Original Article: Morewedge C.K. et al., Science 330, 1530 (2010).
If you’ve had a chance to visit the Fatih district in Istanbul, then you have probably seen the famous mosque called “As If I Ate” (Sanki Yedim Camii). The history of the mosque is at least as interesting as its name: Kececi Hayrettin Efendi, who lived in Istanbul in the eighteenth century, led a frugal life and used to save the money he could have used for pleasures like good food. Each time he went into a restaurant, he self-suggested “as if I ate” and assumed himself full. Years go by, and one day Kececi Hayrettin Efendi decides to count the money he saved this way. Surprisingly, he realized that he had saved enough money to build a mosque. Research conducted by Carnegie Mellon University behavioral scientists has shown that Kececi Hayrettin Efendi’s “as if I ate” approach might also be a useful way to curb one’s appetite. During the study, a group of volunteers was asked to imagine eating lots of sweets repetitively before eating as many M&Ms as they like, while a second group was asked to imagine inserting coins into a laundry machine. It turned out that the group that imagined eating sweets ended up eating significantly fewer M&Ms compared to the second group. The researchers performed the same experiment with variety of foods and showed that individuals who continually imagined eating a food many times actually ate less of the imagined food than did individuals who imagined eating that food fewer times, imagined eating a different food, or did not imagine eating any food, showing the effectiveness of the “as if I ate” approach.
2- The Brain Confirms: Learning to read knows no age limit
Original article: Dehaene S. et al., Science 330, 1359 (2010).
In this age of science and technology, education affects everyone drastically. Besides getting a better job or a higher social status, knowing how to read has important beneficial impacts on brain functions. In a new study, cognitive neuroscientists identified active regions of the brain in the event of reading. Three groups (illiterate, literate who learned reading at adulthood and literate who learned at childhood) were compared for their brain activities using functional magnetic resonance imaging. The study has not only helped to illustrate the complex neural circuitry of the brain, but has also demonstrated superior brain functions in literate groups, such as responses to visual and spoken stimuli. The real surprise of the study was that people who learned reading in their adulthood had similar brain activities compared to those who learned reading in their childhood. This suggests that literacy can impact the brain at any age. It has always been assumed that the brain becomes less flexible in aging people. Pointing out these new findings, Brian Wandell, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, emphasizes the ability of the brain to adapt and change upon acquiring the ability to read. He says, “Showing that this area is responsive to learning throughout life is a real contribution.”
3- Culturomics: Measuring culture through books
Original article: Michel J.B. et al., Science 331, 176 (2011).
A team of researchers from Harvard University and Google Books Team opened a new quantitative venue for social sciences which they named “Culturomics.” They used a gigantic data set, which was generated by digitizing over 15 million books (published between 1800 and 2008, ~12% of books ever published) in English, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Chinese, and Hebrew. The dataset includes over 500 billion words, and by using a new online tool (http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/) one can easily find out how many times a word was used throughout the last two centuries. The study elegantly demonstrates how human kind has changed in the twentieth century. For example, technological advances in the twentieth century became part of the culture almost three times faster than it used to be in the nineteenth century. On average, people became famous and lost their fame two times faster than in the nineteenth century, and the authors claim that the trend for becoming famous and losing fame will be even faster in the future, at which time “everyone will be famous for 7.5 minutes” on average. The researchers also spotted censorship in Nazi Germany by comparing books published in German and English by comparing the popularity of famous Jewish scientists and authors. It is yet too early to assume that this new approach will entirely change the way social scientists approach their problems, but it will certainly provide an unprecedented perspective into the humanities.
4- The search for extra dimensions is not pseudo-science after all
Original article: Bin-Nun A.Y. et al., Physical Review D 82, 064009 (2010).
The plausibility of co-existing dimensions beyond our 4 dimensional space (3 spatial + 1 time dimension) is nothing new. The attempt to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity led to the development of string theory in the late ’60s. M-Theory is a special extension of the superstring theory which predicts that there are 11 dimensions. It is posited that all elementary sub-atomic particles such as electrons and quarks are not 0-dimensional objects, but rather 1-dimensional vibrating “lines” or “strings.” These strings curl in specific patterns to form the subatomic particles, which then combine via nuclear forces to make up atoms and matter as we know it. Although the mathematical basis has long been established for string theory, it has hitherto not been tested due to the lack of observational signatures. A recent study suggests that it may be possible to observe the effects of extra dimensions after all by using supermassive black holes. Black holes, due to their immensely concentrated gravity, curve the space around them. This curvature affects even the light that passes through them. A star directly behind such a black hole may be observed as a warped or brightened astronomical source. It may even be possible to create so called “Einstein rings,” where the background star appears as a ring of light instead. The recent study argues that, if extra dimensions are not as tightly packed, the light that passes through curved space-time may exhibit anomalies which, in principle, can be detectable with very sensitive telescopes.