In the spirit of the day, Ira Flatow on NPR discussed the neurobiology of zombies with Steven Schlozman, a psychiatrist who has…errrm…studied the undead and has some insights into why they do what they do.
Lately I’ve been trying to expand my skills into some unfamiliar areas; in particular I’m spending more time on activities involving hand-eye coordination (playing tennis, drawing). It’s frustrating sometimes, especially because this is not an area where I’ve been particularly strong. I started out probably less physically coordinated than average, and to some degree I have avoided activities requiring a high degree of physical coordination, thus digging myself into a rut. It’s never too late to dig yourself out of such a rut (I hope, anyway), so I’m pushing myself to keep practicing until things get easier.
This story from Science Daily offers words of encouragement. It describes research into how working on learning a new skill affects mood. The short answer is that in the moment you’re doing it, striving to increase your ability to do something may make you less happy, but in the long run, it will make you more happy. The reason for this appears to be that in the long run, such behavior addresses a psychological need to be competent. The research also found that addressing needs for autonomy or connection increased feelings of happiness both in the moment and overall, suggesting that it might be possible to make it easier to practice a new skill if you can somehow do it in a way that fosters feelings of either autonomy or connection.
I guess I’ll be back out on the tennis court tomorrow morning; this time I’ll know that in addition to maybe making some progress on my serve, I’m also building up happiness for myself later on. Sweet.
Here’s the citation if you want to go to the source:
Momentary Happiness: The Role of Psychological Need Satisfaction, by Ryan T. Howell, David Chenot, Graham Hill, and Colleen J. Howell. Journal of Happiness Studies, 2009; DOI: 10.1007/s10902-009-9166-1 (Published online 28 October 2009)
This excerpt from David Attenborough’s documentary, Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life, unfolds the tree of life from single-celled organisms to the present in about 6 and 1/2 minutes. It’s a beautifully done reminder of how all life on this planet is interrelated. It would be cool to share with any kids in your life.
Antidepressant medications available today help a great many people; however, they don’t work for everyone. Because it can take a while for an antidepressant to kick in, and there’s so much variability regarding which one will work for which person, finding the right one requires some trial and error and can be a long process. (Although this recent study describes a biomarker that can predict, after a week on an antidepressant, whether a person will respond; testing for the biomarker is non-invasive and relatively quick. Sounds like good news to me.)
A recent study has examined why antidepressant use is not straightforward; the authors have come up with several reasons having to do with current misunderstanding of the nature of depression. First, the assumption that stress and depression are causally linked appears to be invalid. An examination of rat genetics showed very little overlap between the genes involved in depression and those involved in reacting to stress. Second, current antidepressants appear to treat stress, not depression. Furthermore, they aim at increasing levels of certain neurotransmitters, on the assumption that it’s problems with these levels that cause depression. Instead, it looks like the problem lies further upstream, in the way neurons form and work. Neurotransmitter-based medications may be treating a consequence of the neuronal problems, rather than treating the root cause.
The work on which this study rests involves rats, but their brains and neurochemistry are believed to be similar enough to ours that the information may be applicable to humans. I hope these new findings will eventually improve the treatment options for depression.
It’s easy to wonder to what degree humans are still subject to natural selection; from the perspective of someone living in an industrialized western nation, it can look like everyone gets to live long enough to reproduce and can successfully raise their offspring to adulthood. Of course, in some parts of the world, that’s much less certain than in others, and furthermore, evolution is complicated. A new study, using data from the Framingham Heart Study, has found that natural selection does still seem to be at work on us.
Researchers used data from the 60-year Framingham study on more than 2,000 post-menopausal North American women. They examined the relationship between roughly half a dozen health-related traits and the number of children a women had, adjusting for things like income and education and assessing the way the traits might affect one another. The result indicates that humans are still evolving; as best I can gather, the idea is that certain heritable traits are likely to appear in greater numbers in future generations. On the basis of this information, several predictions can be made about the way natural selection is shaping the future of the human species (the female half of it, anyway).
To me, the interesting thing about this is the demonstration that we’re an evolving animal just like all the other evolving animals on the planet. The senior author of the study says we’re “kind of average” in the speed with which we evolve. It might not sound like a big deal, but the idea that current humans are not an end product but rather a snapshot in a long process goes against some deeply ingrained cultural assumptions. Even if you totally accept the truth of evolution and understand at some level how it works, it can be hard to really understand that the concept of “human” (or any other species) is provisional and time-dependent. (I thought of this when I saw the Ardipithecus show on Discovery last weekend, in particular regarding the idea that “humans evolved from chimps” versus the more precise statement that both evolved from a common ancestor, and the question of how exactly to categorize each group of animals during that process of evolution.)
This story from Medical News Today and this one from Science Daily have more information. I cannot track down the paper itself based on the citation that’s provided by Science Daily, but here it is anyway: Byars, S., D. Ewbank, et al. (2009). “Natural selection in a contemporary human population.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106(42). doi: 10.1073_pnas.0906199106. Maybe the paper is just not listed on the PNAS web site yet.
Here’s a brief but classic video of Richard Feynman explaining how we thinking animals figure out how the universe works. Feynman compares observing nature to watching a chess game without knowing the rules at first. In just a few minutes he does a great job of explaining how science works to improve our knowledge of the world we live in.
This Sunday (October 18, 2009) is the first-ever National Secular Service Day in the US. If you are areligious (atheist, agnostic, freethinker, humanist, etc.) and would like to help make the point that community service and altruism can be a vital part of a totally secular lifestyle, check out the NSSD web site for more information and a list of events across the country. (The event list search is very picky about formatting, so I would recommend browsing rather than searching.) Or devise your own way to mark the day.
A recent study of nearly 11,000 people indicates that following the so-called Mediterranean diet, which is high in monounsaturated fatty acids, fish, and plants (e.g., veggies, fruits, whole grains), can lower the risk of developing depression. Those who most closely followed the eating patterns of this diet were 30% less likely to develop depression over a 4.4-year period. This press release from EurekAlert gives the details. It’s not clear in any detail why this diet should have this effect. It could well be a synergistic effect of the combination of all the different components of the diet, rather than arising from the presence of any particular nutrient or food. And of course there are plenty of other health benefits of the Mediterranean diet.
While I’m on the soapbox here, I will mention that I’ve been reading about omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and health. The typical American diet contains far more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids, and the evidence so far suggests that this is deleterious to health in a number of ways. In particular, a more balanced intake of omega-3 and omega-6 might be useful in treating depression. If you’re curious, you can check out the Linus Pauling Institute’s Essential Fatty Acids page for more information. Also, several good books about omega-3 fatty acids and health are available, many with recipes; check your local library. [I'm reading The Ultimate Omega-3 Diet: Maximize the Power of Omega-3s to Supercharge Your Health, Battle Inflammation, and Keep Your Mind Sharp by Evelyn Tribole (very clearly written, includes recipes and suggestions for modifying existing recipes). Next on my list is The Queen of Fats: Why Omega-3s Were Removed from the Western Diet and What We Can Do to Replace Them by Susan Allport, which provides more historical context as well as dietary suggestions.]