Author Archives: Marian Olivia Joy Mullen

Hugs and Kisses

A few weeks ago I was sitting in our Science 200 class listening to Andrew’s lecture. During his lecture he mentioned a woman named Lucy Page Gaston. He explained that she was a very influential, intimidating woman who was able to get smoking banned in a few states by saying that it “made boys bad”. Andrew also mentioned as a side remark that it had been rumored that she had never been kissed. Now, as silly as it sounds, that last little remark caught my attention. If that did happen to be true, did that have anything to do with how she turned out? I started to wonder if physical affection had anything to do with our emotional development.


I had heard in a previous psychology class that tests were done by Harry Harlow in the 1950’s with monkeys in which baby monkeys were taken away from their mothers a few hours after birth and put in the care of “surrogate” mothers. These were either a bundle of wire mesh covered in cloth or the equivalent of a giant stuffed animal. The monkeys were separated into two groups. One group was placed in a room with the wire mesh mother, and the other group was put in a room with the stuffed animal. Both “mothers” were warmed and had artificial nipples that provided food for the baby monkeys. Even though both groups of monkeys were provided the same amount of food and water and grew at about the same rate, there was a very distinct difference in the development of the monkeys. The monkeys placed in the care of the wire mesh tended to show signs of emotional distress. They threw themselves on the floors and clutched themselves, some even passed away. The monkeys with the stuffed animals developed normally. This led Harlow to believe that the lack of an object to physically cuddle and touch led to emotional distress of the baby monkey placed with the wire mesh. Therefore that must mean that physical affection and touch plays a big part in the emotional development of monkeys. And since we are so closely related to monkeys it must mean the same for us right? I figured it would be worth looking into more recent studies done on the effects of physical affection on human motional development.

I started my research already believing that a lack of physical affection could potentially have negative effects on a person’s emotional development, but I didn’t know much else about a correlation between the two variables. During my research I came across a study done by Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter and Jason S. Wrench in which they attempted to measure the effects of touch deprivation on 198 undergraduate students. In their study they asked the students to fill out a questionnaire using a scale from 1 I strongly disagree to 5 I strongly agree. The questionnaire included a three-factor structure used to measure the results. This included the independent variables absence of touch, longing for touch, and sex for touch. The results of the study revealed a direct correlation between touch deprivation and depression and self-esteem. A linear combination of the three independent variables showed a significant relationship to a person’s level of depression and how they saw themselves. The more an individual was deprived of touch, the more likely they were to have depression or low self-esteem.


This supported my original hypothesis, but I had a few concerns about this particular study. First off, the study was conducted with college students. Although they surveyed 198 people, the results still don’t account for the majority of the human population. Just because the correlation might be true for college students doesn’t automatically mean it is true for older or younger age groups. Also, using a survey or questionnaire as part of their method left a lot of room for miscalculation of data. Subjects might not be able to fully understand the questions being presented to them or even provide false information. This means that much of their results could be inaccurate which leaves a lot up to chance. Also multiple factors could influence their depression, not just a lack of touch. All of these elements of this study led me to be suspicious.

Although this study didn’t necessarily prove that physical affection directly effects emotional development, it is still one more study showing a correlation between the two. But I guess the question still remains. Even if there is a correlation, how much does physical affection really affect us? Well I don’t know how you guys feel after reading this blog, but I know that after writing it I really want a hug.


Is Laughter the Best Medicine?

 Laughter, to me, is one of the best feelings in the world. It’s no secret that laughter has amazing mood boosting and social advantages. A laugh can bring people together and has the ability to brighten even the gloomiest of moods. But why else do humans laugh? I mean laughter is a characteristic that we share only with other great apes such as chimpanzees and gorillas. Is laughter some sort of biological adaptation that gives humans some sort of evolutionary advantage? Could it be possible that laughter provided us with health benefits?


I’ve always heard the phrase “laughter is the best medicine”, but I never put much thought into it until now. I decided to do some research and see if laughter really does improve our health in one-way or another. It turns out that there are multiple hypothesis about the heath benefits of laughter. For example, researchers believe that laughter can boost your immune system and temporarily relieve pain by decreasing stress hormones and releasing endorphins in the brain. They also believe that laughter can protect you from cardiovascular diseases by increasing blood flow. While all of these hypotheses sound pretty convincing, I found that a lot of the studies done on the health benefits of laughter have been very subjective rather than evidence based. It turns out that studying laughter isn’t taken too seriously in the world of research. However, Michael Miller, the director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, decided to dig a littler deeper into the effects of laughter on the heart.

In his study, he asked 300 people to answer a questionnaire and then compared their responses. 150 of the subjects were completely healthy while the other half had some form of cardiovascular condition. The questionnaire included a series of multiple-choice questions to find out how much or how little the subjects laughed in different situations. This was followed by a true or false questionnaire to measure anger and hostility. The results revealed that the subjects with cardiovascular issues “responded less humorously to everyday situations.” They laughed 40% less and showed more anger and hostility even in positive situations.

Miller’s study was the first to indicate that laughing could have a positive impact on the health of your heart. But just like most of the other studies done on the effects of laughter, his study did not pinpoint specifically how laughter was able to help prevent cardiovascular diseases. First off, his method of study left a lot up to chance. A questionnaire or survey is not the best way to collect accurate data. Subjects could provide false information or might not fully understand the questions being asked. This could lead to a miscalculation of information. Also, his study didn’t rule out the possibility of other factors influencing whether or not his subjects had heart disease. Who is to say that the cardiovascular disease found in his subjects wasn’t caused by genetics or an unhealthy lifestyle? Although the results show that there potentially could be a connection between laughing and a healthier heart, it does not have enough evidence to show a clear correlation.

laughing baby

Miller didn’t stop though. He conducted another study in 2005 to eliminate any uncertainty that his first study might have had. In this study Miller used laughter provoking movies to measure the effect of laughter on cardiovascular health. He included 20 healthy volunteers, 10 men and 10 women. The subjects had normal blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Each volunteer was asked to watch two videos that represented the extremes of the emotional spectrum. One was to cause mental stress and the other was to cause laughter. They were shown each video 48 hours apart. Before watching the videos the volunteers were given a baseline blood vessel reactivity test in order for Miller to measure what is known as flow-mediated vasodilation. The results showed an increase in blood flow in 19 out of 20 volunteers after laughing at the funny video. This suggested that laughter had an impact on blood flow that could positively affect our heart. The results of this study were objective and precise, but he was still unable to find the source of laughter’s benefit.

This leads me to believe that there potentially is a connection between laughter and our health. After doing this research I definitely think there could be a correlation, but more studies need to be done in order to pinpoint the direct link. I guess for now we can say “laughter might be the best medicine.” But we should continue to laugh regardless. Even if there is no concrete proof that laughter improves health, it still serves an important social element that creates strong connections and happy people.


Catching the Yawns

Alright, so lets talk about an epidemic that has been sweeping the nation since man first appeared on this earth, a contagious condition that is relentless and effects almost all of us on a daily basis. Lets talk about contagious yawning. Now I have to make sure you understand this is different than what is known as spontaneous yawning, which is yawning when you’re bored or tired. Contagious yawning is set off or “caught” by an external source. You can catch it anywhere, from watching someone yawn, hearing a yawn, or even reading about yawning. In fact, I challenge you to read this entire blog without yawning. I can bet most of you have failed already. Its no secret that yawns are contagious, but the question remains… Why?


It turns out that catching the yawns is most connected to our predisposition of empathy. Empathy, as described in an article by Josh Clark, is the “ability to understand and connect with others’ emotional states.”  Empathy is part of our cognitive development that allows us to relate to other people.  Studies have found that children not shown empathy at an early age are more likely to show sociopathic characteristics as an adult. But how does that explain why we yawn?

Well psychologists at Leeds University conducted a study that supported the hypothesis that yawning was linked to empathy. In the study, researchers asked 80 students, 40 psychology students and 40 engineering students, to individually wait in a room with an undercover assistant who continuously yawned 10 times every few minutes. The students were also shown a shown a number of pictures of eyes and asked what emotion they displayed. The psychology students, whose future professions were based on focusing on others, yawned 5.5 times on average, while the engineering students averaged 1.5 times. The results found that our receptiveness to contagious yawns is rooted in the amount of empathy we feel for other people. When we see someone yawn, we empathize with them and yawn in response as a way of social bonding.  Its a sign of silent communication letting other people know that we can relate to how they feel.  In other words, we see someone yawn, then we yawn as a way of saying “I feel you bro!”

After reading about this study, I personally wasn’t fully convinced that it was enough to prove that contagious yawning was related to empathy. I mean what if those students happened to be more tired than other students? Could there be another explanation why some students were more susceptible to the contagious yawning than others? I dug a little deeper and found that this study tied into other studies that have shown that contagious yawning is associated with the part of the brain responsible for empathy. Despite the association, however, the link between the two is still a mystery.


It turns out that spontaneous yawning happens in all beings, but contagious yawning only occurs in humans, chimpanzees, and dogs, creatures that have the ability to feel empathy. Humans don’t normally develop the cognitive behavior of empathy until around the age of four. Infants and children under the age of four are far less likely to show any effects of contagious yawning due to their lack in the development of empathy. So what if you don’t develop empathy at all? Another study done by the University of Connecticut showed that both kids and adults with autism are half as likely to be prone to contagious yawning. This is because people with autism are considered to be “developmentally impaired emotionally”, and have a hard time feeling empathy. This discovery could help scientists learn more about diagnosing and understanding autism and other developmental issues.  This also supports the hypothesis that contagious yawning is linked to empathy.

So we know that contagious yawning is connected to empathy in some mysterious way. But that still doesn’t explain why some people who have developed the cognitive predisposition of empathy are more susceptible than others. The Duke University School of Medicine decided to look into this and conduct a study aimed at discovering factors that define a person’s susceptibility to contagious yawning. Unlike previous studies, Duke found that the only independent factor that influenced contagious yawning was age. The older you get, the less susceptible you are to contagious yawning. However, this discovery was only able to explain 8 percent of the variability of the yawning responses. Therefore, we still don’t know the biological reason for contagious yawning and why some people experience it more than others.

Overall, contagious yawning is a phenomenon that we still don’t fully understand. We know that it is somehow connected to our predisposition of empathy and is a sign of social connection, but that does not mean that other factors don’t influence our susceptibility of contagious yawning. More studies are needed in order for us to fully understand this condition and get to the bottom of what truly causes such a wide spread epidemic. So now that we have looked a little deeper into what causes us to catch the yawns, how many times did you yawn while reading this blog?


It’s Cold! Where’s the Bathroom?

Have you ever noticed that whenever the temperature starts to drop and you begin to feel chilly you also have the sudden urge to pee? You not only have the urge to pee, but you need to do so more often? As weird as that sounds, it’s a real thing. It’s a bizarre phenomenon called cold diuresis.

As you all know, your body is made up of 75% water, meaning you are basically one big sack of walking liquids. And what do liquids do when they get too cold? They freeze! Therefore, cold diuresis is your body’s way of getting rid of excess liquids and protecting vital organs from getting too chilly. There are two main reasons this happens: a process called vasoconstriction and because of proteins called aquaporins.


When you get cold, blood vessels in your body, especially in your fingers, toes and other extremities, begin to constrict in an attempt to maintain a warm core temperature. That is vasoconstriction. Because your body constricts blood flow to your extremities, there is more blood left to hang out in the rest of your body. You have the same amount of blood as before, just not as much space to contain it all. This leads to high blood pressure, causing your kidneys to pull liquid out of the body. With more liquid leaving the body, naturally there would be more trips to the bathroom.

Now there are also proteins called aquaporins that form channels between the inside and outside of your cells that allow water to travel more quickly. When it gets cold outside, the aquaporins are hindered in parts of your body including the brain and kidneys. Since water can’t flow into those cells, it chills out in the bloodstream. Before you know it, there is too much extra water in your bloodstream and that is when you start looking for the nearest bathroom.

There haven’t been too many experiments done to show the results of cold diuresis on the human body.  However, many of the studies done have been observational.  For example, in the 1920’s a series of immersion studies were held in which men were asked to be immersed in a tub full of hot water and then a tub of cold water.  It was observed that the urine output of the men when immersed in cold water was much higher than that when they were in the hot water.   These studies along with many others concluded that the cold temperatures increased blood pressure, which then leads to cold diuresis.   Although these studies were fairly simple and didn’t include any women, I believe from experience that cold diuresis is a human condition that affects both males and females.

From what I have learned, there is definitely a correlation between cold temperatures and the amount a person needs to urinate, and this would be considered a direct causality. When the temperature drops, your body reacts to regulate body temperature, which causes the release of excess liquids. As a result, you pee more! I guess it’s a good thing there are so many bathrooms here at Penn State huh? Now if you were to say this phenomenon works as a reverse causality also, I would have my doubts.   As far as I know the amount of times a person needs to use the restroom does not somehow directly make temperatures drop. With that said though, researching this topic has made me curious as to if human waste does somehow effect our climate. Its no secret that it can effect the environment we live in, but does that in turn effect the weather?


Bader, Richard A., Johan W. Eliot, and David E. Bass. “Hormonal and Renal Mechanisms of Cold Diuresis”. Vol. 4. Lawrence, MA: Quartermaster Climatic Research Laboratory, 1950. Print. 

Can We Become Immortal?

From the beginning of time, people have been fascinated with the idea of living forever. Different cultures worship immortal gods, religious groups pray for everlasting life, and modern scientists are always working toward new ways of helping us live longer, healthier lives. It’s no question that immortality captivates us. Why else would we watch all these vampire dramas? So what if I told you it was possible for humans to become immortal? Well its true, but not in the way you might expect.

HeLa cells

HeLa cells

On October 4 1951, something of a medical miracle occurred at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. On that day, a 31-year-old mother of five named Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer. Although her death seems to contradict the idea of immortality, the cells taken from her cancerous tumor have survived for over 60 years. Researchers know that it’s very hard to keep human cells alive for extended periods of time once they are removed from the human body. Almost always after being removed from the body, cells die immediately or reproduce only a limited amount of times. Her cells were different.   These “HeLa” cells, named after the late Henrietta Lacks, could grow continuously in the lab. Her cells had the ability to reproduce indefinitely, making “HeLa” the first line of immortal human cells.

The best hypothesis as to why the “HeLa” cells were able to survive and reproduce was linked to the fact that her cells were cancerous, which meant that they did not experience a process known as programmed cell death (PCD) or cell suicide. These cancerous cells were made even more malicious by the syphilis and HIV from which she suffered. As a result, her cells have now outlived her and will continue to live until after her great grandchildren have died of old age.

Researchers took advantage of this immortal line.   Having human cells that could survive outside the human body meant scientists could study cell properties, watch how viruses and toxins acted inside the cells, and even expose the cells to conditions that otherwise would not have been considered ethical if the cells had still been inside a human body. Because of this, studies done with “HeLa” cells have led to some of the most important medical advances of our time: creating important vaccines for deadly diseases, understanding the causes of different infections, and inventing new medical techniques to help cure or prevent diseases. One of the most well known uses for her cells was an experiment done in the 1950’s by researcher Jonas Stark in which he used “HeLa” cells to find a vaccine for the polio virus. Even after death, Lacks continues to save lives. Her cells have been used to research ways of curing and preventing the very diseases that took her life.

If all the “HeLa” cells being stored around the world were to be lined up next to each other, they would be able to circle the globe at least three times. That’s a lot of Henrietta Lacks cells still living and growing, considering she was only five feet tall when she died.

Henrietta Lacks was the first woman to become immortal, but she isn’t the last. Since 1951, there have been more immortal lines of human cells discovered, but none are as widely used in biomedical research as “HeLa” cells. By studying her cells, we come one step closer to discovering a way for humans to become immortal.  Although Henrietta Lacks died long ago, she allowed us to discover that human cells had the possibility of living forever, and that somewhere down the line, the rest of us could become immortal as well.  We will just have to stick around and see what science has in store!


First Post!

Hey guys! My name is Olivia Mullen. Like many people in this course, I am taking this class to fill my Gen Ed requirement for science. I heard a lot of good things about the course and the professor so I thought it would be my best choice. Honestly, Ive never been interested in pursuing a career in science. My dream has always been to one day be a movie maker and maybe eventually work for Disney!