark species still waiting to be discovered.

Read more at the University of Queensland.

Scientists find ‘the engine room of consciousness’

In an experiment that has implications for waking patients out of comas and treating crippling brain disorders, monkeys were knocked out with general anaesthetic drugs … and then made to come fully awake on the table within seconds of having a part of their brain stimulated with a small amount of electricity.

Their eyes were fully open, they reached for nearby objects, their vital signs indicated alertness, and their body and facial movements showed no sluggishness or drowsiness as you’d get in general recovery.

They were on.

Then, when the stimulation was switched off, the monkeys switched off too. Literally, out like a light.

“For as long as you’re stimulating their brain, their behaviour … and their brain activity is that of a waking state,” said Dr Yuri Saalmann, a University of Wisconsin–Madison psychology and neuroscience professor, in a prepared statement.

“Then, within a few seconds of switching off the stimulation, their eyes closed again. The animal is right back into an unconscious state.”

The researchers have described their experiment as “exhilarating” with good reason: It’s the first study to pull primates in and out of a deep unconscious state, throws some light on the confounding mysteries and mechanics of anaesthesia, and has identified particular structures that create “a loop of activity that is crucial to consciousness”.

Dr Saalmann and company go so far as to claim they have discovered the “engine room of consciousness”.

See the full story here.

How to diagnose Buying-Shopper Disorder

Australian researchers have developed diagnostic criteria that potentially allows psychologists to more accurately diagnose the severity of Buying-Shopping Disorder in their patients.

The new study adds to almost 100 years of research into a problem that has yet to be formally included in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), but was recently listed as an example of “other specified impulse-control disorders”.

As the researchers write, in a prepared statement: “Excessive or uncontrolled buying or shopping is a highly prevalent, disabling and growing problem, yet measuring the extent and effects of this significant psychological problem and social issue remains problematic.”

I’ve got a problem, OK? Compulsive shopper research probably first ran hot in the greed-is-good 1980s, but the disorder was actually diagnosed in 1915. Photo: Getty

Dr Dan Fassnacht, lecturer in psychology at Flinders University and co-investigator of the research, explains that having strong beliefs about the benefits of buying were significant predictors of excessive buying severity.

“Strong beliefs that buying an object will lead to emotional security or that not purchasing the object will lead to a loss of opportunity explains to some extent why people can’t control their urges to buy,” Dr Fassnacht said.

The researchers say that buying “appears to be a strategy that we use to compensate for deficiencies that we see in ourselves. Those who are more uncertain about their self worth are more likely to succumb to excessive buying or shopping and to develop relevant unhelpful beliefs”.

Read the full story here, including self-diagnostic advice from the experts.

Evidence that life can flourish just about anywhere

Newly discovered “single-celled creatures” – bacteria, really – were found living deep beneath the seafloor, nearly six kilometres beneath the surface of the ocean.

The bugs were actually found 125 metres below the seafloor, living in “tiny cracks inside volcanic rocks”.

Researchers collected rock samples like this one during the deep-sea Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Expedition 329 research trip in 2010. To reveal the life within, they were sliced much the same way tissue samples are sliced thinly when searching for pathology. Photo: Caitlin Devor/University of Tokyo

According to a statement from the University of Tokyo:

  • The researchers anchored their ship above three locations along the route across the South Pacific Gyre, where several rotating ocean currents are located between Australia and South America. This area is described as one of the planet’s “largest oceanic deserts” – the place on Earth that’s “farthest from any continents or productive ocean regions”. In other words, not much is expected to live there
  • The researchers used a metal tube 5.7 kilometres long to reach the ocean floor
  • A drill cut into 125 metres below the seafloor and pulled out core samples, each about 6.2 centimetres across. The first 75 metres beneath the seafloor were mud sediment and then researchers collected another 40 metres of solid rock.

The extraction happened in 2010. It took more than 10 years of trial and error for the researchers to find a new way to examine the rocks – and discover the life within them.

Researchers estimate that the rock cracks are “home to a community of bacteria as dense as that of the human gut, about 10 billion bacterial cells per cubic centimetre”.

In contrast, the average density of bacteria living in mud sediment on the seafloor is estimated to be 100 cells per cubic centimetre.

“I am now almost over-expecting that I can find life on Mars. If not, it must be that life relies on some other process that Mars does not have, like plate tectonics,” said Associate Professor Yohey Suzuki from the University of Tokyo, referring to the movement of land masses around Earth most notable for causing earthquakes.

Dr Suzuki is first author of the research paper. You can read it in full here.

Dogs to the rescue, it’s in their nature

In the movies, the hero is buried underground in a box. He cries for help. What to do. His best friend, a dog, hears him calling for help. The dog seems to understand the man is in despair. He stars digging, the true hero of the film. Are dogs really like this?

Researchers from Arizona State University tried out this scenario in real life, with 60 pet dogs and their owners. None of the dogs were trained in search and rescue.

Ready to brave the wild and rescue his owner … or maybe just rugged up against the cold. Photo: Getty

According to a statement from university:

  • In the main test, each owner was confined to a large box equipped with a lightweight door, which the dog could move aside. The owners feigned distress by calling out “help,” or “help me”
  • Beforehand, the researchers coached the owners so their cries for help sounded authentic
  • In addition, owners weren’t allowed to call their dog’s name, which would encourage the dog to act out of obedience, and not out of concern for their owner’s welfare.

The researchers say that about one-third of the dogs rescued their distressed owner. But after taking various factors into account, it turned out that 84 per cent of the digs wanted to rescue their owners.

To read more, go to Arizona State University.


How some psychopaths turn out nice enough

Why aren’t all psychopaths hiding bodies in the basement or leading vulnerable innocent souls into lives of depravity? Or just routinely stealing expensive cuts of meat from the supermarket?

The short answer: According to a study from Virginia Commonwealth University, the control freak tendencies that are used so effectively by malevolent psychopaths against their victims, can be deployed against themselves – for the sake of keeping their predatory nature at bay.

By drawing on feelings of grandiosity, psychopaths can control their anti-social tendencies. Just to spite the world. Photo: Getty

In other words, because many make an effort to lead a life that doesn’t cause them too much trouble.

“Psychopathic individuals are very prone to engaging in anti-social behaviours, but what our findings suggest is that some may actually be better able to inhibit these impulses than others,” said lead author Emily Lasko, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“Although we don’t know exactly what precipitates this increase in conscientious impulse control over time, we do know that this does occur for individuals high in certain psychopathy traits who have been relatively more ‘successful’ than their peers.”

In a prepared statement, Ms Lasko explained that when describing certain psychopathic individuals as “successful” versus “unsuccessful”, the researchers are referring to life trajectories or outcomes.

A “successful” psychopath, they suggest, might be a CEO or lawyer high in psychopathic traits, whereas an “unsuccessful” psychopath might have those same traits but ends up in jail.

See the full fascinating story here – including the story of a professor who one day discovered he was a psychopath, and decided to be something like nice for the sake of his pride.

 Playing with dolls predicts quality of fathering

Ever since it has become almost required that parents-to-be attend birth classes and destroy forests with the endless acquiring of books of advice, plenty of new fathers can be seen walking around all puffed up, full of expert knowledge and apparent confidence.

But how can they know if they’re actually up to the job of parenthood, which is ultimately about dealing with many things you don’t know, and being open to everything new and strange.

An Ohio State University experiment found a way: They put a soon-to-be new dad and a baby doll together for five minutes, and asked the man to play with that doll.

These dads seem to be enjoying themselves. The babies aren’t sure of very much … because they’re babies. Photo: Getty

The experiment found this was a pretty accurate predictor of the quality of their parenting when the real baby arrived.

According to a statement from the university, the researchers videotaped 182 expectant fathers during the third trimester of their partner’s pregnancy, observing how the men interacted with a doll that they were told represented the baby they were about to have.

The experiments were recorded on video. An assistant playing the role of a nurse presented the “baby” to the parents.

The fathers were assessed on whether they held the baby properly, smiled at it and did things like gently pinching the baby’s foot or other positive behaviours that many people just instinctively do with babies.

Nine months after the birth of the baby, the fathers’ parenting quality was assessed by a different team of research assistants who watched the fathers try to teach their actual human babies to play with either a shape sorter or stacking rings.

The assistants rated how well the fathers paid attention and responded to their child, how engaged they were, and their expression of positive feelings.

Those dads who were rated as showing more intuitive parenting skills with the doll a year earlier “tended to have a more positive interaction with their real child”.

Read the full story here.

God created you in his image, if you’re good at puzzles

An intriguing cross-cultural experiment, from Georgetown University in the US, found that people who can unconsciously predict complex patterns – an ability called implicit pattern learning – “are likely to hold stronger beliefs that there is a god who creates patterns of events in the universe”.

Implicit learning is the process whereby knowledge of a complex nature is acquired largely without involvement of top-down, conscious control.

Naturally occurring examples of implicit learning are the acquisition of language acquisition and the process of socialisation.

An ability to predict complex patterns is linked to having a belief in a god. Photo: Getty

The research is the first to use implicit pattern learning to investigate religious belief. The study investigated cultural and religious groups in the US and Afghanistan.

According to a statement from the Georgetown University Medical Centre, the goal was to test whether implicit pattern learning is a basis of belief and, if so, whether that connection holds across different faiths and cultures.

The researchers indeed found that implicit pattern learning appears to offer a key to understanding a variety of religions.

“Belief in a god or gods who intervene in the world to create order is a core element of global religions,” says the study’s senior investigator, Dr Adam Green, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience at Georgetown, and director of the Georgetown Laboratory for Relational Cognition.

“This is not a study about whether God exists. This is a study about why and how brains come to believe in gods.

“Our hypothesis is that people whose brains are good at subconsciously discerning patterns in their environment may ascribe those patterns to the hand of a higher power.”

Read the full story here.

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