A Research Three-Pack

I follow way too many other bloggers and there’s no way I can read all the posts or even use a small percentage of articles that interest me as inspiration for my own posts here.

So, here are a few things that piqued my interest this week from just one site – discovermagazine.com.

Image by analogicus from Pixabay

Roman numerals aren’t very useful. It’s a clunky system and by the sixth century A.D. the Hindu-Arabic number system was developed in India and it was better. It uses only 10 numerals – 1-9 and the wonderful 0.

And yet, Europeans still used them until the 13th century. Roman numerals were very limited for math, science, trade, and commerce.

The movie industry began using Roman numerals a long time ago as the way to show the copyright/release date of a film. Why? Since people can’t figure out the numerals quickly a film released the previous year wouldn’t be seen as “old.” Quick – what number is MCMLIII?

Just this month I saw the Super Bowl logo for this year which continues to use Roman numerals. When I first glanced at the logo I thought LIV which is 54. But that center I is actually the winner’s trophy and it is Super Bowl LV or 55.

That clock shown at the top has Roman numerals as other analog clocks sometimes do. It works because we can spatially know that a hand at III is in the position of 3 o’clock.

I also like reading about research and sometimes about things that make you wonder why it is being researched and who is funding that research. I was attracted to one piece titled “What’s Worse: Binge Drinking or Imbibing a Little Bit Every Day?” My first guess? They’re both bad for you.

You can read the results for yourself but I’d advise you to binge all the seasons of Schitt’s Creek instead of vodka. Maybe have a nice cup of coffee, tea, or cocoa while you’re watching.

Sometimes the silly-sounding research isn’t so silly when you dig in. So when I saw that scientists were studying if animals can be “Right- or Left-Pawed” I classified it as the silly stuff. But many creatures do favor one side of the body over another in the same way as humans do.

Southpaw pooch?

It is not about figuring out if your dog or cat is a righty or lefty. What interests scientists is how that preference might give us insights into evolution and brain development.

Scientists thought that handedness was unique to humans, but new research shows many animals do have a preferred hand, limb, or even tentacle, and it likely starts in the brain.

I recently watched the really interesting documentary My Octopus Teacher on Netflix and another one on PBS Nature. Octopuses are really smart with brains in their arms and two in their head.

“As soon as you have two sides of the brain, they start task-dividing,” says Ruth Byrne, a biologist who’s studied handedness in octopuses.

I learned about biological chirality which is an asymmetry that can be expressed either physically (one of your feet is a little bigger than the other) or a behavioral tendency to favor the use of one side over the other.

You know, why more humans are right-handed is still not conclusively known. One theory: The left side of the human brain is the language side and maybe developing the left side of the brain for speech and language might have also led to our right-handed bias among humans.

There are also cultural biases that are pro-righties. like, scissors, doorknobs, zippers, writing in spiral notebooks and three-ring binders. It is even rougher in parts of Africa and the Middle East where there are taboos against touching communal food or shaking hands with the fingers on your left.

Let’s do more research and figure this stuff out!

Wait. Did You Read the Book or Just Listen to It?

brain scan

I listen to a lot of podcasts and I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I’m not the reader of books on paper or screens that I once was and it’s mostly a matter of time. Audiobooks allow me to multitask, which I’m sure many people will say is not the way to experience a book.

If you don’t have time to sit and read a physical book, is listening to the audio version considered cheating? I have friends who react to my audiobook habit by saying “But you were an English teacher!” I (sadly) knew a number of English teachers who rarely read books. I might have once felt guilty about not reading the physical book, but I don’t feel any guilt now. And I do still read some books and magazines on paper or screens. I certainly tried to get ahold of the audiobook version of Stephen King’s 800+ page novel, 11/22/63, this summer. But I read it on paper. Quite slowly.

I am glad to find new evidence that suggests that, to our brains, reading and hearing a book might not be so different.

You might have overlooked the research when you were flipping through a copy of the Journal of Neuroscience at the doctor’s office because the title of the article is of that academic (yawn) variety: “The representation of semantic information across human cerebral cortex during listening versus reading is invariant to stimulus modality.”

But what the researchers did was analyze brain scans of nine participants while they read and listened to a series of episodes from “The Moth Radio Hour.”

In the summary of the research that I read (on a screen!), after analyzing how each word was processed in the the brain’s cortex, they created maps of the participants’ brains, noting the different areas helped interpret the meaning of each word. The brain scan data analysis showed that the stories stimulated the same cognitive and emotional areas, regardless of their medium.

The researchers published their first interactive map of a person’s brain in 2016. This colored diagram shows a brain divided into about 60,000 parts, called voxels. They analyzed the data in each voxel to determine which regions of the brain process certain kinds of words. It’s pretty amazing to think that one section responded to terms like “father,” “refused,” and “remarried” which they classified as “social words” because they describe dramatic events, people or time.

Listening and reading showed that words tend to activate the same brain regions with the same intensity. This was a result that surprised the researchers who expected (like my friends) that two different things were going on in my brain.

I have always thought, especially when I was teaching English, that people who struggle with reading either because they just don’t like to read or have dyslexia or some other real condition that makes reading really difficult can benefit from audiobooks. I wouldn’t have a problem with a student listening to the audiobook of an assigned text. It is certainly preferable to not reading it at all – and I know that happened with assigned reading.

So, listen to a book guilt-free!


Just the Facts, Ma’am

Dragnet - just the factsThe old television police drama, Dragnet, included the catch phrase “Just the facts, ma’am,” that was often used by the detective Joe Friday when questioning (rather misogynistically) women who were telling him too much irrelevant information.

It seems quite difficult these days to get “just the facts” or even figure out what statements are facts.

This past week I read an article in The New Yorker about why facts don’t change our minds. That seems to be particularly relevant in this time of claims about “fake news” and “alternative facts.” The article is about a number of studies done by researchers that show that our minds have limitations when it comes to reasoning about facts.

One study gave participants 25 pairs of suicide notes and, being told that one was real and one was fake, they were asked to distinguish the real from the fake. Half of the notes were truly real, but the experiment actually was meant to examine how randomly telling some participants that they were very accurate in their answers and telling others they were very poor in distinguishing the differences would affect them.

In the second part of the study, they were all told that they had been deceived and that the real point of the experiment was to gauge their responses to thinking they were right or wrong. Now, they were asked to estimate how many suicide notes they had actually categorized correctly.

Those who had been told they had scored high on the first part thought they did significantly better than the average person. This happened even though they knew they had no reason to believe those first results meant anything. “Once formed, impressions are remarkably perseverant,” said the researchers.

This kind of experiment has been done many times with the same results.

You might have read or heard about the term “confirmation bias.” This is the tendency of people to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. If you tend to always watch the news channel that gives you the version of the news you already believe, you are a good example of confirmation bias.

Another experiment described in the article used two groups who had been selected because they had opposing opinions about capital punishment. They were given two studies to read – one with data to support capital punishment as a reasonable deterrent, the other study had data that refuted the deterrence argument. Both studies were fictional.

That group that initially supported capital punishment rated the pro-deterrence data highly credible and the anti-deterrence data unconvincing. Those in the other group did the reverse. No surprise?

Did their views change at all at the end of the study? No, in fact, perhaps more surprisingly, the pro-capital punishment people were now even more in favor of it. Those who had opposed it were more opposed.

Based on that study, if an MSNBC news watcher watched FOX news for a day, it would not help them reach a more moderate view or consensus. He would be even more convinced that MSNBC was telling the truth. Confirmation bias leads us to dismiss evidence that goes against our beliefs, and facts don’t change our minds.

This is not a good thing.


Everything You Know Is Wrong

A recent study says that I drink too much coffee per day. Another article I read says that researchers now say eating a few eggs is not healthy. I can find articles from a year or two ago that say the opposite; my coffee would be helping me and those eggs were the perfect food. I feel like everything I know is wrong because they keep changing what is right.

It’s one thing to just believe something to be true because you got the wrong information from someone (maybe in school, maybe online) but it’s different when “they” change the answers.

There is a book titled The Book of General Ignorance which has the subtitle “Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong.” Magellan was the first man to circumnavigate the globe. Baseball was invented in America. Henry VIII had six wives. Mount Everest is the tallest mountain? Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

You may be disappointed to learn that chameleons don’t change color to match the background (it’s more of a mood ring kind of thing) or that a centipede does not have a hundred legs. You assumed that a two-toed sloth has two toes, but it’s either six or eight.

Some of those things I had learned incorrectly along the way. Maybe I was told these “facts” by someone who believed them to be true. There are plenty of things  I never learned right or wrong, so the information is new. I didn’t know that Honolulu is the world’s largest city. That may because it wins based on a technicality – 72% of its 2,127 square miles is underwater.

I am more disturbed by the scientific research kinds of facts that seem to keep flipping. Chocolate and red wine: Good or bad for your health? Depends on when the research was done.

Entire books probably get knocked off the shelf as new research proves them to be incorrect. Take a book like The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “Healthy” Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain By Dr. Steven R Gundry M.D. This neuro-nutrition book was marked as the “most read” book on Amazon, at one point with 2000+ 4 and 5-star reviews.

It is one of those books that tells you what you know is wrong. You were eating more plants and less meat because that’s the healthy way to go. Right?

This book clues you in on highly toxic, plant-based proteins called lectins. Are they hiding in some strange foods? No, they are in grains like wheat but also in the “gluten-free” foods and many fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and conventional dairy products. These proteins are found in the seeds, grains, skins, rinds, and leaves of plants. Why are they there? They are nature’s way of protecting plants from predators. Humans are plant predators too, I suppose. We’re not talking about genetically modified foods (though the book isn’t happy with those either).

What do they do to us? Like so many other things, they do chemical things in our guts that cause inflammatory reactions (inflammation being the current cause of almost all the evil in your body), and can lead to weight gain and serious health conditions. The book has spawned cookbooks and other guides, but some of its suggestions are simple to follow.

Peel your veggies. And here I thought the skin and seeds of plants were good for you, but that’s where a lot of those lectins are hiding. It saddens me to peel and de-seed my beloved tomatoes to reduce their lectin content. Fruit contain fewer lectins when ripe, so eat your apples and berries at peak ripeness.

Remember how you were told to swap that white rice for the healthier brown rice? Okay, flip that swap.
Swap your brown rice for white again because whole grains and seeds with hard outer coatings are full of lectins.

Does everyone agree with this science. Of course not. In fact, I suspect that as soon as a book like this is published, several other authors start working on the opposite theories for another book.

Being a Curator of Content

Probably your first association with the word “curator” is a person at a museum. The word comes from Latin: cura, meaning “to take care.” The curator of a gallery, museum, library, or archive usually is in charge of an institution’s collections. Those collections are probably tangible objects like artwork or historic items. But the term “content curation” is a more recent variation.

Content curation has become a term associated with the online world. Though some people might do this as a job, such as a social media manager, many of us do it for no pay. If you have a Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Facebook or other social account, you probably retweet and repost/share content. Curation means that someone has seen value in content and so is sharing it with friends and followers – and potentially with the entire online world.

I think that everyone would agree that some people do this curation with more though and skill than others. A thoughtful curator gathers from a variety of sources, sometimes around a specific topic, and shares the best of what they find. For example, I might follow someone online because they post good information (original or shared) about poetry.

A poor curator probably isn’t a curator at all. You probably have come across people who share silly things, inappropriate links and who may not even vet (make a careful and critical examination of) a link or article before they share it. You might unfriend or unfollow such or person. You might even take the time to try correcting them with a link to snopes.com or some other site that shows their information is incorrect.

And here we get into that term that is so much in the air the past year or two – fake news.

In all my years of teaching, I always had to teach lessons to students from 7th grade to graduate school about how to vet information in doing research. How do you know a source is valid? How do you know that a fact is a fact? Is your information up to date? Can you separate fact from opinion?

I posit that all of us active online need to be good content curators. Just using this blog as an example, I try to be a good curator of the information I put into the online world. I try to follow good curation practices.

I often write original content, but at least half of my content comes from other sources, such as books I am reading, websites, and podcasts. I try to share things that interest me but that I think will interest and help my audience.

Who is “my audience”? After blogging in different places for 12 years, I have learned to look at my statistics and comments for where people come from (geographically) and what content they find most appealing.

As when I taught research, I try to use trustworthy sources. I look for content that is relevant, timely, interesting, useful, and occasionally entertaining.

A good curator gives credit to sources – give a link to the original  inspiring article or the book or person. Give readers a way to get additional information if they want to go deeper into a topic.

In the more commercial side of social media that concerns marketing (I do that too), there is the “social media rule of thirds.” This rule says that you should share a third on your original brand (which might be personal) content promotion, a third using curated content by others, and a third about the conversations happening on social media.

You are reading this online, so there is a good chance you are a content curator yourself – whether you know you are or not. Are you a good curator? Leave a comment if you have any thoughts about this either on how others do it well or poorly, or about your own practices.

The Media Is Warping Your Memory

Wow, my title sounds like a Trumpian rant will follow, but this is really about recent research on how sites like Facebook, Twitter are spreading “fake news” along with you and your friends who like it and pass it along, and how it is affecting your memories.

This is about research on “collective recall.” If I didn’t know it earlier in life, I certainly know at this point in my life that memory is very fallible. I have posted a lot online about studies about memories – how we create them, how we recall them and how we lose them, but there is a new way that we may be warping our memories.

“Memories are shared among groups in novel ways through sites such as Facebook and Instagram, blurring the line between individual and collective memories,” said psychologist Daniel Schacter in Nature magazine. He studies memory at Harvard University and has found that “The development of Internet-based misinformation, such as recently well-publicized fake news sites, has the potential to distort individual and collective memories in disturbing ways.”

Collective memories are our history. We use the way we understand the past as a way to think about the future.

If our memory recalls fictitious terrorist attacks as real, it is easier to justify a travel ban on people who come from those terrorist nations. Social networks are being taken quite seriously as a kind of collective memory, even if it is a faulty memory.

Courtroom lawyers are known for introducing “evidence” or accusations to a jury that they know will be objected to and not recorded – but they get the information out there and into jurors brains.

It turns out that people don’t need very much prompting to conform to a majority recollection. Whether it is true or false isn’t really an issue.

I’m encouraged that research is also being done on ways of dislodging or even preventing them from forming in the first place. Scientists and social networks are now interacting. It might also be encouraging to know that not all collective memories pass into history. Some cognitive psychologists have proposed that more than cognitive and social processes determines whether an event survives the transition across generations. That additional aspect is the nature of the event itself. Depending on how much change occurs in a person’s daily life is crucial to personal and collective memories.