Author Archives: klt5257

What’s the Point of Earwax?

Earwax seems kind of pointless.  I mean, we spend time poking Q-tips in our ears just to take the stuff out! And what is that stuff anyway? The ears seem like an odd body part to produce waste. But earwax isn’t waste, in fact it’s extremely important.


Cerumen, better known to us as earwax is a waxy and yellow material produced by the ear canal inside the ear. It serves a pretty important purpose too. It lubricates our ears, repels water from the inside of the ear, and acts as a stop sign to dirt, bacteria, bugs, or other materials that could find their way to your ear. Without it, our ears would be dry, itchy, and prone to infection, as happens with people who do not produce enough earwax.  After earwax does its job, it works its way to the outer ear and falls out.


Even though earwax is extremely useful, there are two different types of earwax that you could have based on your ethnicity. One is a wet and sticky type commonly found in people of European or African ancestry or a dry and flakey type commonly found in people of Eastern Asian ancestry.


Japanese researcher Kohichiro Yoshiura studied the genes from 33 different ethnic groups to single the specific gene responsible for making the earwax either wet or dry and found that the gene that makes earwax wet was not present in those of eastern Asian descent.


The only question is why this disparity exists, and scientists aren’t entirely sure. Some believe it has do as an adaptation to the cold, which I don’t believe. There are many cold places in Europe and Africa and this gene has not been adapted in either places. There is always the possibility of random genetic drift, though that tends to be the theory given to concepts without real answers.


Though it may not seem important, earwax really helps us out, and it’s important that we don’t use Q-tips to try to get this stuff out. Either it will push the wax further back into the ear or will damage part of the ear. Its better to just let it be and keep your ears from getting dry. 


Does Knuckle Cracking Cause Arthritis?

We’ve all heard it: cracking your knuckles can cause arthritis. Cracking knuckles is a release of gas into the fluid surrounding the joints, which can feel relieving for the crackers. Some say, however, that doing this too often can have negative effects later in life.


One man took it upon himself to find out. Dr. Donald Ungar cracked the knuckles of his left hand at least twice a day while leaving the right hand uncracked for fifty years. At the end of the experiment, he looked at both hands and felt no difference.  While this is certainly dedication to the cause, it would be hard for the sample size to get smaller, so we can’t tell how conclusive the evidence is.  Maybe he had good genes to protect against arthritis.


In another study Dr. DeWeber carried out a retroactive case-control study and asked 214 of whom 135 had osteoarthritis and 80 who did not. The study was meant to find if those with osteoarthritis were more likely to have cracked their knuckles regularly during their lives compared to those who did not have osteoarthritis. The results were that there was no statistically significant difference between the two groups. This seemed to be a well carried out study, in which I can’t find any obvious mistakes. It supports the theory that cracking your knuckles has nothing to do with arthritis.


Another study also investigated knuckle-cracking in which 300 participants aged 45 years and older were involved. 74 people were habitual knuckle crackers and the other 226 were not. The rate of arthritis in both groups was equal.  Though they also noticed a tendency for the knuckle-crackers to smoking, drinking and manual labor, which could all be confounding variables that could affect the study. Overall, however, I believe that knuckle cracking does not cause arthritis due to the multiple experiments that have proved this statement a myth.


Does the Full Moon Affect Us?

We’ve all heard stories about the full moon. Whether they be about werewolves or a little more set in reality, such as people with psychological problems acting differently during a full moon. It’s not such a wild theory, considering almost 75% of our body is water and the moon has been known to affect water in terms of tides. How does the moon really affect us though?


It turns out that the full moon doesn’t affect us psychologically. One study looked at 771 patients who visited an emergency room in Montreal from 2005 to 2008 that complained of chest pains; but there was no physical problem seen. Many of these patients suffered from anxiety and other mood disorders and suicidal thoughts.  Looking at the time log, however, there was no connection to these visits during the full moon rather than the rest of the month.


While this suggests no connection between psychological problems and the lunar cycle, it cannot be sure.  While visiting the hospital complaining of a chest pain that isn’t there ma be one symptom of a psychological problem, there are many other ways that a psychological problem can manifest. It’s possible that it is manifesting in a way that is unrelated to a chest pain.


Another possible way that the moon can affect us is by affecting our sleep. In a study not originally meant to test the lunar effect of sleep, results show that the 33 participants in the three-year study’s sleep patterns were affected by the lunar cycle. On average the participants took five minutes longer to fall asleep on the three to four days surrounding the full moon and slept for 20 fewer minutes. Also melatonin rates were decreased by 30% and participants reported feeling more tired the next day.


This suggests that there is a connection between the moon and our sleep, but doesn’t explain why. Is it because the light of the moon distracts us from sleep? Is it something more primal, such as an instinct to not fall asleep too deeply in case other predators choose to use the moonlight to hunt. Though the moon doesn’t affect us in the ways we may originally think of by making us transform into another creature, it certainly has other affects on our sleep.



Are Yawns Contagious?

It’s a pretty easy thing to catch: it’s a yawn. Once you see one person yawning it’s almost inevitable that you will start yawning too. Or is it? Could that just be a myth, or is yawning truly contagious?


It does seem to have something to do with boredom. In one study, participants were shown either a 30 minute video of a rock video which was extremely stimulating or a 30 minute color bar test pattern without audio, a particularly dry task. Those who watched the color video both yawned significantly more and for a longer period of time.


But where does the contagion come in? In one study a man read a ten-minute story to a group of 20 one year olds, 20 two year olds, 20 three year olds, and so on until the group of 20 six year olds. Every 90 seconds the man reading the story yawned intentionally. In the group of 1, 2, and 3 year olds a total of 3 kids yawned back, but then that number drastically increased to about 9 per group of 4, 5, and 6 year olds. This shows that not only does this behavior begin at age four, but it also shows that there is communal aspect to yawning. It is a social behavior that can help promote a sense of community and a way to relieve stress.


I can see the potential error in this study if the younger kids simply did not have the attention span to watch a person yawning or to differentiate a yawn from other talking. It is also possible that the older kids were simply not paying attention to the reader or were focusing on the book too much to notice the yawn. I think the percentage would be higher if the focus was more specifically on the yawn.


In fact, when one person in a group yawns, fifty percent of the group with yawn within five minutes, and the rest of the group will at least be tempted to yawn. Plus, if you are close with that person, you’ll be more tempted to yawn too. Overall the evidence is pretty conclusive that yawning is in fact contagious.


Is beauty universal? Part 2

I previously talked about how babies find faces that are symmetrical more beautiful than those that are not symmetrical. This to me, showed that beauty is universal rather than based on cultural preferences, such as being thin or having a certain skin pigment. However, there was a little bit of question in the results since babies can’t verbalize why they looked at one picture for longer than the other.


Another study was conducted in which the participants were adults from two parts of the world: the United Kingdom and from the remote Hazda tribe of Northern Tanzania. The Hazda are a hunting-gathering society with limited exposure to modern media and are therefore not influenced by a modern standards of beauty. In fact, their mating process is much more important to find a mate with good genes and fertility to keep your DNA going.


The UK participants were randomly selected, as were the Hazda participants, and were asked to choose which photo they found more attractive. One was an original picture of people from all different all cultures and the other was a picture of their face perfectly symmetrical. In both cultures, both genders chose the face that was symmetrical more often than not.  This is pretty convincing evidence that there is an instinctual aspect to beauty, rather than just our society.


Another study found the ideal distance between a woman’s mouth and eyes. In four different studies, participants were asked to say which picture of a female face they found most beautiful. The pictures were all identical bar the distance between the eyes and mouth. They found the most preferred ratio to be a woman’s mouth taking up 36% of the face’s length and the eyes taking up 46% of the face’s width.


This also has the potential to show that there is a universal beauty. It is a good first step that an average ratio could be agreed upon, but the experiment needs to be opened up across cultures to see if the ratio is consistent. Especially since eyes and lips do not seem to show anything about a woman’s genes. Should this study be expanded, it could give better insight to whether there is a universal beauty.


Still, I think there is enough conclusive evidence to show that there are such qualities as universal beauty, specifically, face symmetry. It shows that more symmetry is more pleasing to the eye and that it shows better set of genes. 


Is beauty universal? part 1

We’ve all heard that today’s standard of beauty is unreachable for many Americans. It is being thin and tall, whereas in other cultures it is being plump and pale. However, I believe that there is a standard of beauty that is universal across all cultures, so if two people, one from America and one from Uganda were to look at a picture of two women and asked to pick which was more beautiful, they would choose the same person. 

There are certain traits that people construe as beautiful, such as a symmetrical face, clear skin, a square jaw (in men), high cheekbones (in women), and hourglass figures in women with a waist to hip ratio of .7. These all suggest increased health and fertility: great traits to look for in a mate.

In fact, it’s not only humans eligible to mate that notice these traits.  In a study, babies were shown two pictures of computer-generated women, one being attractive and one being unattractive. Babies spent more time looking at the attractive face, meaning they showed a preference for the face that was attractive.  The face that was attractive was more symmetrical than the face that was considered unattractive. This shows an innate judgment of beauty before babies can be affected by things such as cultural influence.


While this study seems legitimate, it is possible that there are other reasons why the baby would look at the symmetrical face for longer other than the fact that the baby finds it beautiful. For example, I often find myself looking at things that are confusing, ugly, or random. I believe that it is possible that the babies spent more time looking at the other face for reasons other than the fact that it is more beautiful. Since they are so young, they are unable to verbalize their feelings and preferences, we will never know if they were looking at the faces for so long because they found one face more beautiful. However, assuming the study was done correctly, we should be able to assume that there was SOME reason why babies looked at the more symmetrical face for longer. From my own experience of babies I think it is because the one was more pleasing to the eye.


This gives evidence to the fact that beauty is not culturally determined but rather innate.  The babies are too young to have already been affected by what society says is beautiful and instead are using instinct to choose. This to me, means that beauty is universal rather than cultural. 


Addicted to Reality TV

We’ve all fallen victim to the bandwagon of reality TV shows, whether it’s Survivor, the X Factor, or the less appreciated Flavor of Love. The shows hook us in, and once we start watching them, we can’t stop, but why do we love reality television.


Steve Reiss conducted a survey to find out.  He surveyed 239 people asking them a variety of different questions about their viewing habits and their morals and values. He found that, contrary to popular belief, people do not watch reality TV just to have something to talk about with their coworkers the next day. They found that people who watch reality television place a lot of emphasis on fame and status. As they watch reality TV, they see other people who are just random citizens gaining a certain amount of fame. They then relate the contestants’ fame to their own life and see how they too could become famous. I’m not sure how much I support this theory because the information is only correlational, and I don’t think that everybody who watches reality television wants to apply to be on one themselves.


Another theory is that we are obsessed with reality television because we feel like we have an emotional connection with them and in some ways, have a part in their fates. When contestants talk about their lives outside the show, we see a very normal and relatable side to them, which we know is real in a way that normal television shows are not. Therefore, when they leave the show, we know that they have to go back to their old lives, and many times we don’t want that for them. Therefore, we are able to relate to the contestants, which keeps us watching because we become emotionally invested in their success in the show. For me, this theory makes more sense.  I know that I get very emotionally attached to people on reality television shows, because I know that even if the show isn’t entirely “real,” their lives are.  Knowing that the people will suffer the actual consequences of being kicked off the show, is very intriguing. Regardless, there is something extremely addictive about watching reality television, and it’s not a fascination that will end soon.



You’re a Jerk!

Falling off a cliff sounds like it is scary, although feeling like you’re falling off a cliff while you’re really safe in bed is also terrifying. Sixty to seventy people have experienced these falls, called hypnic jerks, yet we don’t exactly know why they occur.



Part of the reason why research on this subject is so difficult is because the jerks are so hard to predict.  Scientists don’t know what causes them or when they will occur.  Therefore, the theories are almost all untested. However, scientists do know that they are myoclonus twitches that occur as we fall asleep.


Some scientists believe that the hypnic jerks are associated with stress and anxiety as well as irregular or unusual sleep schedules. This hypothesis sounds like it makes sense, but when I apply it to my life it just doesn’t fit.  There have been many, many times when I have been extremely anxious and stressed without experiencing it.


Another theory is that the jerks happen because when we fall asleep, we go through mini-REM stages of sleep. During REM, our heart rates, breathing, and nervous system act erratically and this huge change in action as compared to the relaxing feeling of falling asleep could cause the hypnic jerks. I think that this is a more likely theory.  In order for me to sleep, I need to relax my body completely and if my body is unconsciously engaging in these behaviors that amp it up, it makes sense that we would experience these.


A final theory comes from an evolutionary perspective.  It says that these jerks are an instinct from our primate days.  The body thinks that instead of relaxing to sleep, we are falling, which causes the muscles to quickly contract.  To me, this sounds like a very odd instinct for humans or primates to adapt, because I can’t imagine it being that huge of an issue.  More than that, I don’t know how our bodies are confusing falling with relaxation, since I can’t remember the last time I was really relaxed during freefall.


Most of this evidence is theoretical, since it would be almost impossible to do an experimental study on these because they are unpredictable and we have no way to cause these jerks.  Therefore, the evidence will continue to remain correlational.




A Hairy Situation

There’s nothing that can ruin an amazing meal quite like finding a piece of hair in it.  No matter where we are, we will most assuredly stop eating the contaminated food, but why? We have no problem touching our own or others’ hair, so why is a single strand in our food such a big deal?


Dr. Valerie Curtis of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine theorizes that it is to protect us. She says that there are a few items that universally produce disgust across all cultures and this feeling is an evolutionary trait intended to protect us. One thing that produces disgust is seeing hair in our food.


She says that we get disgusted from the hair so we will stop eating the meal, which is most likely contaminated with other pathogens.  Seeing the physical evidence of unhealthiness is a sign that there is most likely even more harmful material in the food such as mucus from a chef sneezing or talking or even fecal matter from servers and cooks not washing their hands fully before work.  Plus, the hair itself could transmit ringworm to us.  This is all strong evidence to stop eating the contaminated meal.


However, dermatologist at Northwestern University Maria Colavincenzo believes the opposite. She says that the hair is not a risk for us, since even if the strand contained a virus it is unlikely that it would contain enough of it to actually transmit it to us.  In fact, the FDA does not even specify that food should not contain hair in it, which should tell us that hair in our food is relatively unrisky.


While both of these are just theories, I must say that I agree with Maria Colavincenzo.  If the FDA doesn’t ban hair in our food then there must not have been any instances of hair causing disease or infection. However, I will say that finding a hair in your food is probably a sign that the food was not prepared to the highest degree of sanitation, so I suggest that just in case, you stop eating the food if you find a hair in it.




I’m sure we have all heard the rumor that if you are severely dehydrated and have no other source of water, a good way to keep yourself alive is to drink your own pee. Obviously this is not a situation that many of us will have to deal with in our lifetimes, but should we actually listen to this old wives tale?


While it is true that pee is sterile and 95 percent water, it could actually dehydrate you more, much like drinking saltwater would! The last five percent of your pee are the toxins your body is trying to get rid of like chloride, sodium, and potassium. By drinking your pee, you are effectively putting the waste your body is trying to get rid of (and for good reason) back into your system. Sodium draws water out of cells, so having extra sodium in your body can further dehydrate you. With too much potassium in your body, you could have a heart attack.


Despite all these dangers, however, there are people who advocate for drinking your own pee under dire circumstances.  A man in china once survived for six days while trapped under a piece of a ceiling that fell during an earthquake, and sure enough, he attributes his survival to the fact that he drank his own pee. There are many more cases like this found around the world.


So which do we listen to? The theoretical idea of what would happen if we drank our own pee or the first hand experience of what men have done to survive.  I think that in this situation, we should drink our own pee. The chances are that doing nothing would also cause you to die, since humans can only live three days without water. It would be very difficult to do nothing while the hours tick by waiting for your body to shut down. I think that it is better to risk drinking your pee and hoping that it will help rather than doing nothing and knowing that you will die in three days.