News for Nerds - November 11, 2011
- 11/11/2011 |
- 10:00 am
Welcome back to News for Nerds! This week we uncover a creepy predator with 66 legs, we take a closer look at the asteroid that buzzed the tower on Tuesday, and we start the movement to get chewing gum back in schools (but not stuck to the bottom of desks, because that's just gross). But first: ka-ching!
* * * * *
Never mind Thanksgiving -- if the layout (and music choices) of malls and department stores is any indication, the holiday shopping season is already upon us. And with that shopping season comes the inevitable fate of millions of Americans: rampant overspending.
Lucky for you, neuroscientists, psychologists and behavioral economists are all investing -- get it, investing? -- a great deal of effort to uncover the causes of overspending. Turns out, people who are terrible at saving aren't simply dumb or irrational. In many cases, their brains are simply wired differently.
One experiment at NYU gave volunteers a choice: you can have $20 now, or some greater amount, ranging from $21 to $110, later. At one end of the spectrum was the person with 'flat discount function', meaning that they would plainly choose to have the greater amount, even a mere $1 more, if asked to wait a month. Not surprisingly, that person was an M.D.-PhD. student, for whom delayed gratification is not really a big deal.
At the other end of the spectrum is the person known as a 'steep discounter', who was only willing to wait a month if the dollar amount increased more than 200%, to $68. For this person, the future holds less value than the present. But the reasons for that, as revealed by brain scans, were very interesting.
Functional MRIs of the participants' brains showed that activity in the ventral striatum and the medial prefrontal cortex plunged when the 'steep discounters' were asked to wait a month to receive their money. For the 'flat discount' folks -- the ones who have mastered delayed gratification -- brain activity in those regions remained consistent.
So how do you re-train your brain to keep from buying those $140 shoes you can't afford? The answer might lie in something called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. TMS is a non-invasive 'zapping' technology that induces a weak electric current in targeted parts of the brain. In lab studies, scientists have used it to pinpoint regions of people's brains responsible for certain functions, and to thereby alter behavior.
TMS hasn't been used yet to treat the effects of overspending, but researchers are optimistic. Says one psychologist at the forefront of this technology, "We're only at the beginning of figuring out how to change people's temporal horizons. But the data are encouraging."
* * * * *
If you were ever the school-age victim of a well-intentioned teacher who made you spit out your chewing gum and stay after class, this next story is for you.
A study commissioned by the scientific arm of gum manufacturer Wrigley has shown that chewing gum may help increase academic performance, improve memory, and curb appetite.
Researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine studied 108 eighth-grade math students from Houston, breaking them up into two groups and following their performance for 14 weeks. One group chewed gum while doing homework and taking tests, while the other group did not.
The results are surprising. The gum-chewers showed a three percent increase in their standardized math test scores and had better final grades than the non-chewers. Teachers also reported that the students with gum in their mouths required fewer breaks, paid closer attention and stayed quiet longer than those who did not.
A separate study at LSU showed that workers who chew gum experience fewer 'sweet tooth' cravings and eat fewer high-calorie snacks. And the American Dental Association has said that chewing gum for 20 minutes per day can help fight tooth decay.
Not all of these studies come from entirely independent sources, and they each bring along their own skeptics. But, as one researcher points out, the risks are very minimal in relation to the rewards. "This isn't like smoking," says Dr. Michael Benninger of the Cleveland Clinic. "The downsides are minimal."
* * * * *
Not since Maverick buzzed the tower and spilled Ghost Rider's coffee have we experienced a fly-by with the level of excitement as the asteroid that blew by us this week.
On Tuesday, an asteroid the size of an aircraft carrier came within about 200,000 miles of Earth. That's closer to us than the moon is, and it's the closest that any 'large cosmic interloper' has come to our planet since Afternoon Delight and I Write the Songs were #1 hit records. (That means 1976).
It won't happen again, say the experts, until 2028 -- and presumably, by that time, we'll have a whole new set of Top 40 hits to serve as annoying little earworms.
Astronomers discovered the asteroid about six years ago, and have been tracking its progress ever since. As it approached from the direction of the sun this week at speeds of 29,000 miles per hour, there was no real danger of an Earth-bound impact. But that doesn't stop us from wondering.
Experts tell us that if a celestial body of that size were to hit solid Earth today, it would leave a crater four miles across and 1,700 feet deep. In the more likely event that it hit water, an impact like that would trigger 70-foot-high tsunami waves.
To see the asteroid on Tuesday you would've needed at least a decent telescope. Even better would be to have access to research-grade telescopes... which is why some forward-thinking institutions, like the Clay Center Observatory in Brookline, Mass., hosted an all-night viewing party where children and adults could get a closer look at the object, while also hearing lectures from leading astronomers.
* * * * *
And finally, I give you this story of the 66-legged predator that roamed the sea floor hundreds of millions of years ago.
Tegopelte Gigas, which is distantly related to horseshoe crabs and millipedes, was only about 30 centimeters long (or about the size of a flattened loaf of bread). But that relatively small body was still big enough to contain at least 25 pairs of legs, and probably more. Which, frankly, I find to be a little bit creepy.
It's a big find for scientists who are accustomed to uncovering very few fossil tracks from ancient creatures in the sea floor. But my favorite part of the story is the little animation at the bottom of the page that shows how the creature was able to efficiently coordinate all of those legs to move in tandem with one another.
Basically, says one of the men behind the discovery, Tegopelte was able to move very quickly and make tight turns because each of its legs only made brief contact with the ground in sequence, forming a wave of movement along the length of its body.
"We described it as skimming across the surface," said study author Nicholas Minter.
There is such a wealth of bizarre creatures, past and present, that occupy our ocean floors. I'm glad there are people out there tracking them down for us -- and thankful that I don't find one in my shoe.
* * * * *
That's all for now! I'll be back with more News for Nerds next week, but be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, and to sign up for the free e-Newsletter so that you can properly get your nerd on every single month! And please send any juicy News for Nerds tips to me right here!