Saturday, June 18, 2011

Superstitions and Evolutionary Benefits

Researchers are finding that superstition may be linked to the ability to learn. Clearly, it makes no sense for organisms to believe a specific action influences the future when it can't, yet superstitious behavior in both humans and animals often persists in the face of evidence against it.

According to Live Science:
Superstitions are not free ~ rituals and avoidances cost an animal in terms of energy or lost opportunities. The question becomes how can natural selection create, or simply allow for, such inappropriate behavior? 
"From an evolutionary perspective, superstitions seem maladaptive," said Kevin Abbott, at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario and co-author with Thomas Sherratt of a recent study published in Animal Behavior.

The study suggests multiple reasons for such anomalies to exist: perhaps superstition is adaptive as a placebo, or for social bonding. Or maybe it really is maladaptive now, but is "the outcome of traits that were adaptive in ancestral environment; sort of like cognitive wisdom teeth," said Abbott. 
The first description of superstitious behavior in animals came from psychologist B.F. Skinner in 1948. He put half-starved pigeons in cages, offering them a few seconds of access to food trays at regular intervals. As long as the intervals were short, the birds began offering up behaviors ~ like spinning counter-clockwise, rocking from side to side or tossing their heads up as if they were lifting a bar.
They would do these behaviors "as if there were a causal relation between [its] behavior and the presentation of food," wrote Skinner. Once the behaviors were established, they tended to persist, even as time intervals between feeding lengthened.  

Click here for the complete article.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Unexpected Drop in Solar Activity

Fading sunspots and weakening magnetic activity near the poles are signs the sun may be less active in the coming years. Three separate studies point to the sun heading into a more dormant period, with activity during the next 11-year sunspot cycle greatly reduced or even eliminated.

"The solar cycle may be going into a hiatus," Frank Hill, associate director of the National Solar Observatory's Solar Synoptic Network, said in a June 14 news briefing. today (June 14). "This is highly unusual and unexpected. But the fact that three completely different views of the sun point in the same direction is a powerful indicator that the sunspot cycle may be going into hibernation."

According to Live Science:
Sunspots are temporary patches on the surface of the sun that are caused by intense magnetic activity. These structures sometimes erupt into energetic solar storms that send streams of charged particles into space. 
Since powerful charged particles from solar storms can occasionally wreak havoc on Earth's magnetic field by knocking out power grids or disrupting satellites in orbit, a calmer solar cycle could have its advantages.
Astronomers study mysterious sunspots because their number and frequency act as indicators of the sun's activity, which ebbs and flows in an 11-year cycle. Typically, a cycle takes roughly 5.5 years to move from a solar minimum, when there are few sunspots, to the solar maximum, during which sunspot activity is amplified.

Click here for the complete article.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Red Wariness is Evolutionary

New research indicates that evolution has played a key role in why people have strong associations with the color red ~ stop, danger, hot, and dominance, to name just a few. Tests into the meaning and impact of colors involved the male rhesus macaques, a species of monkey found in Puerto Rico.

The similarity of our results with those in humans suggests that avoiding red or acting submissively in its presence may stem from an inherited psychological predisposition,” says Dartmouth College neuroscientist Jerald D. Kralik.

According to Medical News Today:
Two human experimenters, one male and one female, entered the monkeys' colony and found isolated males to test. Both people knelt down, placed a Styrofoam tray in front of them, drew an apple slice from their backpacks, held the slice at chest level for the monkey to see, then placed the apple on the trays. Both stood up simultaneously and took two steps back. 
The monkey typically went directly to the slice he wanted, ran off, and ate it.
The humans wore T-shirts and caps, whose colors ~ red, green, and blue ~ were changed in each of four conditions: red on female, green on male; then vice-versa; red versus blue; blue versus green.
The results were striking. The monkeys paid no mind to the sex of the experimenter. Green or blue made little difference to them either. But in the significant majority of cases, they steered clear of the red-clad humans and stole the food from the other tray.
"We ~ primates and then humans ~ are very visual," Kralik explains. "We are also very social." In both realms, color has important effects, from telling us which food is edible to helping us gauge the emotions of others by the relative redness of their skin. Put the two together, he says, "and we start to see that color may have a deeper and wider-ranging influence on us than we have previously thought."

Click here for the complete article.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

"Wave/Particle" Measurement Achieved

Physicists have now observed light behaving as both a wave and a particle ~ a feat that “pulls back the veil” on quantum reality in a way previously thought impossible.

According to the BBC:
For instance, a well-known rule called the Heisenberg uncertainty principle maintains that for some pairs of measurements, high precision in one necessarily reduces the precision that can be achieved in the other. One embodiment of this idea lies in a "two-slit interferometer", in which light can pass through one of two slits and is viewed on a screen.
… Now, Aephraim Steinberg of the University of Toronto and his colleagues have sidestepped this limitation by undertaking "weak measurements" of the photons' momentum. The team allowed the photons to pass through a thin sliver of the mineral calcite that gave each photon a tiny nudge in its path, with the amount of deviation dependent on which slit it passed through. 
By averaging over a great many photons passing through the apparatus, and only measuring the light patterns on a camera, the team was able to infer what paths the photons had taken.
On one level, the experiment appears to violate a central rule of quantum mechanics, but Professor Steinberg said this was not the case. "While the uncertainty principle does indeed forbid one from knowing the position and momentum of a particle exactly at the same time, it turns out that it is possible to ask 'what was the average momentum of the particles which reached this position?'" he told the BBC. "You can't know the exact value for any single particle, but you can talk about the average."

Click here for the complete article.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Learning the Language of Attraction

Here Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho talks about the workings of the universe and attraction. He's the author of The Alchemist, a short novel he wrote in 1988 and that now has sold 65 million copies and is one of the best-selling books in history.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Do We See the "Apocalypse" as Renewal?

People’s fascination with “end times” likely is rooted in the emotional and cognitive processes of our brains. Such thinking helps us make sense of the world, according to Michael Shermer, author of The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Conspiracies and Politics.

Writing in New Scientist, he says:
Emotionally, the end of the world is actually a renewal, a transition to a new beginning and a better life to come. In religious narratives, God smites sinners and resurrects the virtuous.
 For secularists, the sins of humanity are atoned through a change in our political, economic or ideological system. Environmental prognostications of calamity are usually followed with reproaches and recommendations for how we can save the planet. 
… Cognitively, there are several processes at work, starting with the fact that our brains are pattern-seeking belief engines.
… Apocalypse thinking is a form of pattern-seeking based on our cognitive percepts of time passing. We connect A to B to C to D causally because they are connected chronologically, and even though occasionally they form false patterns, in the natural world they are connected often enough that in our brains time and causality are inseparable.
Shermer believes apocalyptic visions help people make sense of “an often seemingly senseless world.”

Click here for the complete article.
Drawing: Albrecht Durer's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Thursday, June 9, 2011

New Research Confirms Rise in Narcissism

Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse, 1903.

Narcissism continues to rise in American society, along with hostility and anger. The latest research to support the growth of this psychological disorder concerns popular song lyrics.

University of Kentucky psychologist Nathan DeWall and his colleagues recently analyzed lyrics from the Billboard Hot 100 Chart from 1980 to 2007. They found a statistically significant trend toward narcissism in the music, with the words "I" and "me" gradually replacing "we" and "us."

Narcissism and outward hostility have been linked by psychology research in the past, and DeWall's analysis shows that it's linked in song lyrics as well. "In the early '80s lyrics, love was easy and positive, and about two people," psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego University says. "The recent songs are about what the individual wants, and how she or he has been disappointed or wronged."

In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a beautiful and beloved youth who loved none but himself. He wasted away staring at his reflection in the surface of a pond. According to several new studies, more and more of today's youths are developing the rather unattractive quality exhibited by Narcissus in the fable.

Click here for the complete article.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Scientists May Be Atheists, But Still Spiritual

Nearly 300 scientists who consider themselves atheists also claim to have distinct spiritual beliefs.  More than 20 percent of atheist scientists, according to new research from Rice University, say they have a spirituality that’s consistent with science, although they are not formally religious.

While the general public tends to marry spirituality with religion, the study found that spirituality is a separate idea ~ one that more closely aligns with scientific discovery ~ for "spiritual atheist" scientists.
"Our results show that scientists hold religion and spirituality as being qualitatively different kinds of constructs," said Elaine Howard Ecklund, assistant professor of sociology at Rice and lead author of the study. "These spiritual atheist scientists are seeking a core sense of truth through spirituality ~ one that is generated by and consistent with the work they do as scientists." 
"There's spirituality among even the most secular scientists," Ecklund said. "Spirituality pervades both the religious and atheist thought. It's not an either/or. This challenges the idea that scientists, and other groups we typically deem as secular, are devoid of those big 'Why am I here?' questions. They too have these basic human questions and a desire to find meaning.”
According to the research, the scientists find spirituality congruent with science and separate from religion, because where spirituality is open to a scientific journey, religion requires buying into an absolute "absence of empirical evidence."

Click here for the complete article.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

US Belief in God Still at 90 Percent

Michaelangelo's "Conversion of St. Paul"

A new Gallup poll finds more than nine in 10 Americans continuing to believe in God. Ninety-two percent of Gallup's 1,018 respondents answered yes when asked whether they believed in God.

According to Gallup pollsters:
Despite the many changes that have rippled through American society over the last 6 ½ decades, belief in God as measured in this direct way has remained high and relatively stable. Gallup initially used this question wording in November 1944, when 96% said "yes." That percentage dropped to 94% in 1947, but increased to 98% in several Gallup surveys conducted in the 1950s and 1960s.
When asked, "Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?" 80 percent said they believed in God and 12 percent said they believed in a universal spirit. The survey did not probe into specific religious allegiances.

Belief in God drops below 90% among younger Americans, liberals, those living in the East, those with postgraduate educations, and political independents. Believing in God is nearly universal among Republicans and conservatives and, to a slightly lesser degree, in the South.

Click here for the complete article.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Osho on Love and Hate

Here Osho delves into love and hate, which he considers as two sides of the same coin. He also explores several implications, including:"Never judge anybody by his act, because the real thing is not the act but the consciousness through which that act has been performed."

Sunday, June 5, 2011


Youthful folly has success.
It is not I who seek the young fool;
The young fool seeks me.
At the first oracle I inform him.
If he asks two or three times, it is importunity.
If he importunes, I give him no information.
Perseverance furthers.

In the time of youth, folly is not an evil. One may succeed in spite of it, provided one finds an experienced teacher and has the right attitude toward him. This means, first of all, that the youth himself must be conscious of his lack of experience and must seek out the teacher. Without this modesty and this interest, there is no guarantee that he has the necessary receptivity, which should express itself in respectful acceptance of the teacher. This is the reason why the teacher must wait to be sought out instead of offering himself. Only thus can the instruction take place at the right time and in the right way.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Reconciling Parallel Universe and Multiverse

The idea that the cosmos constantly splits into parallel universes ~ in which every conceivable outcome of every event happens ~ has been unified with the idea that our universe is part of a larger multiverse. While solving a bizarre but fundamental problem in cosmology, the concept and has set physics circles buzzing with both excitement and bewilderment.
The problem is the observability of our universe. While most of us simply take it for granted that we should be able to observe our universe, it is a different story for cosmologists. When they apply quantum mechanics - which successfully describes the behavior of very small objects like atoms - to the entire cosmos, the equations imply that it must exist in many different states simultaneously, a phenomenon called a superposition. Yet that is clearly not what we observe. 
Cosmologists reconcile this seeming contradiction by assuming that the superposition eventually "collapses" to a single state. But they tend to ignore the problem of how or why such a collapse might occur, says cosmologist Raphael Bousso at the University of California, Berkeley. "We've no right to assume that it collapses. We've been lying to ourselves about this," he says.
In an attempt to find a more satisfying way to explain the universe's observability, Bousso, together with Leonard Susskind at Stanford University in California, turned to the work of physicists who have puzzled over the same problem but on a much smaller scale: why tiny objects such as electrons and photons exist in a superposition of states but larger objects like footballs and planets apparently do not.

Click here for the complete article.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Closing In On Space-Time Ripples

3-D visualization of gravitational waves.

Scientists have been trying ~ but failing ~ for years to detect theoretical ripples in space-time called gravitational waves. New research suggests that building just one more detector might finally bring success.
Gravitational waves are predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity as a result of some of the most violent events in the universe, such as the collision of two neutron stars. When two neutron stars merge into each other, they are predicted to release strong gravitational waves that should be detectable on Earth.
Four gravitational wave detectors are currently in operation. Proposals have been submitted to build additional ones each in Japan, Australia and India. Constructing just one of these would double the amount of sky being covered in current searches for gravitational waves and would drastically increase the chances of a detection.

A study last year estimated that by 2016 the four existing gravitational wave detectors would be able to detect, on average, 40 neutron-star merger events per year. This could be increased to 160 events per year with improved data analysis techniques, that research found.

Click here for the complete article.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Talking Dogs Were Goal of Nazi Research

Nazi scientists attempted to breed an army of educated dogs that could read, write and talk. "In the 1920s, Germany had numerous ‘new animal psychologists’ who believed dogs were nearly as intelligent as humans, and capable of abstract thinking and communication," writes Cardiff University historian Jan Bondeson in his new book Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities. 

Scientists envisioned a day when dogs would serve alongside German troops and perhaps free up SS officers by guarding concentration camps. Hitler set up a Tier-Sprechschule (Animal Talking School) near Hanover and recruited “educated dogs” from throughout the country.

Teachers claimed a number of incredible findings. An Airedale terrier named Rolf became a mythic figure of the project after teachers said he could spell by tapping his paw on a board (the number of taps represented the various letters of the alphabet). With that skill in hand, he mused on religion, learned foreign languages and even asked a noblewoman, "Can you wag your tail?" Perhaps most outlandish is the claim by his German masters that he asked to serve in the German army because he disliked the French. Another mutt barked "Mein Fuhrer" when asked to describe Hitler.

Click here for the complete article.