What will you remember 2013 by? Obviously many will think of Miley Cyrus and her odd twerking revolution. Others will think of the National Security Agency (NSA) and how naive we were to think that they weren’t checking our phone logs. Others will remember the terror of the Boston Marathon bombing. Then the media went crazy after a website –albeit an important one-didn’t work well enough upon going live. Shocker! We also did surprisingly get a new Pope, who was also subsequently named Time Magazine’s person of the year because of his grand sense of humility.
In the background, and occasionally in the foreground, of 2013 was the world of science (broadly speaking) and its impact on the world through innovation or explanations of what makes us tick. Yet, the belief in science may be at an all-time low. A recent poll found that only 36% of Americans report having “a lot” of trust that information they get from scientists is accurate and reliable. Having worked with academics trying to do public health research in communities at risk, I have seen that lack of trust in science; or rather scientists. As a researcher myself I like to note that it isn’t data that lies, but instead people that manipulate it. I get it. The recent poll, further found that Republicans were most likely to say that they have only a little bit of trust in scientists to give accurate and reliable information, and the most likely to say that they think scientific findings may be tainted by political ideology — possibly reflecting distrust in scientists over topics such as evolution and climate change. Below I summarize some key scientific findings as they may pertain to politics, diseases, the self and alcohol/food as this is a psychologistmimi posting.
1. Political Ideology
We had the do nothing 113th Congress this past year. The politicians did nothing, in part, because congressional members seemed to just dislike each other immensely and could not reach any sort of compromise. However, recent research (Funk et al., 2013) finds that our genetic makeup may predispose us to certain political views. Hmm. We are not made into rabid conservatives or liberals? We are supposedly born that way. How this bridges the polarized political gap is anyone’s guess.
In case you think all is loss, don’t fret. Scientists found that the Myxococcus xanthus bacteria, which is actually a single-cell soil bacterium, manages to create a social network and band together to avoid getting eaten. If the Myxococcus xanthus can come together for a shared purpose, so can congress and other ideological opponents. Furthermore, scientists found that squabbling meerkats make better decisions. Conflict can lead to better results. However, this depends on having an overall shared goal such as avoiding becoming prey.
There was research released touching upon a wide range of diseases. However, none got more media fanfare than the supposed personality disorder of “affluenza”. A rich teenager stole some beer, went on a joy ride and ended up crashing the car and killing four people. He did not get sentenced to jail time because of the affluenza defense. When the term was first used, it was meant as a critique of excessive consumerism and its impact on the happiness of society as a whole. Psychologist Oliver James has argued that countries with higher rates of income equality and excessive consumerism also have rates of mental disorders. In the case of Ethan Couch, the defense attorney argued that he was the product of wealthy parents that didn’t know how to set boundaries –a symptom of affluenza. California is now considering a bill that would ban the use of “affluenza” as a defense in criminal cases. Along this lien of research, studies written up this past year found that successful people tended to be “bad” (unethical) people. Is that why we are supposed to feel sorry (by Scorsese’s portrayal) for Jordan Belfort in the Wolf of Wall Street?
Angelina Jolie made headlines this year not because of her family, her movies or her relationship with Brad Pitt, but because of her painful yet public decision to undergo a double mastectomy. She did so because she carries the BRCA gene mutation. We have known for a while that genetic mutations can be linked to breast and ovarian cancer, specifically those called BRCA1 and BRCA2. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) went onto note that women with a family history of these cancers should be evaluated for possible connections to genetic mutations. However, not all women need this test. The data is still coming, therefore stay tuned.
In another controversial study, considering the number of school shootings as of late in the United States, researchers (Granic et al., 2013) found that video games can boost learning, health and social skills by strengthening a range of cognitive skills such as spatial navigation, reasoning, memory and perception. I suppose at this point it is all about that key word of moderation. Speaking of which, much debate and scientific review occurred this year around the impact of football on the brain. Specifically, the Neurology journal released research that found that Alzheimer’s and concussions may be linked. Although, many feel the need to dispute the link between traumatic brain injury and later memory impairment, the findings seem like a no-brainer to me. How this and other such findings change the course of American football is still up in the air. President Obama even came out and noted that he wouldn’t let his hypothetical son play pro football. There was other research that found that Alzheimer’s and diabetes may be associated as well in that people with type 2 diabetes often have memory problems. Seems we need more research on memory and Alzheimer’s going forward.
3. The Self
Apparently, there is a new syndrome. It is called the Selfie Syndrome. We have heard by now that Millennials cannot stop taking pictures of themselves. Even at funerals they are posing and snapping away. To be fair, however, it isn’t just that generation. At Mandela’s memorial, Obama was seen taking a smiling selfie. Many think well what is the big deal? According to recent research taking pictures may impair memories. In a recent study, researchers (Henkel et al; 2013) found that they were less likely to remember objects they photographed than objects they simply looked at. Such a study makes me feel good about my experience in Florence, where I was not allowed to take a photo of the famous David Statue. At the time, I wondered how without a photograph we prove our existence anymore. In that vein, in a recent plane crash in Hawaii, where a health department official died, a fellow passenger that survived, took time during the crash experience to take a selfie. Even as we are about to die and presumably not be able to see the photograph later, we are tempted to capture the experience on camera.
In a different line of research, have you ever wondered about those couples that look like each other? Recent research has found that people prefer partners with a 22% resemblance to themselves. I recommend that you take a selfie together and see how much you look alike. Speaking of mating and dating, according to research published May 1 in the journal Psychology of Music a guy is more likely to get a date if holding a guitar versus a gym bag. I ask, did they control for the confounding variable of sweat? Either way, rock on. If you are trying to be more empathic and understand others, including potential mates, try reading serious literature. Reading heavy stuff like Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, will help you relate to others. No word yet on what reading In Touch on a weekly basis does to the psyche. Do you use your restroom time for reading? Research has found that all mammals pee for approximately 21 seconds. I think that calls for a course in speed reading.
4. Alcohol and Food
Food fetishism and drink adulation are my thing! Interestingly, researchers found that sound is important in the enjoyment of our food. More specifically, the sound that our food makes in our mouths can impact how much we relish the meal. Crunchy chips can be a delight. To me if something is squishy and sounds squishy, it is yucky.
Next time you are having a difficult time at work trying to come up with a solution, serve yourself some vodka. Researchers this past year found that drinking alcohol can help with creativity in terms of problem solving. Woohoo! Does that mean by my stocked bar is a business write off? Lastly, researchers found that a moderate amount of alcoholic drinks can actually boost one’s immune system . Thus, can we state a rum a day keeps the doctor away? In case you don’t engage in moderation all the time, it would behoove you to know that bourbon causes a worse hangover. Yes, that was a funded research study.
Overall, scientists are making some big strides for certain diseases yet we still have a way to go in tackling cancer, Alzheimer’s and HIV. Furthermore, we learn more about human nature each day with such insightful studies that tackle our urination patterns and mating preferences. And in case you were wondering, I leave with you with this last scientific nugget: hanging is bad for the heart. Yes, it is true. Put away your shock face. Researchers found that, after reviewing emergency medical records in Melbourne, Australia, that 4% of cardiac arrests treated were the result of hanging.
In conclusion, grab a martini and be creative.