Author Archives: klm5866

Ask Questions

Looking at your blogs, it seems that half of you are asking open questions at the end of your posts. Make sure that you ask in depth questions–a large portion of your blog grade comes from comments, so give your classmates a chance to respond to something concrete. Something other than a “yes” or “no” question is preferable.

In addition, while you guys are looking up very interesting articles and doing great research, try not to just present the facts. I mean, it’s easy enough to google the difference between organic and non-organic food, but your job is to take a certain angle on it. I’ve found that writing blogs from an “either/or” standpoint works best. So there may be a food that is good for our bodies, but has negative effects on the environment.

I know I’ve stressed human behavior blogs, but for those interested in psychology, those posts work great because we cannot reach a definitive decision about what motivates each individual. We can make close estimations, but there is a constant grey area. For instance, being in college, I’m sure many of you have thought about what it means to be successful and how we can motivate ourselves to keep pushing? This triggers the question: are we more likely to be successful from fear of failing (i.e. not being able to find a job/house/marriage) or from passion for a certain activity/the need to follow that career?

Food for thought. Maybe some of you can blog about it. It’s a question that has been bugging me for weeks.

Happy blogging! 🙂

Sandy: Frankenstorm or climate change?

Before Hurricane Sandy decides to get truly brutal, a group of activists bounded together to protest lack of awareness about climate change. There has been some debate about weather hurricanes occur, or are at fuller force, due to climate change. Yet this debate has been kept at a sorry minimum, and has barely even been mentioned in this year’s presidential election. Phil Aroneanu, the co-founder of the protesting group, claims that while hurricanes aren’t necessarily caused by global warming, “the average of 5-degree warmer oceans have created so much more vapor for the storm to pick up and dump on NYC and Boston” (Kavner). So Sandy is reputed to be “Frankenstorm” because of the massive amount of evaporated water due to higher temperatures. Meteorologists agree that high water temperatures attribute to the severity of storms. But part of the protest was also an inflated reason to raise awareness of an issue that is not just seen through hurricanes. There is just enough science to make a definitive claim that climate change did or did not cause Hurricane Sandy.

According to Terrance Henry, the explanation climate change in terms of hurricanes is that it causes “hurricanes on steroids.” Natural disasters will always happen–even if polar bears aren’t in danger, and we aren’t actively screwing up our planet (oh what a beautiful world that would be), but high temperatures make for worse storms. However, scientists are still working to see how much they effect these disasters. Adam Frank argues that it’s silly to try to blame climate change on one storm, and that “climate is all about long-term trends — not the 5-day forecast.” Maybe if there were a string of severe hurricanes, we could start saying climate change causes them, but as of now, we see the same number of hurricanes now as we did 20 to 30 years ago. However, the increasing severity of these storms is a trend to start watching for.

Every article concludes that there are no specific answers to weather climate change is really playing a huge role in natural disasters. The protesters may be adding hype to their cause (at least in context with this specific hurricane), but those who say the severity of Sandy is not at all due to climate change are perhaps underreacting. Scientific evidence shows that higher temperatures do contribute to harsher storms. How harsh Sandy would be if climate change wasn’t a thing–that is what scientists are still trying to understand.

Do you think we can put most of the blame on climate change? Or was Hurricane Sandy bound to be severe, global warming or not?


Are smart people happy?

An interesting question came up in my English discussion today: Are intelligent people more likely to be satisfied with their lives? Or is ignorance truly bliss? I’m a firm believer that having brains can bring plenty of joy in life, but I decided to do some digging to see what other studies I could find.

Firstly, it’s important to define what intelligence is. Merriam-Webster defines intelligence as “the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations: the skilled use of reason. (2) : the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria.” So a base understanding of basic facts is useful, but the ability to think critically (like in this class!) plays more importance in what makes intelligence. Applying thought and reason to certain situations can make a smart person. Obviously, there is a myriad of kinds of intelligence, such as social intelligence, but I’m mainly going to focus on “book” smarts and critical thinkers in relation to these studies.

According to Cristen Conger, a happiness correlation study at University Of Edinburgh showed that there was no distinct correlation between and intelligence and happiness. Smart people may be more able to connect things in the world, but they may also be inclined to watch the presidential debates and become depressed all over again. Also, happy people may have more motivation to read and think and question, rather than people who see no point of living, who would be more likely to just sit there and watch a bunch of Disney movies. Not that you can’t learn a few valuable lessons from Disney movies.

Conger goes on to say that a majority of happiness (at least 50%) comes from genetics. If your parents saw the world through rose colored glasses, you are much more likely to do the same. Families with low-stress and who are more extroverted are, in general, happier. This could have something to do with nurture rather than nature, although scientists did find similar “happiness” genes in sets of twins.

Happiness and intelligence also is highly influenced by society. Our culture doesn’t always necessarily reward the most intelligence of sorts, and they can be bound in jobs that feel monotonous and un-rewarding. According to Bill Allen, “Western society is not set up to nurture intelligent children and adults, the way it dotes over athletes and sports figures, especially the outstanding ones. While we have the odd notable personality such as Albert Einstein, we also have many extremely intelligent people working in occupations that are considered amongthe lowliest, as may be attested by a review of the membership lists of Mensa (the club for the top two percent on intelligence scales).” When there is no external reward for intelligent people, it may seem worthless to them to continue at all, not to mention with a positive attitude. Humans are such that we thrive off of positive re-enforcement. When the jocks get more praise than scholars, those who have been burying themselves in books  may be left feeling downtrodden and left out. However, in an environment where positive re-enforcement is given to those who study hard and think critically, those people may feel better about their lives.

Another article suggests that because many intelligent people do better in their work environment (depends on the job of course), they feel more of a reason to get up in the morning and put hard effort into their jobs. They’re more motivated to work hard because they’ve already received the external positive re-enforcement that keeps them going. However, Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, suggests that intelligence has little to do with office success. Instead,  “only 25 per cent of job success is predicted by intelligence. Seventy-five per cent is predicted by three characteristics related to happiness: optimism, a positive social support network and a positive response to stress.” Thus, happiness can lead to intelligence, since genuinely happy people who have gotten good reviews at work, are more motivated to keep doing well. 

Of course, there is always the null hypothesis that intelligence has absolutely nothing to do with happiness. All the studies I’ve come across fail to completely reject such a hypothesis, they only bring to the table factors that may raise or lower happiness–intelligence only being one of them.

Do letters really have colors?

After our English class finished reading Lolita (disturbing but amazing book), my teacher claimed that the author–Vladamir Nabokov–had what’s called Synesthesia. Intrigued by this claim, I did some research and found that people with Synesthesia say they are able to associate color with sound, letters, days of the week, and shapes. But how much of this is due to memory, rather than the independent functions of our brain?

Danko Nikolic, a German researcher for the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, wanted to find out. He gathered people who claimed to have this neurological gift, and did a test on them. On a piece of paper he had written out color names in different colors, and the participants had to say what color the word was written out. So if the word “orange” was written out in blue lettering, the participant would have to say “blue.” There are certain neurons in our brain that become more active when certain areas of the color spectrum are present, then other neurons activate when an opposite part of spectrum comes up. Thus, the participants took a lot longer to say “yellow” when the word “blue” was written out, because they were on two totally different ends of the spectrum. So are the colors these people see simply due to association?

The participants were then asked to give the color of an object that is normally in a certain color. So if they were shown a picture of a blue carrot, they would have to say orange. The timing on this experiment was less impacted than the previous one. As a result of these experiments, Nikolic could conclude that people saw colors that had a realistic association with what was being presented to them.

According to Jennie Cohen of, synthesia does exist amongst 2-4% of the population, and even though it interferes with one’s spatial logic, in the long run, it helps with survival. People with synthesia are reported to be more creative, as well as more perceptive. This could just be that creative people are more likely to associate colors with less obvious items, and scientists attribute the reverse causation to a neurological disorder.

However, according to Jamie Ward of The American Synesthesia Association, people are more likely to get a synesthesiac response when the object they are presented with also triggers an emotional response. Much more colors are associated with the word “love” than “triskaidekaphobia.” People are also more likely to associate colors with people they are close to because emotions are involved. My best friend, for instance, claims that I am “red” even though I’m pretty much the whitest person in the history of the universe. In addition, tone of voice that people use can change the color those with synesthesia see; if the tone of voice turns harsher, the color tends to become darker and more violent. A more cheerful tone would get a brighter color such as orange or yellow. So perhaps mood rings were onto something.

Do you think synesthesia is just associating colors with memories? Or is it truly a neurological rarity?


Do midlife crises exist?

After thinking about my post-graduation future, I ended up going a little farther. I thought about who I would be in twenty years, how I would think, and finally, “oh god, am I gonna be one of those crazies who has a midlife crisis?” Thus the inspiration to investigate if midlife crises do, in fact, exist.

According to one study done by U-M and Cornell researchers, this phenomenon that happens to middle aged people would be more appropriately titled “midlife turning point.” It’s not that middle-aged people are suddenly faced with especially compromising circumstances, it’s that their views one these situations changes drastically. The study, comprised of 73 adults whose ages ranged from 30-70 showed that people in the 30 range were more likely to blame their life’s events on external things, whereas the older generations took the time to realize that they themselves had more of an effect on their lives. Thus, everything that they thought was true up until then, should have been viewed in a completely different manner. So the crisis is a seemingly internal one, where older folks get into that existential funk and claim that “none of it is real!”

Middle aged people are more likely to see that the big changes in their lives don’t happen from a new job or house–but from an attitude shift. They realized they needed to make in conscious change in how they saw the world, rather than sitting around and waiting for something to happen. A younger brain is still trying to grasp the external branches of the world, and waiting for a billion dollars to hit them over the head.

Other studies attribute the midlife crisis not to the “what-if” questions, but the “I wish statements.” Researchers in Psychology Today found that older people acted more impulsively because they wanted to re-live the days of their youth. They see that time is passing them by, so they figure they had fun 20 years ago, so what’s the difference a few years later? Much of these behaviors leave people feeling depressed and anxious, and they end up resorting to drugs and alcohol abuse because they don’t know how to deal with the fear of aging.

 However, just because people go through a rough patch at a certain point in their lives, doesn’t mean one crisis doesn’t have to be the be-all end-all of all things crises related. Psychology Today claims that this crisis name should be disregarded, 1) because people have these crises around age 40, which, in this day and age, isn’t mid-life anymore; 2) Everyone is going to have varying expectations for happiness, and dis-contentment over how their lives are going is on an individual level; 3) women are no longer stuck in the rut of “oh no, my life is over!” because even with kids and household responsibilities, they can still go out and make their lives as interesting as they want. The idea that adult women could have no fun once they ran a family is a rather outdated one, and had a lot to do with the “crisis” title, implying that their life was basically over.

So perhaps there are midlife questionings, wishes, and personality shifts, but the crisis part seems to be dwindling away. Have you guys seen your parents act out in a “midlife crisis”? Do you think it’ll be totally obsolete once we reach that age?


Drink to fit in, or to stand out?

Coming into college, I’ve observed a lot of the party scene. And while it’s always a good time to laugh at the incoherent conversations people have at Canyon Pizza, I’ve often wondered why so many college students drink excessive amounts, especially on “Thirsty Thursday” when they have classes the next day. Is it for the joy of feeling buzzed? Or is it mainly because that’s what their friends are doing?

Thomas Vander Ven, a professor at Ohio University, sees that the priority for this “drinking craze” is to feel included in one’s friend group. He explains that people feel a sort of bond when they can share alcohol-induced horror stories, and that when friends “look out for each other” when the risk of sexual assault is higher, they feel closer. In times of crisis, or when there’s more at stake, it seems people feel a closer bond with those around them. Drinking, according to Vander Ven, “is a social process, rather than an individual event.”

In another article, alcohol is described as “liquid courage,” and allows people to get involved with something they wouldn’t otherwise do. A girl might be afraid of others calling her a slut if she soberly goes upstairs with a guy, but the mask of alcohol allows sex to be a “symptom” of getting drunk. Inhibitions and judgment are both lowered by those getting involved in sex, and in the people around them. Thomas Vander Ven (yes, he appeared in this article as well) interviewed more than 400 college students, and concluded that the rewards alcohol brings–such as more outgoing behavior, and acceptance amongst peers–outweighs the negative results.

It could just be that in a smaller town like State College, there’s little to do besides drink. When everyone around you is downing a beer or two, or headed out to Levels and Indigo, the last thing you want to do is be stuck inside your dorm doing your science homework (ahem). Peer pressure is playing more of a role in the ridiculous excess of alcohol than the actual feeling of getting buzzed does.

According to Origins Recovery Center, the top two reasons people drink are because of societal influences and peer pressure. Alcohol is a booming industry, and obviously a lot of corporations are going to present it in a positive light. It’s about advertising a product, not advertising health. And because there are the few gullibles out there who will believe everything that’s pasted on their flatscreen, they’re going to tell their friends that such-and-such kind of beer is the thing you can’t live without, and thus, the cycle continues. However, immediately following these two factors are losing one’s inhibitions and stress relief. People feel more comfortable approaching others while feeling buzzed, and more importantly, more relaxed–at least for a short while, since many people try to drink their stress away, while coming home straight back to square one.

Does alcohol seem more important for the purpose of looking cool, having something to do with friends, or just for feeling relaxed and free for a while?


In love with art?

On a day when I don’t have too much to do and I’m feeling rather intellectual (these days are growing few and far between this year) I’ll go to a museum. I enjoy art, and the feeling that goes along with really examining a piece. Even if I’m in a not-so-hot mood before I go to a museum, I almost always feel better afterwards. But am I just psyching myself out to believe that art can actually make me feel better? Is it only the “intellectual” label that makes me feel good about myself? Or can art bring pleasure?

According to Robert Mendick of The Telegraph, art can change the blood flow in medial orbitofrontal cortex, the part of someone’s brain that is associated with pleasure. In fact, the amount of said blood flow was increased by 10%–enough to make or break a good mood. The dozens of people chosen for this study, a randomized group who had little knowledge of art, had the same reaction to looking at a pleasing painting as looking at someone they are in love with. The more they liked the photo, the more active their blood flow.

This study, while being in a somewhat reputable source, has yet to be published in an academic journal. There is talk of it being in a journal later this year, but it’s still up for peer review. So it’s not the most trustworthy thing in the universe.

Another study indicates that art doesn’t necessarily bring amorous feelings, but it does make people ‘smarter.’ The study shows that those who took dance lessons for an extended period of time improved their brain capacity.

As for the myth that listening to Mozart makes babies smarter? That’s not entirely true–but there is evidence that people of any age, when actively studying music that they enjoy, have better concentration and helps memory. So next time your roommate says he/she wants to kill you the next time you belt out those song lyrics, just say you’re getting smarter.

So art definitely does help with brain function–it may vary in how people react precisely to it, but there are rarely any negative effects that come with engaging in art. Whether it’s feeling like you’re in love, or gaining intellect, art can help with many aspects of the human brain. 

What came first–the autism or the vaccine?

Poking and prodding kids with a needle is still a fairly new practice–the number of vaccines for the flu, measles, mumps, and other diseases is rapidly growing…and so is the number of diagnoses for autism spectrum disorder. Ever since a doctor in England in 1998 hypothesized that vaccines are actually the cause for these diagnoses, the idea of autism in conjunction with vaccines has been widely debated. It could be that autism is more widely recognized in modern day society. There’s a broader range of what is considered autistic, or on the spectrum. However, there has been some speculation that thimerosal, a preservative that contains mercury, could have been the cause of autism. While there wasn’t any hard evidence that this was so, mercury has been known to cause mental illness.

In 1998, gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield reported that after receiving the mumps-measles-rubella (MMR) vaccine, 8 kids had symptoms of autism within a month of the injection. Wakefield’s hypothesis was that these vaccines caused the intestines to swell, which messed up the bloodstream, thus affecting developmental growth.

However, in a study in Denmark, immunization records of more than 530,000 kids were reviewed, and there was not a significant difference in autistic children between those who received the MMR vaccine and those who did not. So is it by chance that there seems to be more autistic kids after there was a rise in vaccines in the ’90’s? The only difference the MMR vaccine made, in this study, was on kids with pre-existing autistic conditions. The mercury makes those conditions stronger, but these vaccines, according to the Danish study, do not cause autism.

Jenny McCarthy doesn’t think so. As a parent of an autistic child, McCarthy spoke out on Lary King Live about the dangers of vaccinations. While she doesn’t go so far as to say all vaccines should be eliminated, she stresses the point that in 1989, the vaccine schedule was 10 shots for kids–now it’s 36. The amount of mercury injected into children, McCarthy claims, is making children much more susceptible to autism.

If we stopped giving so many shots to kids, would there be a decrease in autism? Or is it all by chance? 


Nature vs. Nurture

To some extent, we’re all bound by labels. We place a great deal of importance in who we were, why we choose to do certain things, to act certain ways, and we strive to not all be mindless clones of one another. But do our personality traits have to do with the way we were raised, or the way we were born?

According to Nick Collins of The Telegraph, the nature vs. nurture phenomenon mainly depends on where you’re from. In the UK, 60% of kids from different households took on more of their parents personalities, yet in London, it was more common for kids personalities to vary due to their environment. They took on more of their neighborhood friends’ personalities rather than how their parents raised them to act.

So can you really convince your kids to act a certain way? While it’s difficult to tell what is genetically passed down versus what is ingrained in kids’ heads, many studies prove that not everything is due to nurture. David Reimer was living proof. Born as a male, his parents were persuaded to raise him as a girl after a circumcision operation went wrong. Even before Reimer was sexually mature, he knew something was off, and would often get ridiculed for trying to go into male restrooms. At age 3 Reimer (who was renamed Brenda) would refuse to play with dolls and stole his brother’s toy cars instead. He often threatened suicide, and readily refused to meet with Dr. Money, the doctor assigned to his case. After the truth of the gender reassignment came out, David’s brother and David both committed suicide. He always had an inkling that something was wrong, even as everyone around him tried to ingrain female behavior into him.

In another study, a set of twins–Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein–were adopted by two separate families, and didn’t meet until they were 35 years old. Only then were they informed that they were part of a nature vs. nurture study. Bernstein claims that even though she’d never met her twin before, she felt like she was talking to someone with the exact same personality, who’d shared the same taste in books and movies. Although they hadn’t shared the same background, their genetic basis was enough to feel a connection. 2 points nature, 0 nurture.

Do you think you would be different if you were raised by other parents? Or were we destined to act the way we do? 


Is meditation mind-altering?

There have been quite a few studies claiming that meditation generally makes people kinder, more gentle, and more at ease with themselves in general. What I wonder though, is it the idea of imposing calm on the self that makes people feel kinder, or does meditation actually physically change a person?

According to this study done at the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience clinic, people who have been meditating regularly for years do have less activity going on in the brain. The default mode region–the part of the brain that goes crazy when you’re thinking about what to make for dinner–is much less rampant among experienced meditators. The self-monitoring parts of the brain were also more active–even those who hadn’t meditated before were much less likely to say mean things about others, and replaced the word “we” for “I” more often. Now, could this be because they perhaps have less stressful jobs and can indulge in more spiritual aspects of their lives? Or are those just interested in meditation more likely to try to be self aware? Maybe. But other studies show that even kids benefit from meditation–even when they’re not making a conscious effort to be different.  
In a study done in 2005, 194 elementary school children in grades 1-3 were split in half. Half of them were taught meditation/yoga techniques, while the other half engaged in reading and other quiet activities. The kids who meditated had longer attention spans, more mindful behavior, and less test-taking anxiety–even among those who had trouble with such behaviors beforehand. At the Visitacion Valley Middle School, when the staff initiated two 15 minutes periods of meditation, suspensions rates went from 13% to 6% that same year. What’s interesting is that the idea of meditation–to slow down, and observe what’s in front of you–is something kids are naturally gifted it. It’s the adults who want to label themselves as “meditators.” 
According to John Cloud of Time Magazine , one of meditation’s main strengths is that improves peoples’ concentration, yet it’s still unclear if there’s a physical alteration in the brain due strictly to meditation. The mindfulness aspect of meditation is difficult to question, however, and in one study it was fairly evident that it was the act of meditating itself that raised mindfulness, not just being the personality type who enjoys sitting quietly. In a group of sixty people, 30 were sent to a 3 month retreat in which they were instructed in meditation for five hours each day. The participants were then asked to look at a series of lines flashing on the computer and to click on the mouse when they saw a line that was shorter than the others. Those who had gone on the retreat were 10% more successful in noticing the small lines than the people who had not meditated. Not a huge difference, but enough to make you wonder. 
Thus, I think it’s safe to reject the null hypothesis that meditation doesn’t do anything. It takes a while to physically alter your brain, but it’s pretty quick in its ability to make you feel more relaxed, concentrated, and able to take on the day.
Do you think it’s purely by chance that meditation evokes these changes? Is it possible it’s the type of people who meditate that are more prone to concentration? Or is it truly mind altering?